Absolutely insane

Simon Wells reviews Helen Caldicott's book Nuclear power is not the answer, New Press, 2006, pp221, £13.99

Helen Caldicott trained as a physician and has been campaigning on nuclear issues for 35 years. Her strength is in countering the nuclear industry's spin and lies and using her knowledge as a scientist to highlight the medical effects of nuclear power. In this book she shows us why nuclear power is not the answer to global warming.

Whenever there is debate about nuclear power, its advocates always say that it produces comparatively low carbon emissions. Typical is this statement from the recently released Stern review: "There are already considerable sums of money spent on supporting technology deployment. It is estimated that $10 billion was spent in 2004 on renewable deployment, around $16 billion is spent each year supporting existing nuclear energy and around $6.4 billion is spent each year supporting biofuels. The total support for these low-carbon-energy sources is thus $33 billion each year. Such sums are dwarfed by the existing subsidies for fossil fuels worldwide that are estimated at $150 billion to $250 billion each year. All these costs are generally paid by the consumer" (HM treasury Stern review on the economics of climate change p367). So nuclear energy is not only a bargain: it is climate-friendly too.

However, Caldicott notes, there is a "hidden industrial infrastructure that is never featured by the nuclear industry in its propaganda, but that actually releases a large amount of carbon dioxide" (p4). This results from mining, milling, enrichment, construction of the reactor, fabrication, decommissioning and dismantling, clean-up, disposal and long-term storage of waste for up to 240,000 years. All of these processes require huge amounts of energy. (One of the best studies into the energy input of the nuclear fuel cycle is Nuclear power - the energy balance by Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Smith.)

The conclusion Caldicott comes to is that "nuclear reactors are best understood as complicated, expensive, inefficient gas burners" (p6). Given that there is a push by the nuclear industry for expansion, we have to realistically assess the supplies of uranium in the ground. The current use of uranium is 67,000 tonnes per year, and high-grade ores would supply that demand for the next 50 years. 'High-grade' means a concentration of 1% uranium. However, a low-grade uranium concentration of 0.1% requires much more energy to mine. Any lower and more energy would be required to mine the ore than the energy generated in the reactor from the uranium extracted.

Caldicott states that nuclear power is uneconomic without government subsidies. The main argument for keeping these in place is that the technology will improve general social welfare - even though nuclear power has a less than shining record on accidents and the health risks associated with waste. Yet as well as the direct subsidies there are also hidden ones, including tax exemptions, credits, rebates, university research grants, etc. As Caldicott says, "This socialisation of electricity within a capitalist society has never been called into question, nor has it been critically scrutinised by the general public and their elected representatives" (p37).

Of course, since "capitalist society" is based on profit, it goes without saying that 'subsidising' (ie, providing the necessary resources for) human need, including the need for a healthy global environment, is not necessarily considered worthwhile. We communists are all for providing those resources, even if they are considered 'uneconomic'. That is why arguing against nuclear energy on a (capitalist) cost-effective basis is hardly the most persuasive method.

Apart from cost, though, Caldicott highlights a number of other reasons why it should be opposed, such as the unintended effects of radiation. In the early stages of life on this planet background radiation induced mutations in the DNA of plants and animals. Most were deleterious, although some allowed the organism to adapt to the environment. Over time background radiation decreased and mutations settled down. However, with the advent of nuclear fission over 200 human-produced radioactive elements have inevitably added to the background radiation, accounting for 18% of human exposure, according to US National Academy of Sciences.

Caldicott says: "Once created, these diabolical elements will inevitably find their way into the environment and will eventually enter the reproductive organs of plants, animals, and humans, where they will mutate the genes in the reproductive cells to cause disease and death in the immediate generation or pass a hidden genetic disease to distant offspring down the track of time" (p41).

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission says that a safe dose of radiation is 100 millirems per year for a healthy adult - unless you are a nuclear worker, for whom the maximum permissible dose is 5,000 millirems per year! Caldicott believes one in five will develop cancer over a 50-year period, yet these workers are not made fully aware of the dangers inherent to the industry that employs them.

During the uranium mining stage workers are exposed to radon through the lungs, radium dust through absorption into the gut and gamma radiation through the ore face. In addition the dirt and soil that is discarded is also radioactive and is released into the atmosphere through exposure to wind and rain. During the enrichment process the uranium 235 isotope is turned into fuel fit for nuclear power stations. Workers are also exposed to gamma radiation.

