Renew On Line (UK) 60

Extracts from NATTA's journal
, issue160 March-April2006

   Welcome   Archives   Bulletin         


1. Intermittency- not a big issue?

2. Marine renewables- tidal and wave progress

3. Wind power- problems and successes

4. The Energy Review- UK split on nuclear power

5. NFFO fund raided – Treasury helps itself

6. Microgen for all – micro CHP in action

7. LCBP gets £30m  - Skills gap? 

8. UK roundup – local wind and solar projects

9. Global Developments - Clinton Global Initiative

10. Europe - France, Spain, Portugal, Germany

11. Around the World - USA, Canada, China

12. Nuclear News- Chernobyl revisited, US Safety

12. Nuclear News

Chernobyl revisited

A new report for the UN, ‘Chernobyl’s Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts,’ produced 20 years on the accident by the Chernobyl Forum, involving over 100 experts from eight UN agencies including the WHO and the governments of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, claims that a total of 4,000 deaths will probably ultimately be attributable to the accident in April 1986. Although that’s a large number, it is much fewer than some previous estimates. The report says that there were only 50 deaths directly attributable to the accident, these being among reactor staff and clean up personnel, but other deaths have followed and there will be more, from among the 586,000 people most contaminated by the accident- the 200,000 clean-up workers, the 116,000 evacuated from around the plant and the 270,000 residents of the most radioactive areas- including perhaps 2200 of the clean up workers (called ‘liquidators’). There had already been 4000 cases of thyroid cancer in people who were young at the time of the accident, of which 9 have died- the disease is generally treatable by surgical removal of the gland.  But it claims that there has been no observed long term rise in the incidence of leukemia, or any detectable decrease in fertility or increase in birth defects, and argues that ‘the mental health impact’ was ‘the largest public health problem unleashed by the accident’.  Families forcibly relocated were deeply traumatised and some residents of contaminated areas have succumbed to a ‘paralysing fatalism’. Although it admitted that in some areas, ‘a small but important minority, those caught in the downward spiral, need substantial material assistance to rebuild their lives’, the report says that in many parts of the region support was not scientifically justified any more. It claims that some people have become captive of a victim mentality, which has bred dependency on state support, which for most people was not needed: ‘The extensive system of Chernobyl-related benefits has created expectations of long-term direct financial support and entitlement to privileges, and has undermined the capacity of the individuals and communities concerned to tackle their own economic & social problems’.

Greenpeace International took issue with these conclusions.  It said that the ‘headline’ conclusions in a summary by the International Atomic Energy Agency (one of the Forum), were not  substantiated by the full report, which they says contradicts them. ‘Often research has been omitted and where scientific uncertainty exists, the conclusion is simply that there is no impact.  A more careful reading of the 600-page report, as well as previously published research by UN-bodies, leads to very different conclusions.’   They point out that:

  • * WHO refers to a study on 72,000 Russian workers of whom 212 died as the result of radiation. In fact, the total number of ‘liquidators’ (in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine) is estimated at some 600,000;
  • * The 4,000 deaths only relates to a studied population of 600,000 in the Chernobyl region, whereas radiation spread over most of Europe.

The IAEA tries to make strict distinction between health impacts attributable to radiation and health impacts attributable to stress, social situation etc. But WHO refers to numerous reports which indicate an impact of radiation on the immune system, causing a wide range of health effects. Greenpeace say an approach based on epidemiology, which extrapolates from specific casualties to produce estimates for the total population, although valuable in well defined situations, can become very problematic when expanded to cover the whole of Europe. They have more confidence in an approach which assumes that there is a linear relationship between radiation dose and effect, without a threshold, which means that even a very low dose can still produce significant impacts. They claim that, for Chernobyl ‘this leads to estimates in the range of 10 to  hundreds of thousands of casualties’.  

Dr Rosalie Bertell (WISE Nuclear Monitor 634; noted that, in any case, it wasn’t just deaths,  but also major illnesses that worried people. The Children of Chernobyl  charity said they put more reliance on ‘the senior doctors in charge of the hospitals closest to the accident’ who were ‘reporting increased rates of bowel and breast cancer & an increasing rate of spontaneous abortions,’ and ‘the findings of the Clinical Institute of Radiation Medicine in Minsk, which show that the cancer rate has risen in Belarus by 40 % between 1990 and 2000. In the highly contaminated Gomel region, this figure is 55%’.

Safety in the USA

The report by the US National Association of State Public Interest Research Groups  ‘Achieving a New Energy Future’ (see earlier) claims that  ‘Nuclear power poses massive risks to public safety and the environment’, especially ‘as the competitive pressures spawned by deregulation of the electric industry cause operators to push nuclear reactors to their operational limits’.

It notes that ‘The bulk  of America’s nuclear fleet is between 20 and 36 years old, and the original 40-year licenses of nuclear reactors are scheduled to end beginning in 2009.  The NRC has already begun to issue 20-year license extensions for some nuclear plants. But continued operation of nuclear plants beyond their original 40-year lifespans could lead to unforeseen safety problems.  In 2001, the Union of Concerned Scientists identified eight instances in just the previous 17 months in which nuclear reactors were forced to shut down due to age-related equipment failures. Since 2000, the NRC has approved 55 power ‘uprates’ for nuclear reactors, allowing the reactors to produce power at greater levels than their original licenses allowed. The number of uprates approved in the last five years has exceeded the number approved in the previous 23 years. Uprates have already caused some safety concerns, particularly at two boiling water reactors that experienced vibration induced damage following the implementation of NRC-approved uprates.’

It’s also worried about terrorism/sabotage. ‘Nearly all U.S. nuclear reactors store waste on site in water-cooled pools at densities approaching those in reactor cores. Should coolant from the spent-fuel pools be lost, the fuel could ignite, spreading highly radioactive compounds across a large area. One estimate has put the cost of such a disaster at 54,000 to 143,000 extra deaths from cancer and evacuation costs of more than $100 bn.’

It concedes that ‘It is conceivable that a new generation of nuclear reactors could be built to operate more safely... although the technological complexity of nuclear power makes this unlikely. It is even conceivable that nuclear power plants could be built that are impenetrable to outside terrorist attack or to in-house sabotage. But the prospect that all of these conditions could be met- and at an economic cost that would be acceptable to consumers and the public- is remote.  And even if they were to be met, nuclear waste storage and disposal would remain an unsolved, & possibly insurmountable, problem.’

Send it to Oz

Former Labor prime minister Bob Hawkes  has called for Australia to be the home for an international nuclear waste repository.  He claims that Australia is geologically safe, and the outback would make it secure- and that waste storage would generate income to be spent on the environment and the indigenous community: he would be happy to take all the worlds n-wastes.

*At the World Nuclear Associations’ annual symposium last year ,  Frank L Bowman, CEO of the American Nuclear Energy Institute,  welcomed  George Bush’s “bold leadership and vision” and added ‘We are encouraged by the efforts of New York, Maryland, Mississippi and Louisiana to encourage new nuclear plant projects’.  The Guardian diary wryly noted that recent events might have scuppered some of those plans.

*Japans Monju Fast Breeder reactor, which has been closed since 1995 when it suffered a major sodium leak and fire, is being revamped.

*   Russia will press for the global take up of  nuclear power at the next G8 summit in Moscow.

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