The French Infatuation with Nuclear Power

Atom, mon amour: French faith in nuclear power

DW (2019)

Film Review

This documentary concerns the apparent French infatuation with nuclear power. France presently has 58 nuclear power plants, the most in Europe. Globally, only the US has more nuclear plants. Filmmakers interview French residents living adjacent to a Normandy plant about the risks. They give replies, such as “We’re used to it” and “It’s part of our culture.” Most are unaware the plant is contaminating local local seafood by discharging radioactive wastewater into the ocean.

In addition to visiting an operation nuclear power plant, the filmmakers visit a new nuclear waste disposal site under construction 500 meters underground. The French government plan to store liquid nuclear waste in metal drums there for more that 100,000 years.*

They also visit the Saclay Nuclear Research Center, staffed by 6,000 international researchers. The French are eager to resume exports of their state-of-the art nuclear power plants once the furor over the Fukushima meltdown. The center also engages in research in renewable energy, which according to DW,  “isn’t a priority in France.”**

The segment I found the most interesting concerns the French antinuclear movements.  Local activists reveal that all nuclear power stations are owned and operated by the French government, which heavily subsidizes the price consumers pay for power (ie they sell it at a lower price than the cost of production).

The French activists meet regularly with German antinuclear activists. The latter found it was much easier to shut down Germany’s nuclear power network, as local and regional government have far more authority than in France.

The activists also complain about the massive amount of pro-nuclear propaganda the French government produces. In one example a newscast following the Chernobyl meltdown reveals fallout plumes miraculously changing course at the French border.

Despite ongoing surveillance, stalking and harassment by the police, the French antinuclear movement has forced the government to adopt stringent safety requirements that significantly delayed new plants from opening.

Moreover pressure from German activists and authorities is blamed for the impending closure of France’s oldest nuclear plant Fessenheim, located on the French-German border.


*I find this notion quite unrealistic, given that metal fatigue tends to cause metal containers to begin leaking in 30-100 years.

**Under its commitment to the EU renewable energy directive of 2009, France has a target of producing 23% of its total energy needs from renewable energy by 2020. This figure breaks down to renewable energy providing 33% of energy used in the heating and cooling sector, 27% of the electricity sector and 10.5% in the transport sector. In addition, France actively exports innovative renewable technologies worldwide:   French Renewable Energy

 

 

The Nuclear Waste Scandal

Nightmare Nuclear Waste
(2009)

Film Review

In the face of growing international concern over the ongoing nuclear disaster at Fukushima,  an excellent 2009 French/German film (with English subtitles) about nuclear waste has been re-released and is making the rounds of cyberspace. This is truly a life and death issue, owing to the research evidence linking high environmental radiation levels (from the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown) to a big spike in European cancer levels. Important facts come out in this film that the nuclear industry and government are doing their best to conceal:

1. The whole issue of nuclear waste is characterized by secrecy, cover-up, lies and deception by the nuclear industry and pro-nuclear governments (including the extremely pro-nuclear Obama administration).

2. As the world waits with baited breath for the nuclear industry to come up with a permanent solution for deadly waste that will take 100,000 years to decontaminate, massive amounts have been dumped in the ocean, released to the air or stored in leaky containers that are contaminating groundwater and rivers. In La Hague France a nuclear energy company called Areva is releasing it into the air and into the English Channel through a drain pipe d water or open air storage pools. In La Hague France a nuclear energy company is releasing it into the English Channel through a drain pipe (as of 2009, when this film was made).

3. The US and Russian government are covering up the devastating health impacts of the world’s two most contaminated nuclear sites: the Hanford nuclear reservation in Eastern Washington and the Chelyabinsk region in the former Soviet Union. The latter experienced massive contamination when a nuclear waste dump at the Mayak nuclear facility exploded in 1957. The very first nuclear disaster in history was covered up by both the Soviets and, at the behest of America’s fledgling nuclear power industry, the CIA

4. There has never been full disclosure about the 100,000 tons of nuclear waste dumped into the ocean prior to 1993 (as the film was made in 2009, this number excludes the four tons daily dumped into the Pacific Ocean at Fukushima), when the practice was banned by international treaty. Nor has there been any effort to investigate where these radionucleotides ended up or whether they have contaminated the food chain.