The separation of the isotope produces depleted uranium, which is 1.7 times more dense than lead, thus making an ideal anti-tank weapon. Upon impact, it disintegrates and scatters into the environment, where it remains for a mere 4.5 billion years. Depleted uranium was used in the 1991 Gulf War, the 2002 invasion of Iraq and is probably employed in Palestine, as Israel is a major consumer of US armaments. In Basra, paediatricians have reported a sevenfold increase in childhood cancer and other complications, almost certainly caused by exposure to uranium.

During nuclear plant operation there are regular purges of radioactive gases and water, and constant leaks from ageing pipes. These accumulate in the food chain and enter the human body.

Of course, it is not only leaks, but accidents that most people are fearful of - Chernobyl and Three Mile Island come to mind. Caldicott says of Chernobyl: "The situation post-Chernobyl is a medical emergency, unique in the history of paediatrics" (p77). The effects are felt far beyond the Ukraine: "In Britain, 28 years post-accident and 1,500 miles from the crippled reactor, 382 farms containing 226,500 sheep are severely restricted because the levels of cesium 137 in the meat are too high. Before the sheep are sold for meat, they are transferred to other less radioactive grazing sites so that their levels of cesium decrease before sale. Meanwhile, people in Britain are still eating low levels of cesium in meat" (p76). She adds that the sarcophagus covering the damaged reactor is disintegrating and could collapse, releasing radiation across Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and parts of Europe.

Caldicott says the problems are going to get worse and it is only a matter of time before another meltdown occurs. The problem has been exacerbated by ageing reactors, which are coming to the end of their normal 40-year lives, but in some cases are earmarked for continuation for up to 20 years. As one scientist pointed out, "Nuclear power plants are like people: they have numerous problems in their infancy and youth, they operate relatively smoothly in early-to-middle life, and they start to show signs of stress and manifest pathology as they age" (p83). Their retention in service is leading to increasing numbers of near misses due to metal fatigue and inadequate monitoring programmes, for example.

In addition reactors are susceptible in the normal course of their life to natural disasters, such as earthquakes, as well as to terrorist attack. A study by Greenpeace after the 9/11 attacks concluded that an attack on Sellafield would result in 3.5 million deaths. No wonder the organisation decided to sit on its own report for a year.

The eventual replacements for these older reactors will include designs that produce plutonium, the main ingredient for nuclear weapons, as a by-product. Caldicott comments that this project is an "absolutely insane idea, but one that seems to be proceeding apace with no public knowledge, oversight or control" (p129).

The rehabilitation of the nuclear industry has an unfortunate side-effect from the point of view of the imperialists, however: the possibility that many more countries will have access to materials and technology for use in nuclear weapons construction. At present the US and Russia possess 97% of the total arsenal of 30,000 bombs, which are maintained on 'hair-trigger' alert. While the US hypocritically targets 'rogue states' like Iran for criticism and condemnation, Iran was actively encouraged by the US to develop a nuclear programme in the past.

Caldicott quotes former energy minister Tony Benn in this context: "Many years ago when the shah - who had been put on the throne by the US - was in power in Iran, enormous pressure was put on me, as secretary of state for energy, to agree to sell nuclear power stations to him. That pressure came from the Atomic Energy Authority, in conjunction with Westinghouse, who were anxious to promote their own design reactor" (p143).

The author repeats well known facts about Israel's estimated 100-400 nuclear weapons and its steadfast refusal to submit to inspections. However, while "other nuclear nations hide their nuclear activities with impunity "¦ Iran may well be invaded for doing the same" (p147).

Although Caldicott is well aware that global warming is happening now, the nuclear option, including the "insane" new-generation reactors, are not part of the solution; instead she recommends wind and solar power. One criticism of renewables is the variability of supply, but Caldicott says the answers are available, "including geographic aggregation of wind generators, improved weather forecasting techniques" (p174). She also pushes hydro, biomass, tidal, wave, geothermal and cogeneration remedies.

For her it can all be done under the present system of capital accumulation - indeed she advocates legislation to change the behaviour of individuals through the market - and, of course, in the end common sense will prevail: "Self-sacrifice and responsibility are noble traits to which most people aspire. These are the qualities that will lead the world toward sanity and survival" (p183).

Despite the book's obvious weaknesses, it provides a service in exposing bourgeois claims about nuclear power. For example, "The nuclear PR industry proclaimed that nuclear power would provide an endless supply of electricity - referred to as 'sunshine units' - that would be good for the environment and 'too cheap to meter'" (p4).

Just as nuclear energy has not lived up to the cheap energy hype, so it is not the answer to carbon emissions, as its apologists now claim. Like the system that promotes it, nuclear power endangers the health and survival of humanity itself.