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The Doomsday Machine

Politics / Nuclear Power Feb 04, 2012 - 12:36 PM GMT

By: Andrew_McKillop


Best Financial Markets Analysis Article1950s VANITY TECH
With a terrifying sting in its tail and for more than 60 years, nuclear power has been sold as something for nothing, delivering electricity that will be cheap, clean and safe. Nuclear shills always said that, and still say that - and they have always been wrong. When a disaster happens that is so big it can't be talked down and yanked out of the media after a couple days, the nuclear shills go into quiet mode - but they always come back, like politicians saying this time things are going to change. You have to believe.

In our book published by Palgrave Macmillan with the same title as this article, my co-author Martin Cohen (author of 'Mind Games: 31 Ways to Rediscover Your Brain' and 'Philosophy for Dummies') and myself line up the reasons why this really bad story has to keep going. When it does end, it can and will only end really bad.

World War 2 made it look or seem that mankind, or at least the US, then the Soviets, British, French and Chinese had mastered the atom. They made bombs, but this looked like a way to get so much energy from so little fuel that Dwight Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace would mega-shift mankind into a totally new energy age. What happened was different: the enduring partnership between industry and government started shifting massive but hidden subsidies from the governments of the then-rich and growing consumer democracies, and the USSR, into building wildly expensive Rube Goldberg (for Brits: Heath Robinson) generators far away on the skyline. Safe and remote, pumping out electricity that only seems cheap when the figures are distorted the right way, the subsidies are hidden, and frighteningly expensive reactor decommissioning "never happens" because it is so far in the future.

In the 1950s and 1960s that was how it looked, folks. At the time nuclear power supplied 0% of world energy. Today it supplies about 3% of world energy or 14% of world electricity. Is it worth it ?

Technological advances have made nuclear plants certainly more expensive and possibly a little less dangerous, but that isnt the same thing as safe. A worst-case nuclear reactor accident isnt comparable to anything else - even the devastating Bhopal and Seveso pesticide factory explosions. But it is comparable to a military nuclear strike because after it, thousands of square miles are contaminated for decades with cancer-causing radiation. Everybody knows this. The nuclear industry, its apologists, and its friends in government deny this.

When reactors are behaving right, disposing their nuclear waste remains an insoluble problem. Everybody can check up the long and bad-joke story of the US Yucca Mountains "final repository", which never happened. It was too expensive. For nuclear wastes, there is no solution, so massive amounts of poisonous radioactive debris are piling up, and will go on piling up around us.

More unsettling, the financial industry's most nimble-brained liars, the same who gave us the subprime and sovereign debt crises, have taken up hard-selling the atom. Poor nations with a high risk of civil war and unimpressive government oversight (including Nigeria, Indonesia, Bangladesh, the 2 Sudans, Algeria, even Libya of the Gaddafi era) claimed or claim they are jumping on the nuclear bandwagon. The financing is secure, their western financial advisers say. Its the only way forward, you know.

Sadly, the global warming and CO2 issue served as a litmus test for the environmental movement, winnowing out a vocal faction saying nuclear power is the only practical way to reduce carbon emissions. Following the Fukushima disaster some have gone quiet, even recanted and denied their love affair with the friendly atom, and shifted back to talking solar energy and wind power. But these spin the dials on the finance industry's cash registers almost as fast as atomic energy snakeoil, since offshore widfarms and square miles of solar power plants are the new big ticket, high priced Energy Vanity Tech of the post-2000 era. In turn, never missed by nuclear fundamentalists as they tiptoe back in the media to sell their poison, solar and windpower remain hopelessly unable to entirely and efficiently replace our current fossil-based energy sources and systems. Hydroelectric dams often flood valuable land and damage the environment; biofuels convert food to diesel fuel and gasoline substitutes - and raise food prices; nuclear fusion power is pie-in-the-sky.

So do we have to get used to nuclear power because it is the only real alternative to declining and depleting oil supplies, and polluting coal energy whose supplies aren't so massive as plenty pretend? Even the shale gas boom will only stretch gas supplies a certain time, but this is the new-old story. Listening to it, we could be anywhere in time, whether the 1956 UK Winscale disaster, the 1979 US Three Mile Island disaster, the 1986 Russian Chernobyl disaster. Nuclear power certainly travels down the ages, and each time a disaster happens we get the snakeoil risk studies: the famous US Rasmussen report told us the chance of a nuclear accident like Three Mile Island is once every 30 000 reactor years.

Nuclear power is a permanent disaster. Producing its uranium fuel is an environmental disaster - now tucked and folded over the horizon in mostly-poor countries, so that ecologically minded nice people will not be too concerned. Building reactors is a financial disaster. When the fateful time comes to decommission them, after the easy 10-year life extensions run out, this is an economic disaster. But when a reactor becomes what it really is - the most massive Dirty Bomb you or Bin Laden (radhi Allah anhu) can imagine - the disaster will be hard to yank out of the media, quicktime.

It will mark the turning point. As we know, president Sarkozy of Nuclear France, the most nuclear-intensive major country and officially proud of the fact - was a prime mover in the regime change war against Muammar Gaddafi. In December 2007 at the Elysees Palace with Gaddafi's bedouin tent and Mercedes bulletproof limos outside the palace for the duration, the same president Sarkozy was trying, real hard, to sell Muammar Gaddafi a French Areva nuclear power plant. Or maybe two of them. Unbelievable but true. To be sure we could take a hit of magic mushrooms and say, along with the nuclear apologists and their financial partners that war is finished. It doesn't exist anymore. Even civil wars, in Libya and Syria for example, are waged by persons who never, ever would think about targeting their enemy's nuclear power plants - each full size reactor containing as much radiation as 150 Hiroshima-size bombs. They simply wouldn't do that. You have to believe.

Outside war, which we know doesn't exist anymore, the war on our living standards, incomes and buying power will soon go into high gear in the Nuclear Nations, nearly all of them OECD, mature postindustrial democracies trying to get a grip on their sovereign debt disasters. Decommissioning will have to start soon. In the 12-year period to 2025 several dozen will have to be decommed and the price will be high - so electricity prices will fly. At the very same time, by a strange process of mass schizophrenia, we also have to make an almost instant Energy Transition away from oil, coal and natural gas, to always-more-expensive renewables. Plus nuclear power, in the furthest out of these Low Carbon fantasy transition plans.

As our book tries to point out without going viral, the credibility of this is so low that we have to ask why anybody takes it seriously, or pretends they take it that way. Nuclear power is going to be a mover in the process of understanding that reality is....real. We can hope it won't be a disastrous wake-up call, like the experience for nearly 100 000 Japanese thrown out of their homes, farms, factories and schools by the 4-reactor meltdown at Fukushima. We can sincerely hope it will only be an economic and financial disaster - just one more, to add to the rest, and probably manageable. If God wills.

This we can hope but the clock ticks on. The reactors age. The uranium runs out. The wastes pile up. The risks, already high, go on growing. The Doomsday Machine.

By Andrew McKillop


Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights

Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.

© 2012 Copyright Andrew McKillop - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisors.

© 2005-2019 - The Market Oracle is a FREE Daily Financial Markets Analysis & Forecasting online publication.

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