Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Thursday, March 24, 2005
An international conference on nuclear power ended in Paris this week with a statement saying the "vast majority" of the more than 70 nations participating "affirmed that nuclear power can make a major contribution to meeting energy needs and sustaining the world's development in the 21st century."
The statement said nuclear energy was proven technology, and one that did not contribute to air pollution or generate "greenhouse gases" -- pollutants many scientists say are affecting the world's climate.
Participants in the conference, which was hosted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), stressed the importance of security at nuclear facilities, and the need for countries to commit themselves to preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Some 30 countries have civilian nuclear programs, but there are concerns that some, notably Iran, may use the facilities and know-how to secretly develop nuclear weapons.
Although most operating nuclear plants are in Europe and North America, with 104 in the U.S. alone, anti-nuclear sentiment has grown in the West in recent decades. Four countries in Western Europe -- Germany, Sweden, Belgium and the Netherlands -- are phasing out nuclear power.
At the same time, interest has soared in Asia, according to the U.N. nuclear watchdog.
The IAEA says 22 of the last 31 new nuclear power plants started up in Asia, and 18 of 27 nuclear power plants now under construction around the world also are in Asia.
The most significant expansion programs are in China and India, the world's two most populous countries. Japan and South Korea are also big consumers of nuclear energy, and Indonesia announced this week that it plans to build two nuclear plants over the next decade.
In the West, too, there is growing recognition that nuclear energy may provide the solution to future needs. Countries including the United States, France and Finland are pursuing new programs.
In his State of the Union speech earlier this year, President Bush called on Congress to enact legislation to support an energy program that included "safe, clean nuclear power."
Last January, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi surprised many in his country when he indicated that Italy would once again consider nuclear energy after almost two decades of shunning it.
And in Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair has come under increasing pressure - from one of Britain's most prestigious scientists, Royal Society president Lord May, among others - to give nuclear energy serious consideration.
Risking the anger of what critics have called the Labor Party's "sandal-wearing left wing," Blair told lawmakers last summer that he had "fought long and hard, both within my party and outside, to make sure that the nuclear option is not closed off."
"You cannot remove it from the agenda if you are serious about the issue of climate change," he said.
'Combating climate change'
Concerns about climate change led to the Kyoto Protocol, a global treaty that requires industrialized countries to reduce by specified amounts the volume of carbon dioxide and other pollutants produced by facilities like coal-fired power stations.
The production of electricity is blamed for a full one-third of these pollutants.
The IAEA argues that if all of the 442 nuclear plants operating around the globe were shut down and replaced with non-nuclear alternatives, 600 million tons of additional carbon would be released into the atmosphere each year.
That figure is twice the total amount of carbon that the Kyoto Protocol aims to reduce through emission cuts by developed nations by 2010.
For proponents of the theory that human activity is causing "global warming," nuclear power should provide a "clean" alternative to fossil fuel-burning energy sources.
According to the London-based World Nuclear Association, which lobbies for nuclear power, population growth over the next 50 years will see the world consume more energy than the combined total used in all of previous history.
Although "renewable" power sources like solar and wind can help, it says, "only nuclear power offers clean, environmentally friendly energy on a massive scale."
But many campaign groups worried about climate change are also concerned about nuclear energy, which they argue is "not the answer."
Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Britain's Green Alliance, the World Wildlife Fund and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) in the U.S. all oppose reliance on nuclear energy as a way to combat climate change.
Last month, NIRS responded to Bush's reference to "safe, clean nuclear power" in his State of the Union address by saying the American people and lawmakers should reject the administration's energy policy.
"Where Bush sees 'safe, clean nuclear power,' we see an industry that spews radiation into the air and water on a daily basis from all of its reactors, mines, processing plants, and other facilities, and poses the constant threat of atomic meltdown," said the group's executive director Michael Mariotte.
"There is nothing 'safe' or 'clean' about nuclear power."
During this week's Paris conference, Greenpeace campaigners blocked the entrance to the government complex hosting the gathering, displaying a banner reading "Nuclear-free future."
"Wasting money on expensive, inefficient and dangerous nuclear power is counter-productive to combat climate change and should be rejected by anyone genuinely concerned about the environment," Greenpeace France representative Helen Gassin said in a statement.
The campaign group based its argument on the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation.
"Those promoting the benefits of nuclear power for the new century are in the same dangerous mindset that created the nuclear nightmare of the last one," Greenpeace said in a statement.
"We cannot allow them to make same mistakes all over again, its time to move on to real energy security through renewables and massive efficiency."
Safety, disposal fears
Anti-nuclear groups and many others are concerned about safety issues, including radiation leaks and terrorism.
At the Paris meeting, IAEA director-general Mohamed ElBaradei said security was a prime concern, both with relation to proliferation and to terrorists using stolen material to build "dirty bombs."
"Our aim should be to protect nuclear materials the way we protect gold in Fort Knox," he said.
Another key point made by anti-nuclear campaigners relates to nuclear waste disposal - what to do with radioactive waste generated in reactors.
Putting the problem into perspective, Roy Hemmingway, an American who heads a government electricity commission in New Zealand, told a forum last year: "You can take 30 years of waste from a nuclear power plant and keep it safely in a space smaller than the average house, whereas the waste from a coal- or gas-fired plant goes into the atmosphere and can't be recaptured."
The IAEA says the volume of waste is relatively small -- "all the spent fuel produced annually by the world's 442 nuclear power plants would cover a space the size of a soccer field to a depth of 1.5 meters."
Nonetheless the material is highly-radioactive, and needs to be stored safely for thousands of years.
Although spent fuel is today mainly stored at the power plant where it was produced, the agency says that in the long term, scientists agree it can be safely disposed "by deep geological burial in suitable hard rock, salt or clay formations, using both natural and engineered barriers to isolate the waste."
Finland's nuclear waste management firm, Posiva, has won praise for its proposals for dealing with spent fuel in a country regarded as "green-friendly."
The waste will be set in cast iron canisters, encased in a two inch-thick copper shell and dropped down a borehole drilled in bedrock hundreds of meters from the surface. The holes are then filled with bentonite clay, which expands as it absorbs water, protecting the canisters from any bedrock movement.
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