The true cost of nuclear energy

Pierpaolo Mittica
25 April 2006

The eruption of a single nuclear reactor at Chernobyl 20 years ago on 26 April, 1986, was enough to invest half the world with radioactive fall-out. Nevertheless the alchemic benefits of nuclear fission are relentlessly and pervasively championed – that it produces energy that is economical, clean and safe.

"The True Cost of Nuclear Energy" is taken from Chernobyl The Hidden Legacy by Pierpaolo Mittica, to be published by Trolley Books in spring 2006. Trolley is a leading independent publisher committed to issues germane to contemporary society in art, photography and reportage.

The cost of nuclear energy is promoted as being about 2 cents per KWh, while that produced by gas is 4 cents per KWh, and by oil, hydro-electric and wind power 7 cents per KWh. Thus expressed, nuclear energy appears to be considerably the least expensive. But that cost is based only on operating expenses and does not include the expenses of the construction of the nuclear power plant, its maintenance and management of radioactive waste, and finally the dismantling of the plant at the end of its productive cycle.

The construction cost of a medium-capacity nuclear power plant is about $1.5 billion. After 30 years the plant has exhausted its physiological cycle of production and must be dismantled. The demolition of a nuclear power plant costs at least as much as its construction. To give an example, the total cost of the closure of the Eccellente-Phenix reactor in France was estimated at $2.4 billion. The strictly economic arguments for nuclear power are thus critically flawed.

The storage issue

These flaws are as nothing compared to the problems of secure storage of nuclear waste, which remains dangerous for millennia. The US Department of Energy (DOE) has recently attempted a resolution of these problems in America. They have proposed a program that provides for the collection of the most dangerous radioactive material – with little reference to the less dangerous material – now dispersed in various sites and its transportation to a vast underground depository beneath Mount Yucca in Northern Nevada, 160 kilometres northwest of Las Vegas.

Every nuclear plant produces 10 metric tons of radioactive waste per year. Currently in the US there are 50,000 metric tons of radioactive fuel by now exhausted, 350 million litres of highly-active waste derived from the production of plutonium, scores of metric tons of plutonium, 500,000 metric tons of impoverished uranium, millions of cubic metres of contaminated utensils (fragments of metal, clothing, oils, solvents and other waste), and 25 million metric tons of waste from uranium grinding. Were that material to be loaded on a train its length would exceed the circumference of the equator.

The US proposition for the Mount Yucca depository was accepted in February 2002. The cost and the complexity of the operation are enormous. For the preliminary studies of the terrain and the project $7 billion have been spent; for the construction of the deposit at least $58 billion dollars is foreseen. It is then a matter of transferring the radioactive material, currently conserved in 131 deposits distributed in 39 states: for the transport 4,600 trains and trucks will be needed, escorted by the police and the military.

The intention is to isolate the waste for eternity. The US understands this to be several hundred thousand years, or as long as they can comprehend human life's existence, whichever is the shorter. Currently it is not possible to find materials that will assure leak-proof retention over even the US's understanding of radioactive life, or eternity. The nickel containers designed to store the radioactive waste (besides being very costly) will not last longer than 500 years.

Further, there is no scientific evidence that the geological strata can guarantee absolute stability of the containers. In fact, it is quite the reverse. The infinite and inexorable movement of the earth's crust is calculably liable to shift the nuclear waste, when it will disperse in aquifers or on the surface. The DOE has calculated that the US will spend more than 1,000 billion dollars over the next 70 to 100 years – music to the ears of the nuclear industry.

To date that industry has vigorously upheld the revealed costs of nuclear power as being clear evidence of its validity, and its profits. In fact the definable conclusion is that electrical energy produced by nuclear power plants costs up to ten times more than other forms of energy.

But these are facile representations of the costs, and the profits to be made from them, of nuclear power. In real terms the costs will be measured over the next millennium, 1,000 years, which we know to be the poisonous life of radioactivity. Radioactivity does and will cause cancers in children, and their children, and their children for generations to come, so that the lights will be on but the people will be ignorant of their good fortune. They will be blind, but the lights will be on.

Also on openDemocracy about the twentieth anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster:

Rob Edwards, "Nailed: the lie about Chernobyl's death toll"

(April 2006)

Environmental legacy

The environmental damage caused by nuclear power plants in 50 years of use is devastating. Radioactive waste, even now, is clandestinely sent to the developing world, where it is buried underground or thrown in the sea. If that's not possible it's stored in temporary surface deposits.

