08
Mar
17

Nuclear power for Malaysia? – NO THANKS!

Nuclear lessons for Malaysia (Part 1)
Ronald S McCoy

The public health implications of nuclear power should not be subordinate to the economic considerations of the nuclear industry and government energy policies. There is a need to review the scientific evidence for public health impacts of nuclear power, to assess occupational hazards faced by nuclear industry workers, and to assess evidence that challenges the legitimacy of the underlying assumptions of nuclear safety.

A common thread running through these health concerns is the risk posed by ionising radiation. There is no safe threshold. Over the past 50 years, the claims of the nuclear industry, that nuclear power is both safe and vital for our future, have proven false and contentious.

Ionising radiation can damage DNA, causing cancer and inherited mutations. However, whether an individual develops cancer following exposure to ionising radiation depends on whether the DNA is damaged, what part of the DNA is damaged, whether the cell line can reproduce, whether the damage is completely repaired, and whether the cell completes transformations that lead to malignancy.

But earthquakes and tsunamis are not the only causes of a nuclear accident. Human error alone can lead to a nuclear accident. It happened in Windscale (later renamed Sellafield), Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. So, it could happen in Malaysia. Building two nuclear reactors in error-inclined Malaysia would carry the potential for an incalculable catastrophe. The chances of a nuclear accident in Malaysia are not negligible.

I have heard the facetious argument that plane crashes are not sufficient reason to abandon air travel. But the scale of a nuclear accident is incomparable. Radiation could kill and injure thousands, cause cancers, and contaminate and render uninhabitable a large part of Malaysia.

Nuclear lessons for Malaysia (Part 1)
Ronald S McCoy

Since March 11, Japan has been reeling from an unprecedented natural disaster of awesome proportions, followed by a man-made nuclear crisis. First, a record-breaking earthquake, 8.9 on the Richter scale, off the north-eastern coast of the Japanese island of Honshu. Then, a towering 10-metre tsunami which killed tens of thousands of people and destroyed almost everything in its path.

Finally, the release of radioactivity into the environment from a nuclear power plant, damaged by overheating and explosions.

The earthquake had automatically shut down the six nuclear reactors of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant, owned by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco). But it also knocked out the power grid, forcing operators to fall back on diesel generators to keep coolant flowing into hot reactor cores of radioactive uranium and plutonium fuel rods.

Then the tsunami swept in, knocked out the generators and cut off power to the plant’s cooling systems. All at once, four out of its six nuclear reactors were in dire trouble from overheating. Explosions then damaged fuel rods and the integrity of the primary containment structure, and radioactivity was released into the environment.

There are few environmental dangers more lasting or more fearsome than radiation from a nuclear accident. We saw this in the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters, and now in Fukushima. The truth of Murphy’s Law is inescapable: “If something can go wrong, sooner or later it will go wrong.”

Public health

The public health implications of nuclear power should not be subordinate to the economic considerations of the nuclear industry and government energy policies. There is a need to review the scientific evidence for public health impacts of nuclear power, to assess occupational hazards faced by nuclear industry workers, and to assess evidence that challenges the legitimacy of the underlying assumptions of nuclear safety.

A common thread running through these health concerns is the risk posed by ionising radiation. There is no safe threshold. Over the past 50 years, the claims of the nuclear industry, that nuclear power is both safe and vital for our future, have proven false and contentious.

Ionising radiation can damage DNA, causing cancer and inherited mutations. However, whether an individual develops cancer following exposure to ionising radiation depends on whether the DNA is damaged, what part of the DNA is damaged, whether the cell line can reproduce, whether the damage is completely repaired, and whether the cell completes transformations that lead to malignancy.

The most important evidence regarding risks from exposure to radiation comes from epidemiologic studies that examine incidence of cancer in exposed populations, such as children exposed to radiation in utero, people exposed to background radiation, nuclear plant workers, patients exposed to diagnostic or therapeutic radiation, and people exposed to radiation from nuclear explosions.