4. The nuclear industry – and government – are willfully ignoring the “no threshold model” doctors use to evaluate cumulative radiation risk when they assure us that occasional releases from nuclear power plants are no more harmful than a “transatlantic jet flight” (due to higher radiation levels in the outer atmosphere) Under this model every exposure – no matter how small – increases your risk of developing cancer or having children with birth defects.

The Nuclear Nightmare at Hanford

As a former Washington resident, I took particular interest in the segment on Hanford, the desert site where the Manhattan Project secretly produced plutonium for the atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Hanford also produced the vast majority of plutonium for America’s cold war arsenal (1950-1980). Most of Hanford’s nuclear waste is stored in 170 temporary underground concrete tanks. These were meant to be temporary until a permanent storage solution could be found. Beginning in 2001 the tanks, which were only built to last twenty years, were found to be leaking radionuclotides into the groundwater adjacent to the Columbia River.

According to the US Department of Energy, which is responsible for the Hanford clean-up, there are no nuclear contaminants in the Columbia River. This is virtually impossible for independent scientists to verify, as anyone trespassing on the Hanford reservation is subject to arrest and prosecution. The filmmakers accompanied an activist who entered the reservation secretly to take soil and water samples. French scientists at CRIIRAD (Commission de Recherche et d’Information Indépendantes sur la Radioactivité) who tested them found high levels of tritium (exceeding the drinking water standard), Iodine 129, Technetium 99 and Europium 152. The film also talks about an independent study local activists did in 2002, in which the majority of Columbia River fish they sampled contained high levels of Strontium 90.

The People in Muslimovo Who Are Waiting to Die

The situation of Russian farmers living adjacent to the Techa River in Chelyabinsk is far more tragic. After more than fifty years the Techa, which locals rely on to water their crops and pastures, remains contaminated with high levels of Cesium 137, tritium, Strontium 90 and Plutonium 239 and 240 – as do vegetables and milk produced in nearby farms.

The residents are all fully aware of the bleak future they face, as they watch family, neighbors and even their children and grandchildren succumb to cancer. Each family has been offered 20,000 Euros (about $25,000) to abandon their land and homes and voluntarily relocate. This is a paltry sum that would support them a few months at most. The government also tells them not to eat locally grown food. However with incomes averaging 80 euros a month, eating food trucked in from other regions is an unaffordable luxury. As one local woman states, “We have no choice but to stay here until we die.”

The CEO Who Chained Himself to a Bridge

stordalenphoto credit: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/2941073.stm

His name is Petter Stordalen, and he’s a billionaire Norwegian property developer and the chief executive of Choice Hotels. In 2002, he chained himself to a bridge in Seascale England, demanding that the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant be shut down. I try to imagine Bill Gates chaining himself to something. Somehow I can’t quite picture it.

Stordalen is one of numerous Norwegian business executives and political leaders fighting for more than a decade to close Sellafield. Why does Norway want the British nuclear reprocessing plant shut down? Studies show that air and water currents carry Sellafield’s accidental and “operational” discharges to the west coast of Norway. The latter would also bear the brunt of a major accident, which, owing to the plant’s abysmal safety record, looked increasingly likely in 2002.

