The current nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, reminds us that nuclear energy is far from being 'clean'. But without nuclear power stations, without oil (which is becoming more and more scarce) and without natural gas (which will become scarce sooner or later), how will we be able to cope with energy demands? How will we be able to keep homes and schools warm? What about business and industry?
Nuclear energy: a permanent menace?
On 26 April 1986, a major accident struck the Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine. Today, 355 farms are still unable to export their produce (meat and vegetables) to other countries. But these farms are in Wales, some 1,500 miles away from Chernobyl! Radioactive pollution lasts for a very long time - from decades to hundreds of years - after a nuclear accident. It has been estimated that in Ukraine (not only in Chernobyl), 2,400,000 people including 400,000 children, still suffer from health problems due to the disaster. It has also been suggested that between 30 to 60,000 people have died (although some sources put the figures much higher - in the hundreds of thousands) as a result of radioactive pollution.
Each year Ukraine spends 6% of its GDP (Gross Domestic Product - the value of a country's economy) on attempts to halt and reverse the damage done. This has been going on for the last 25 years! It is worth noting that the Ukrainian GDP was $340 billion in 2010, for a population of 45 million people. This means that today each Ukrainian is spending more than $400 a year as a consequence of Chernobyl.
Should we be scared of nuclear energy?
In principal nuclear energy is a viable option, if all necessary safety measures are put into place. But current affairs demonstrate that even this may not be enough in the case of disasters such as earthquakes. The only thing that truly can be expected is that the unexpected will happen one day. For many years following the explosion of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima (Monday 6 August 1945), our fathers and grandfathers were not fully aware of the dangers of radiation. From a ship 30 miles away, American senators watched a test explosion of an atomic bomb on the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. Their protection? A pair of sunglasses! Years later some of these politicians were struck down by cancer and died.
In his story La Grande Menace (1952), Jacques Martin (one of Hergé's assistants) wove a plot that would send shivers up our spines today. When a flying atomic bomb threatens Paris, it is thrown off course at the last minute and explodes over the North Sea, and that's that.
If this scenario happened in real life, radioactive fallout would cause immense suffering to the people on the coast of the North Sea.
Nuclear power: a lethal chain reaction?
When we think about the dangers of nuclear power, we consider only one aspect: the problem of the fallout from accidents. But to feed nuclear power stations in the first place, Uranium is needed. When it is extracted from the Earth, miners and the populations living around the mines are subjected to contact with Radon, a gas that is extremely dangerous for health. For many years nuclear waste was disposed of at sea - we will be paying for this for many more years to come. The trunks in which spent fuel is locked up, will slowly erode under water, risking cracks and holes.
It was during the 1950s that nuclear power stations began operating. Ever since, we have been living in constant danger.
Are nuclear accidents being hidden from us?
Don't get too worried! Conspiracy theories often prove to be nothing more than hot air. Nevertheless, it is true that all too often governments prefer to label as 'minor' accidents that have real potential to harm health. In fact the accident at Chernobyl, the worst nuclear accident in history, was at the outset not made public by the Soviet regime. The first indications to the international community, that there had been a disaster, came when workers at a Swedish nuclear power station 680 miles away noticed increased radiation on their clothes. Determining that there was no leak from their own plant, the workers realised that there must have been a major accident at some other facility. Yet since Chernobyl, there have been several serious incidents reported. In 2002 there was a near full-blown disaster at the Davis-Bresse reactor in the USA, followed by incidents at the Paks reactor in Hungary in 2003 and the Forsmark power plant in Sweden in 2006. In 2007 the Kashiwazahi plant in Japan was damaged following an earthquake (!), and the same year there was an issue at the Krummel reactor in Germany.
Did you know?
Watch out for dead leaves! In 2009 trees threatened the Fessenheim nuclear reactor in France. Leaves and branches obstructed the water hydrants sending water to the reactor cooling system. The reactor had to be switched off quickly as it began heating up dangerously! A little crack can go a long way The Cattenom reactor in France has water pumps fixed onto concrete slabs. Some thin cracks have been discovered in the slabs. Not dangerous? They could cause a major failure if there was a little earthquake, and then what? Seawater and jellyfish We have seen it in Japan: rescue workers using pumps to obtain water from the sea. A miracle solution? Not for the long term. At the Gravicelles and Blayais reactors, jellyfish blocked up the pumps!
Iodine tablets: miracle cure? No. They only last for four years at most. In any case, with nuclear incidents being relatively rare (certainly in the case of the Fukushima incident) the authorities do not renew their stocks. A third of today's general stock of iodine tablets are too old to be of any use.
A world without nuclear power?
The fervent desire of many ecological organisations such as Greenpeace is to see a world without nuclear power. As an alternative to nuclear power, such organisations propose the following renewable alternatives. And they work! In Lardarello (Italy), a million households receive geothermically generated energy. This comes from the heat trapped under the surface of the Earth. Samso Island in Denmark has produced its electricity through wind power since 2005. It exports surplus electricity. In Beckerich (Luxembourg), 90% of electricity and 40% of heating comes from renewable energy. By 2020, the little town should be '100% renewable'. Austria produces 78% of its energy renewably. By way of comparison, the figure falls to 6% for Belgium's renewable energy. A good source of information about renewable energy: www.greenpeace.org