The risk of mutation-related damage, including cancer, is proportional to the radiation dose. There is no threshold below which ionising radiation produces no damage. This means that background radiation from any source causes cancer and genetic mutations among exposed populations.

What happens in a nuclear accident

When a reactor is operating, fuel rods containing uranium and plutonium pellets produce heat through nuclear fission and get very hot. The fuel is immersed in water and the heat produces steam, which is used to drive a turbine to produce electricity.

The water also serves to keep the fuel from overheating and is continuously circulated to carry away excess heat. Even if the reactor shuts down, the fuel will remain hot for a long time and so must still be cooled.

Fukushima nuclear plant meltdownIf the pumps that circulate the cooling water are not operating, the water will heat up and evaporate, and the fuel can be exposed to the environment. At this point, the zirconium cladding on the fuel rods will start to heat up, blister, and then rupture.

If the fuel is not covered by water and is exposed for a few hours, it will start to melt. The molten fuel will collect at the bottom of the steel reactor vessel, and it will be a matter of hours before the fuel melts through the steel and settles on the concrete floor of the primary containment vessel.

In an accident, the amount of radioactivity released into the environment will depend on the integrity of the primary and secondary containments. The radioactive isotopes of greatest concern in a nuclear accident are iodine-131 and caesium-137.

Uncertain geological knowledge

Nuclear power requires stability – political stability and geological stability. Countries considering the option of nuclear power need to soberly assess their plans, particularly if they are located in active volcanic regions.

But geological knowledge is incomplete and imperfect. And we rely on such knowledge too heavily when making policy decisions about locating hazardous technologies.

Designed and built to withstand what is termed “design basis accidents,” nuclear power plants are usually sited in geologically stable and physically secure environments, determined by geologists. The possibility of a “design basis accident” is based on “credible events,” which are determined by an analysis of probabilities.

The Fukushima disaster was a “beyond design basis accident” because the analysis was wrong. It was calculated that the probable “credible event” expected to occur in Fukushima would be an earthquake no greater than a magnitude of 7.9 and a tsunami no higher than 6.7 metres.

It was not in the analysis of probabilities that Fukushima would be struck by an 8.9 magnitude earthquake or a 10-metre high tsunami. But geologists and the nuclear industry, like all human beings, sometimes get it wrong.

It is noteworthy that there are a number of unknown geological faults and processes which make it more difficult to accurately predict a “credible event.” In other words, it is very much an intelligent guessing game, but guessing it is nevertheless.

Incidentally, the recent earthquake in Christchurch occurred on an unknown and unexposed geological fault, and was therefore unpredictable. In fact, damaging earthquakes have been known to originate from unknown faults.

Malaysia has so far not been traumatised by a severe earthquake or tsunami, although located on the western margins of the Pacific Rim of Fire and close to earthquake-prone Indonesia and the Philippines. But with such incomplete and imperfect geological knowledge, we cannot rule out the possibility of a damaging earthquake in the future.

Human error

But earthquakes and tsunamis are not the only causes of a nuclear accident. Human error alone can lead to a nuclear accident. It happened in Windscale (later renamed Sellafield), Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. So, it could happen in Malaysia. Building two nuclear reactors in error-inclined Malaysia would carry the potential for an incalculable catastrophe. The chances of a nuclear accident in Malaysia are not negligible.

I have heard the facetious argument that plane crashes are not sufficient reason to abandon air travel. But the scale of a nuclear accident is incomparable. Radiation could kill and injure thousands, cause cancers, and contaminate and render uninhabitable a large part of Malaysia.

Nightmare at Fukushima

Japan, the only country to have experienced nuclear warfare, now faces another nuclear nightmare. Months may pass before we can fully understand what went wrong and learn from Fukushima. It is a high price to pay for using potentially dangerous and replaceable technology. It has rekindled fading memories of Chernobyl and shifted the balance in the debate on climate change and the risks and benefits of nuclear energy.

