Credit: Fabricio Vanden Broeck
The Nuclear Club's New Clothes
By Sara Larraín
It's false that electricity production from nuclear reactors does not produce carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas, explains Chilean environmental expert Sara Larraín in this exclusive Tierramérica column.
SANTIAGO, May 11 (Tierramérica).- You and I know that every profit structure, in this case the nuclear energy business, needs to continually update its promotional discourse in order to seduce us and move us to buy their product.
While in the 1960s the nuclear industry and lobbying groups were saying that this technology was "a safe and inexhaustible source of energy" for Latin America -- advertising that was belied by economic failures and radioactive accidents --, today are taking advantage of a new global crossroads, putting on new trappings to portray nuclear energy as "the solution" to the challenges of climate change.
This renewed zeal is due to the fact that in the West the nuclear power plants are reaching the end of their useful lives, which is why those companies need to sell new reactors to at least maintain their market shares.
With that end, they are concentrating on countries where there are new or fragile democracies, scant (or nonbinding) citizen participation, and political classes happy to co-govern with big business groups, given the power of the latter to finance election campaigns and exert pressure in the name of "investors' trust".
With small shifts in discourse, several South American governments are giving in. Brazil attributes its interest as part of its role in "leadership in scientific research." If Brazil says so, Argentina doesn't want to do any less, and further adds geopolitical reasons.
The Alan García administration, meanwhile, appeals to an exceptional and temporary economic growth of Peru to validate an extractivist focus on natural resources, and so cedes to mining interests over new uranium deposits. In Chile, members of the parties that form the government of Michelle Bachelet forced the president to ignore a citizen commitment against the nuclear option.
In Uruguay, meanwhile, President Tabaré Vázquez makes the most of support in polls to undermine the criticisms coming from experts and citizens groups who are against nuclear power.
According to the nuclear industry, nuclear energy production "does not emit carbon dioxide" and so would help fight global climate change, which is caused by the accumulation of greenhouse-effect gases -- carbon dioxide being the leading one -- in the upper atmosphere.
That calculation, however, separates out the steps in production by a nuclear power plant.
Anyone can go to the websites of the International Energy Agency (IEA), of the Energy Watch group (an international network of scientists and parliamentarians), and of the Oxford Research Group (dedicated to promoting non-military solutions to conflicts).
On those websites you will see studies that show how nuclear energy produces up to 122 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt/hour generated, if you take into account the complete cycle of the nuclear fuel, uranium.
That cycle includes the effort to mine uranium -- high grade, or of high purity, because otherwise the emissions would be higher than at a natural-gas-fired power plant --, the separation of the mineral from the rest of the rock, transportation, the construction and ultimate dismantling of the nuclear power plant, and the processing of radioactive waste for its subsequent confinement.
As for the price, nuclear energy is the most expensive and always requires enormous tax subsidies. Between 2004 and 2007, the price of uranium increased more than 570 percent to reach 113 dollars a pound.
Since then, like petroleum, uranium prices have seen great fluctuation due to the sustained decline in global production. The IEA has registered proven uranium reserves for 85 years more, as long as the current global nuclear power industry does not expand. For this reason, nuclear production of electricity is already obsolete and has no future.
We citizens must demand that energy policy reflect the understanding we have today: energy efficiency and unconventional renewable sources should be the majority in supplying the continent's electricity matrix if we are to ensure environmental and democratic sustainability.
Nuclear energy, coal- or oil-powered plants and the big hydroelectric dams force the payments of de facto subsidies paid by harm to people's health, damage to other local economies like farming and tourism, and destruction of a country's natural wealth.
In the context of climate change, the care that our water resources deserve is incompatible with the great demand for water associated with uranium mining.
As such, organized civil society looks with approval upon the leadership of Uruguay, whose Constitution establishes access to water as a human right and sets the framework for water management to be public and based on criteria of social participation and sustainability. Also laudable is the path begun by Colombia towards adopting access to water as a fundamental right.
If our countries give in to pressure to concentrate enormous fiscal investment in nuclear development we will suffer new declines in democracy, which will limit citizens' ability to act in defining public policy, in a scenario marked by drastic limitation, derived from the multiple environmental challenges that Latin America faces.
* Sara Larraín is director of the non-governmental Programa Chile Sustentable. Copyright Tierramérica.