The Italian government has announced that it intends to resume the development of new nuclear power plants within five years. This comes two decades after a referendum comprehensively opposed nuclear power and forced the deactivation of all reactors in the country. The minister for economic development, Mr. Scajola, is reported as saying, “Only nuclear plants safely produce energy on a vast scale with competitive costs, respecting the environment.” Almost as a footnote it is pointed out that dealing with waste remains something of an issue: 235 tons of nuclear fuels are still being stored in the old plants.
Mr Scajola’s statement is difficult to justify, by any measure. To speak of nuclear plants as a “safe” option is hyperbole, by any standards, even taking into account advances in safety over the past decade. To speak of it as “respecting the environment” is breathtaking sophistry.
Chernobyl was after all only 22 years ago, and its effects are still being felt by the large European populations affected. But it is a mistake to think that nuclear accidents have not occurred since then. In March 1992, loss of pressure in a reactor channel released radioactive iodine and inert gases into the atmosphere near St. Petersburg, Russia. In November 1995 an accident leaked two to three tons of radioactive sodium from a reactor cooling system in Japan. In March 1997 a fire and explosion at a state run corporation reprocessing plant at Tokaimura, Japan, exposed 35 workers to radiation. At the same plant in September 1999 a nuclear reaction was triggered by mixing too much uranium into a storage tank, exposing 55 workers to radiation. There is a quantifiable risk of regular accidents at nuclear plants through human error, and the record supports that conclusion. The reality is likely to be worse, as it’s highly unlikely that all incidents are reported. To conclude otherwise is simply untenable.
The Italian problem of nuclear waste–unsolved, on a large scale–is found everywhere nuclear energy is being generated. In the UK, for example, there are currently more than 80,000 cubic metres of high level waste, and much more intermediate level waste, stored and awaiting a decision on final treatment and storage. Vitrification and storage in stainless steel containers is being trialled as an intermediate step with some wastes. The evidence clearly indicates that no proven or accepted technology has been developed anywhere to deal safely with nuclear wastes. It’s difficult even to define of what those standards of safety would consist.
As with similar decisions elsewhere in Europe and increasingly in developing countries, the extraordinary level of sophistry exhibited in justifying nuclear power masks a refusal to face the realities of transition to a low carbon economy. It is transparently driven by short-term political and commercial fears. The potential costs these countries, not only in the direct effects on health and environment of these dangerous technologies, but the opportunity costs of not beginning the research and development into renewable technologies and the trajectories of transition to low carbon economy will mount exponentially. Future generations will bear the cost of this dangerous and unethical decision.