An open letter to Mr John Howard, Prime Minister of Australia.
Dear Mr Howard,
Nuclear Power Plants –
A Viable Solution or the Latest Pea and Thimble Trick?
On a recent current affairs program, you declared your support for the Nuclear Power option and claimed it would only take Australia 10 years to get our first Nuclear Power Station built and operating. What, only ten years?!? A lot of global warming can happen in ten years!
But Will Nuclear Power Be Safe In Ten Years? Will It Ever Be Cost Effective? [sub-heading]
We have to ask, what will be the true cost of building such a Nuclear Power Plant? At the present time, the cost effectiveness and safety of Nuclear Power are uncertain, while safe alternative energy sources are becoming more cost effective day by day. Before Australia embraces Nuclear Power as the answer to our future energy needs and our response to global warming, we need to be told all the implications for our health, safety and environment. But are we being given the true and full picture?
Surely, Mr Howard, many factors apart from the building and commissioning of one plant must be considered, if your government is to ascertain the true cost of committing to the Nuclear Power option.
It seems obvious to us, that we must take full account of the cost of eliminating risks of pollution and run-off of contaminants from Uranium mines; the cost of compensating miners for the effects of their exposure to Uranium; the cost of processing and enrichment of Uranium; the cost of manufacturing usable fuel rods or whatever form the technology may require when the Nuclear Plant is finally built; the cost of measures to minimise thermal heating from coolant discharge and other pollution; the cost of protecting the Nuclear Plant against terrorist attack; and the cost of safe and terrorist-proof infrastructure for water supply, transport systems, and storage of radioactive waste. And we must not forget that over its 10 year building phase this one plant and its ancillary industries would need a massive drawdown of power from existing systems!
We must then consider what it will cost for this Nuclear Plant to actually produce electricity once it is built. A small but reliable workforce would need to be housed nearby. The plant will need to be within economical distance to feed its output into the national power grid.
The plant itself will need electricity to function; and we gather it will need a large water supply for all phases from mining through converting raw material into usable fuel to cooling the nuclear core during power production. It seems hard to justify the use of a technology that needs a lot of water when our farmers are having to restrict the amount of water they can use to produce our food! Water is a scarce commodity. In the Snowy Mountains Scheme at present, we are told, dam levels have fallen so low that operation of the power generating turbines is in doubt. A nuclear reactor will require guaranteed water supply for cooling. As water becomes scarcer it will inevitably become more expensive. Water is vital for life, nuclear energy is not.
Meanwhile, if the plant fails to make proifits for its private sector investors, will it require heavy public subsidy? In the event of nuclear accident or terrorist attack, will it be the insurance industry or the Australian taxpayers who will have to compensate the private investors?
What About Waste Disposal? [sub-heading]
Is Australia going to solve a problem in ten years that has confounded scientists and engineers and remained basically unsolved since the 1940s?
We hear that your government, in the face of strong opposition from the public and the Northern Territory government, is pressing ahead with plans to dump nuclear waste in the Territory in return for Commonwealth help for local communities with health, education, and employment. Welfare of communities should be a “given”, not conditional upon taking nuclear waste into their land! What a loaded carrot is dangling from your stick!
Disposal of deadly radioactive waste has been the major issue bedevilling Nuclear Power Production since the beginning. At this time the only solution to Nuclear Waste still is to seal it in drums and bury it somewhere or, as was done in the 1960’s off Australian and US coasts, to dump the drums into the sea! We are reminded that a “concrete sealed” steel drum of nuclear waste that had been dumped in 1000 fathoms off the US coast at New Jersey was caught in a fishermen’s net – trawling at just a few fathoms!* No matter where it is stored, on land or at sea, this toxic waste will pose a risk for thousands of years!!!