Including, but not limited to

  • between 1950-2000, 21 serious incidents or accidents involving offsite radiation release. This includes the Windscale Pile disaster, when a large heap of radioactive waste that caught fire in 1956
  • a 1999 citation for falsifying quality assurance data between 1996-1999
  • in 2003 a study commissioned by the Minister of Health revealing an increased incidence of childhood leukemia and non-Hodkins lymphoma in local residents
  • in 2005 a plutonium leak that went undetected for three months
  • in 2010 three accidental releases, with a fourth in early 2011, that were concealed from the public until a whistleblower leaked the documents to the Guardian

Why Reprocessing Plants Are Especially Dangerous

Sellafield first started up as a nuclear power station in the mid-fifties. Its mixed oxide (MOX) processing plant was built in 1996 and went on-line in 2001. Its role as a reprocessing plant means it accepts nuclear waste (spent nuclear fuel rods) from all over the world and reprocesses them for reuse. First plutonium and uranium must be separated from other fission products. One byproduct, a mixture of plutonium and uranium known as MOX, is used in thermal and fast breeder reactors. Sellafied’s reprocessing role also means that it accumulates massive amounts of “highly active liquor” (HAL), which requires constant cooling to prevent it from exploding.

Even CEOs Have Children

Few outside Britain and Norway have ever heard of Sellafield, much less the Neptune Network, an organization of Norwegian business executives turned environmental activists. Under the leadership of their executive director, long time businessman Frank-Hugo Storelv, the group has played a vital role in recruiting other Norwegian business leaders to lend their support to Norway’s antinuclear and anti-toxics campaign. In the video below, Storelv explains the urgent need for companies to operate more sustainably and be seen as good environmental citizens.

Like Petter Stordalen, Storev and other business executives in the Neptune Network were arrested numerous times for committing civil disobedience, both at Sellafield and numerous contaminated sites in Norway. In April 2011 he and four other members of the Neptune Network were arrested (under Britain’s anti-terrorism law) outside the gates of Sellafield for blocking a railroad shipment of new nuclear waste.

Victory for the Neptune Network

The MOX reprocessor at Sellafield closed August 3, 2011, after Japan (as a direct result of Fukushima) announced they would cease buying MOX for use in their reactors. The British government responded by proposing to build a new MOX plant at Sellafield, which would produce fuels for use in more modern reactors. In the face of massive public opposition, Cameron’s coalition government backtracked and committed to decommission and close Sellafield by 2018.

What’s Wrong With American CEOs?

So what’s the major difference between American and Norwegian CEOs? Why is it so hard to imagine Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, the Koch Brothers, George Soros (or any of our elected representatives, for that matter) chaining themselves to a bridge? They have children and grandchildren, just like Norwegian business executives. What’s more they all (presumably) have the educational background to understand that massive wealth won’t protect their offspring from the devastating health consequences of radiation poisoning.

In addition to the hundreds of thousands of cancer deaths and deformed babies stemming from nuclear accidents, leaks and “operational” releases, we still have no safe method of storing and/or disposing of the mountains of radioactive waste we have already created. Surely they know all this, right?

Originally published in Dissident Voice

Horror Film About Nuclear Waste

Into Eternity

Directed by Michael Madsen (2010)

Film Review

Into Eternity is an eerie account of Onkalo, the world’s first permanent nuclear waste repository. So-called “spent” fuel rods from nuclear energy plants remain radioactive for 100,000 years. Most of the radiation that has contaminated northern Japan post-Fukushima is from spent fuel rods being temporarily stored in water pools on the roof of one of the reactors. Becoming exposed following the earthquake and tsunami, the fuel rods caught fire, releasing massive amounts of radiation.

There are an estimated 250,000 – 300,000 tons of nuclear waste lying around in cooling pools in countries that rely on nuclear energy to produce electricity. The scope of the problem is mind boggling. 250,000 tons of highly radioactive material capable of wiping out all living things and contaminating adjacent agricultural lands and future crops for 100,000 years. The amount of waste increases daily, as the US and other countries merrily churn out spent fuel rods from existing – and new – nuclear reactors.

