|This article, written by Olli Tammilehto and translated by Timo Vuorio, has been published in Finnish as an abridged version in 9 daily newspapers in January 2002. You can republish it in English or in any other language but you should first inform the author.|
Nuclear Energy and Global Risks
The risks in different scenarios of future energy production and energy politics have to be estimated on the basis of the same criteria. If certain kinds of risks are taken into consideration when judging one source of energy, the same should go for other sources of energy, too. Everyone would agree that this requirement is natural and just. Unfortunately the official future energy scenarios and statements of Finland and many other countries do not comply with this requirement.
Risks differ qualitatively in many respects. One important dimension is the extensiveness of the area at risk. Many risks are local or regional in the first place the harmful ecological effects of the warming of a sea caused by a nuclear power plant (NPP) for instance. On the other hand, there are global risks that threaten the entire world like the depletion of the ozone layer, caused by freons and other gas releases.
Another important distinction between different kinds of risks is whether or not the source
of the risk
be traced to a particular power plant or other unit. A risk whose source can be traced is called
good example might be the explosion risk of an oil storage: even though this kind of explosion
happen around the world, it is always a particular storage that threatens a particular
Analogously risks whose origin cannot be traced to a certain unit are called indivisible.
city dweller who has got sick because of air pollution cannot trace down even in principle the
motorist who is guilty of his sickness. This even though vehicles with a combustion engine
caused it. Global risks are usually indivisible, too.
The modern environmental movement began to take shape in the early 1960́s. It was strongly tied to the worldwide anti-nuclear weapons movement. This is why it was interested in global risks, too, from the very beginning. Initially officials and corporations tried to disprove all the claims of environmental activists and critical researchers. Later on it began to be universally accepted that power plants and other projects have some "externalities". However, circles striving after economic "progress" at any cost still wanted to take into consideration only those risks that are local, divisible and relatively easy to measure. This narrow view made environmental effects to seem decisively less significant than what those researchers claimed who were close to the environmental movement.
An important change in this respect happened in the 1990́s, when governmental and industrial elites more and more began to accept one global and indivisible risk among the criteria for decisions on future energy policy: the disastrous climate change caused by the use of fossil fuels. And so many countries seriously consider restricting the use of coal even though multiplying coal power capacity by even say one hundred would not be enough to cause the climate change alone, and the share of a small country in greenhouse releases is not discernable on global scale. It is not that the Kyoto protocol obliges a country to limit the release of greenhouse gases, but that the country has joined the protocol because it considers the prevention of climate change essential. This in spite of the fact that the United States, whose greenhouse releases are biggest, has not joined the protocol.
This change in the attitudes to environmental risks is in itself positive and promising, but its halfheartedness diminishes it considerably. Even though the global and indivisible risks of coal power are generally taken into account, at least to a certain degree, most decline to do the same with nuclear power. And thus many people rank nuclear power among renewable energy sources and the conservation of energy even though nuclear power with its global risks rather belongs to the same category as fossil fuels.
Nuclear power industry is international business, and this is enough to make the risks of any individual NPP global. The industry is currently going downhill and most European and North-American companies have given up constructing NPPs. An order for a new plant in any country would be a significant boost for the remaining companies. This would improve their possibilities to sell NPPs to countries where technological knowhow and safety culture are at a level far worse than in the country in question. This means that any new NPP would increase the probability of a major nuclear accident in many countries.
Usually in nuclear power discussion only NPPs are considered. This is no more reasonable than to think of a wall socket as a primary source of electricity. In addition to the NPP at least uranium mines, uranium mills, conversion plants, enrichment plants, fuel factories and various nuclear waste storages are needed. With the exception of some nuclear waste storages these are usually located around the world, outside the country where the NPP is located. All these cause local and divisible risks that threaten, for instance, indigenous peoples, who have lived near the site for ages. They cause global and indivisible risks, too. One of these is the radon gas released from the piles of "tailings" in the vicinity of mines and mills. These releases cause thousands of extra cancers around the world. Another global and indivisible risk is that these plants are typically run with fossil fuels that cause climate change.
Anyway the most important global and indivisible risk is the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the increase of the chance of a nuclear war caused by the nuclear energy production of any country.
The peaceful and military use of nuclear power are indistinguishable simply because they are based on the same technology. Uranium mines and mills, conversion and enrichment plants serve both the production of nuclear weapons and nuclear electricity. Weapons grade uranium can be produced simply by continuing the concentration process of uranium further than normally, to a level where the U-235 content is somewhat higher. NPPs produce the other raw material of nuclear bombs: plutonium. When the fuel rods are taken out from the reactor earlier than normally, they contain weapons grade plutonium. On the other hand, nuclear weapons can be made from the reactor grade plutonium, too. United States exploded this kind of atom bomb in Nevada in 1977.
The more nuclear power is being used around the world, the easier it is for any terrorist group to acquire nuclear weapons and the easier any state can disguise its nuclear weapons program with peaceful nuclear activities. India produced the plutonium for its first A-bombs in "peaceful" experimental reactors supplied by Canada.
The connection between nuclear power in a peaceful country and nuclear weapons is usually denied on the grounds that nobody would imagine of the country trying to achieve an A-bomb. This denial is based on the common conception in the upper echelons of society that global and indivisible risks need not to be considered. Now that the global and indivisible risk of climate change is being taken seriously with fossil fuels, the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation has to be taken equally seriously if we want to consider different sources of energy impartially. The influence of the civil nuclear program of a country on the chances of nuclear war may be impossible to determine, as impossible as the influence an individual coal power plant on climate change. However, as a country can contribute to the prevention climate change by joining the Kyoto protocol, it can contribute to the prevention of a nuclear war by refraining from nuclear power like the majority of all countries have done.
You can send comments on this article to