We must not discount the cost of protecting the world from contamination by accidents or terrorist attacks, misuse or poor storage of waste, etc. As the sophistication of terrorists’ weaponry increases along with the development of technology, who is to judge how much security protection of a nuclear power plant will ever be enough to protect it (and the environment) from attacks by determined terrorists? And the discharge of heated coolant water from nuclear plants overseas has caused major ecological damage even where studies beforehand suggested that no such damage would occur.There is much costly work to be done to make Nuclear Energy safe, and even if we agreed to wait ten years to get it all done, there is no certainty that all the problems will be solved in the end. We think this is such an important decision for Australia’s future, that it ought to be decided by a properly informed debate by all the people.
But Alternative Energy Sources Are Available Now! [sub-heading]
Mr Howard, why waste time debating Nuclear Power, when proven Alternative Energy is available now? Ten years to reach an uncertain outcome is in our view a luxury of time we cannot afford. Let’s get every home set up with Alternative Energy – a process which could be measured not in years but months!!
Alternative Energy power systems such as photovoltaic cells or wind power are available which we understand will be cheaper sources of electricity than any Nuclear Plant when all the attendant costs are factored in. And most importantly, in view of the pressing need to do something substantial to slow global warming, alternative energy is able to supply our domestic needs NOW – compared to the 10 years it would take to produce power from a Nuclear Power Plant! That is, if it can ever be done cost effectively, safely and without the environmental risk!
We are led irresistably to ask – how many homes in Australia could be equipped with solar power supplies, or how many wind farms could be built, in the ten years it will take to get one hugely costly Nuclear Plant on line? And for what percentage of the real cost of just one Nuclear Plant could the equivalent amount of power be obtained from Alternative Energy sources?
We believe that Alternative Energy would provide employment to many more Australians than the number of workers that Nucear Power generation and uranium mining use combined. And it is cheaper and safer for the general population in the long term if the big problems of nuclear waste disposal and security are taken into account.
Any small drop in our living standards due to the variability of Alternative Energy supply will be a very small price to pay if the sure disaster of global warming caused by coal power or the risk of slow death from radiation poisoning and contamination by nuclear power accidents ande terrorism are the alternatives.
Friends who have gone to Alternative Energy have had no problems supplying their household power demands. One family of four, and a couple of single person households, all function normally without having to ‘ration’ their power. One family has a suburban ‘grid feed back’ system that has meant that the power supplier ‘owes’ them and the cost of retro installing their system has been recovered in just 6 years!
Breathing Space to Develop Clean High Volume Supplies for Industry. [sub-heading]
On the Jim Lehrer News Hour (SBS Television, Fri 11 May) a statement was made that today’s Aternative Energy does not provide a sufficiently constant volume of energy such as is needed by industry or commerce. If all Australian households could have Aternative Energy systems to supply domestic needs and feed excess into the grid, power could still be supplied to industry and commerce from existing power stations and Australia still will have enough coal to supply fuel to the power industry for a long, long time – long enough to allow us time to rationally develop superior cleaner large output Aternative Energy delivery systems that in time could take over supply to industry and commerce and allow our coal power plants to be phased out.
Money presently being spent by the Coalition in securing access to Iraq oil could be better spent. In Issue 221 of the US Mother Earth News, we learn from Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, that the Iraq War will cost US taxpayers $2.2 trillion. The point is well made that this is a high cost to secure access to oil reserves, because if this huge sum was spent on “renewable energy just once it would provide more than enough power to replace all our fossil fuel energy production including coal oil and gas – as well as nuclear.” **
Finally, Mr Howard, Australia has the climate and cleverness to produce all its power safely while making a substantial contribution to reducing global warming and avoiding the environmental threat posed by nuclear power. All we need is the political will to make it happen.
Mary Martin & Pete West
* per Dem. Congressman Geo. P. Miller, 1966 Proceedings of the Committee on Science and Astronautics, US House of Representatives.
** “Renewables To the Rescue” page 6 of Issue 221 (April/ May 2007) of Mother Earth News.