A Security Nightmare

As Fukushima and Into Eternity make clear, these temporary cooling pools are extremely vulnerable to natural and man-made disasters (e.g. earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, wars, civil unrest). In a world on the brink of economic Armageddon, they are a security nightmare, owing to the extensive maintenance and surveillance they require. At present permanent underground storage is the only possible solution. The film briefly discusses reprocessing and transmutation as unfeasible. Both reduce, without eliminating, the quantity of permanent radioactive waste. Reprocessing reduces the total quantity of nuclear waste by transforming it into plutonium. The latter takes one million years to degrade.

The History and Future of Onkalo

The Finnish and Swedish governments are collaborating to dispose of their own nuclear waste (6,000 tons) in a huge system of underground tunnels blasted out of solid bedrock in Olkiluoto Finland. Work on the facility commenced in the 1990s. Once the spent fuel rods have been deposited, Onkalo will be cemented over, backfilled and decommissioned more than a century from now. No person working on the facility today will live to see it completed.

After outlining the immense danger posed by 250,000 – 300,000 tons of nuclear waste that will remain radioactive for 100,000 years, the film centers mainly around the debate over marking Onkalo to prevent future generations from inadvertently drilling into it. This is essential, as a new Ice Age is anticipated in 60,000 years, which will likely obliterate all Finnish cities for 10,000 years or so. Most ancient language are forgotten in a matter of centuries. Beowulf and other literature written 1,000 year ago in Old English is virtually unreadable today.

It’s mind boggling for human beings to conceptualize time spans beyond a few generations. The human species has changed drastically since it originated in Africa 100,000 years ago. If humans survive another 100,000 years, they will likely be as different from us as we are from our hairy ancestors.

More Sad than Scary

My personal reaction to this film was immense sadness, rather than horror. I cried through much of it. It forced me to confront that our planet’s 250,000 tons of nuclear waste – not catastrophic climate change or water or energy scarcity – is the single biggest factor threatening human survival and civilization. Unless some solution can be found before the global economic system implodes, our children and grandchildren will be left with a planet in which wide swathes of territory are left totally uninhabitable.

Even more horrifying than the film, is that it has received almost no mention in the US media.  I guess the corporate media prefers Obama’s solution to the nuclear waste problem: denial. Obama has recently authorized billions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies to build new nuclear reactors.

I wonder what his children and grandchildren will say?

 

End Taxpayer Subsidies for Nuclear Power

fuk

Sign the Public Citizen petition!

One week we learn the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant has contaminated the entire North Pacific with via the daily discharge of  300 tons of radioactive water into the ocean. The following week we learn that Britain has approved the first new, “totally safe” nuclear power plant in 35 years, at Hinkley Point in Somerset. The snow job being perpetrated on the British and American public is that nuclear energy creates electricity without emitting carbon dioxide and that it’s cheaper than renewable energy. Neither is true.

A Little Problem of Nuclear Waste

Nuclear energy only looks cheap and carbon neutral if you take plant construction and nuclear waste disposal out of the equation. The US, British, French, Chinese and other governments driving the current nuclear renaissance don’t want you to think about nuclear waste disposal. This is because the technology required to safely neutralize and store spent plutonium that remains radioactive for 10,000 years has yet to be invented. Finland has come the closest, with the launch of a $3 billion excavation of an underground depository at Onkalo. Since the US site at Yucca Mountain was defunded in 2010, most countries have been leaving their spent fuel rods lying around in containment pools. At Fukushima, the spent rods were on the roof of the stricken reactors – before they melted down and spewed immeasurable amounts of radiation into the air and groundwater. In Britain, most nuclear “decommissioning” happens at a former nuclear weapons site called Sellafield. Despite a government allocation of more than ₤67 billion to the facility, the spent rods are still lying around in open pools. No one can figure out what to do with them.