It is forcing many countries to review the safety of their nuclear facilities and their energy policies. Germany has responded to strong public anti-nuclear sentiment by reinstating and accelerating its nuclear phase-out policy, and temporarily shutting down the oldest seven of its 17 reactors.

Both India and China, with their expanding economies and energy needs, are reviewing nuclear safety measures, but have not shelved plans to build more reactors in the next ten years.

A number of studies conclude that nuclear power cannot meet energy needs; that it is excessively expensive; that it is not carbon neutral; that it creates additional environmental and security risks. Most importantly, new evidence indicates that environmentally safe and sustainable energy technologies can be developed to meet growing energy needs.

There is a growing conviction worldwide that nuclear power should be phased out and a serious commitment made to invest in renewable energy, energy efficiency and energy conservation.

Malaysia’s nuclear energy plans

Apparently, the Malaysian government is continuing its plans to build two 1,000 megawatt nuclear reactors, in spite of a 40 percent energy reserve.

In responding to the Fukushima nuclear crisis, the Energy, Green Technology and Water Minister covered his back politically when he said that the decision to build the reactors will only be made after his colleagues in cabinet have evaluated a paper to be submitted by the new Malaysian Nuclear Power Corporation, a creature of the Economic Transformation Programme.

Serious questions are in order:

  • Does the green minister believe that nuclear energy is green
  • Does the government realise that nuclear energy is dirty, dangerous and expensive?
  • What is the urgency in embarking on a nuclear energy project when Malaysia enjoys a 40 percent energy reserve and does not need to rush into nuclear power?
  • Has the government really considered the realities of nuclear power economics?
  • How much of taxpayers’ money will be required as subsidies to make nuclear power economically feasible?
  • Is it wise to invest billions in expensive nuclear energy when investments should be made in alternative renewable energy and energy efficient technologies?
  • Is it not time for the government to join with other governments in a holistic approach to climate change by implementing ecologically sustainable economic development?
  • Has the government considered the health, environmental and human security dangers of a reactor meltdown or a terrorist attack on nuclear facilities?
  • Will it be possible in the long term to prevent diversion of nuclear materials to nuclear weapons proliferation or to a terrorist group?
  • Where and how does the government plan to dispose of nuclear waste, that will remain radioactive for thousands of years, when the nuclear industry and advanced countries have not found a solution?
  • Does the government not think that such a crucial issue as nuclear energy deserves a national debate and a referendum?
  • Does the government really think that it can make a unilateral decision and then justify it by claiming that it has studied and accepted a report from the very company that will benefit from it?
  • Does the government realise that the billions of ringgit invested in nuclear energy will divert scarce resources away from the imperative of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies?
  • Is the government beginning to believe its own propaganda and misinformation about nuclear energy?

Public distrust

The nuclear industry has carried the stamp of secrecy like a birthmark. From its very beginning, the nuclear industry has had a long history of cover-ups and downright deception, with the occasional lapse into silence – the silence of guilt. Public trust in the promoters of nuclear power is almost non-existent.

In Britain, America, Germany, Russia, Japan and other countries, people have not been told the truth about the real economic cost of nuclear energy and the health and environmental consequences of nuclear mishaps and near-misses.

The stricken Japanese population is well aware of the culture of nuclear cover-ups. The Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) owns and operates the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant.

In 2002, Tepco’s chairman and senior executives had to resign when the Japanese government discovered that they had covered up the existence of structural damage to reactors. In 2006, Tepco admitted that it had been falsifying data about reactor coolant materials.

Part 2 will appear tomorrow

DR RONALD S McCOY is the founding president of Physicians for Peace and Social Responsibility and the co-president of International Physicians for the Preventive of Nuclear War.

…source
Nuclear lessons for Malaysia (Part 1)
Apr 19, 2011 – Malaysiakini

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