Nuclear Affordability Depends on Massive Subsidies

Aside from the unsolvable nuclear waste dilemma, nuclear power plants are also incredibly expensive to build, owing to extensive  safety/containment requirements. None have been built anywhere without major government subsidies. Prime Minister David Cameron boasts that Hinkley Point will be the very first to be constructed without government support. Instead of committing taxpayer funds to its construction, Cameron is guaranteeing that British consumers will pay a price for Hinkley Point power that is double what they currently pay.

At present the British public pay an average of ₤0.05 (7 ½ US cents) per kilowatt hour (kwh) for electricity produced by existing coal and gas powered plants. In sealing the deal with the French-Chinese consortium building Hinkley Point, Cameron has locked British consumers into paying twice that – ₤0.092 or 14 cents per kwh – when Hinkley Point comes on line in 2023.

Deceptive Claims About Renewable Energy

Cameron’s claims that the above price will be competitive with renewable energy are also extremely deceptive. Fossil-fuel based electricity continuously increases in price over time. This is due to growing oil and gas scarcity and the prohibitive cost of clean coal technology. In contrast, renewable energy costs keep coming down, as cheaper technologies come to market and increased volume slashes per-unit production costs.

Already the price the British government (and the BBC) cites for solar energy is out of date. They incorrectly list the current cost of British-produced solar electricity at ₤0.125 (19 cents) per kwh. However, thanks to the recent availability of cheap Chinese photovoltaic cells (PVCs), a British solar unit installed in 2013 produces electricity for 11 cents per kwh. This rate is expected to drop as low as 3 cents per kwh in coming years – and even lower as cheaper alternatives to silicon come on board. In Seattle, the cost of solar-based electricity is already down to 7 cents per kwh.

Ignoring the Cheapest Renewable Sources

For some reason, nuclear proponents always fail to mention the two cheapest forms of renewable energy: mini-hydrogeneration* and geothermal. As with the production of solar energy, there are minimal operational costs with either one. The per unit price of power production is almost entirely based on upfront construction and installation costs. With mini-hydrogeneration, the average per unit price tends to be half that of wind energy, which in Britain is ₤0.10 (7 ½ cents) per kwh

The cost of geothermal energy depends on the type of plant and where it’s located. There are two main forms of geothermal energy. The first is the surface geothermal energy captured in volcanic regions, where boiling water bubbles to the surface owing to cracks between the earth’s tectonic plates. The second is deep geothermal in non-volcanic areas, where deep bore holes are drilled into subterranean hot water reservoirs. Owing to the expense of drilling, deep geothermal technology is more suitable for providing direct heat rather than conversion to electricity.

At present the US is the world’s largest surface geothermal electricity producer at an average cost of 5 cents per kwh. In Iceland the average cost is 4.3 cents per kwh and in NZ 7-9 cents per kwh.

In non-volcanic areas of Europe, it’s more practicable to use deep geothermal technology to provide heat for homes than to produce electricity. The average cost of geothermal heat across most of Europe is 8 cents per kwh.

Five days after Cameron made his announcement about Hinkley Point, the city of Manchester announced the approval of a geothermal project by the Irish Company GT energy to deliver affordable, renewable heat to local homes and businesses.

Obama’s Nuclear Obsession

Obama, of course, is even more pro-nuclear than his British counterpart. According to Zero Hedge, his 2013 energy policy includes $14-16 billion dollars in loan guarantees for 8,400 Megawatts of new nuclear power. In other words, six or seven new nuclear plants. This is despite warnings by Congressional Budget office of a 50 percent risk contractors will default on their loans. According to the CBO:

 “The key factor accounting for the risk is that we expect that the plant would be uneconomic to operate because of its high construction costs, relative to other electricity generation sources.”

As usual, Obama is less concerned about taxpayers than his friends in the nuclear industry who helped finance his political career.

*Unlike dam-based hydropower, mini-hydrogenerators are designed to operate in streams with a steep downhill gradient.

photo credit: Abode of Chaos via photopin cc

Originally published in Dissident Voice