The US has ten principal areas of storage. Hanford, in Washington, has for decades dumped radioactive materials and has committed its population within at least 1450 square kilometres to the possibility of cancers.

In Europe the English nuclear reactors of Sellafield (Windscale), Winfrith and Dounreay have discharged millions of litres of radioactive waste in the Irish Sea since 1950. Today the Irish Sea is considered the most contaminated in the world. From 1950 to 1963 England dumped barrels of radioactive waste in the North Sea, and the French reactor of uranium reprocessing at La Hague discharges hundreds of litres of radioactive waste a year in the Channel.

Russia can claim the three most contaminated sites in the world (excluding Chernobyl): Seversk (Tomsk-7), Mayak (Chelyabinsk-40) and Zheleznogorsk (Krasnoyarsk-26). In these zones the liquid radioactive waste of medium and high levels was systematically discharged in enormous quantities in the local terrain and rivers. Thousands of square kilometres are highly contaminated.

Currently in the world there are around 438 nuclear reactors, of which 45, situated in the former Soviet republics, are technologically in the same state as Chernobyl (11 of the RBMK plants are time bombs waiting to explode). The total nuclear power contributed is 350 gigawatts, about 16% of the energy produced world-wide, a percentage that cannot justify the catastrophic environmental damage.

More Trolley Book features on openDemocracy:

Nina Berman, "Purple Hearts: Back from Iraq" (March 2005)

Philip Jones Griffiths, "'Viet Nam at Peace': the empire strikes back"
(April 2005)

Jan Banning, "Traces of war: Dutch and Indonesian survivors" (August 2005)

"Made in Italy": five young photographers document the state of modern Italian society (April 2006)

Health risks

Not included in these costs is the price that health services must pay every year to treat those who fall ill with tumours or other illnesses derived from radiation. It is a price beyond all others, practically immeasurable. Currently in the US more than two thousand cancer victims are suing the nuclear plant of Hanford. Since 1944 the plant has discharged into the atmosphere a million Curie of Iodine 131, which carried by the wind has contaminated around 120,000 square kilometres of land and more than 2 million people.

Various studies have demonstrated the increment of cancer in populations living near nuclear plants, as does the work of Dr. Jay Gould, director of the Radiation Public Health Project (RPHP). Analysing the data collected over 50 years in more than 3,000 American counties by the National Cancer Institute, Dr. Gould has demonstrated, for example, that women who live in nuclear zones are at greater risk of death by breast cancer, and that in men there is a considerable increase in cancer of the prostate and lung cancer. From analysis of these studies Dr. Gould has reasoned that in America alone there have been hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by the normal routine operations of nuclear plants.

Numerous European and Japanese studies have evidenced the increase of leukaemia by 34% and of malignant cancer from 22% to 53% in children that live near nuclear plants in Great Britain, France, Germany, Spain and Japan. In Russia, besides Chernobyl, in the zones of Seversk (Tomsk-7), Mayak (Chelyabinsk-40), and Zheleznogorsk (Krasnoyarsk-26) more than 3 million people have been exposed to high level radiation and tumours have increased by 900%.

In a village near Mayak, Tatarskaya Karabolka, 80% of the population is affected by cancer. It is impossible to estimate even approximately how many people have died in the world because of the radiation caused by the nuclear power plants and their waste, and of how many have yet to die in the future. If we tried to count them they would surely be tens of millions.

The myth of safety

The safety of nuclear power plants is a myth constructed by omissions of truth and the suppression of information. Chernobyl is only the tip of the iceberg. To date there have been thousands of verified serious incidents, while there have been unknowable instances of nuclear radiation subject to military secrecy.

In 1957 the reactor at Mayak in the former Soviet Union caused the contamination of 270,000 people and thousands of square kilometres of land. A fire in the reactor at Sellafield in Great Britain, where plutonium was produced for military purposes, the same year generated a radioactive cloud that passed over the breadth of Europe - 300 deaths were officially recognized and 518 square kilometres of land contaminated just in Great Britain.

In 1979 at Three Mile Island in the US the overheating of the reactor caused the partial fusion of the core, releasing radioactive gas equal to 500,000 Curie. More than 200,000 people were evacuated. In 1993 in Seversk (Tomsk-7) in Russia a tank exploded releasing uranium and plutonium, contaminating an area of over 100 square kilometres.

In 1992 in the nuclear complex near St. Petersburg a loss of pressure in the reactor caused the discharge of iodine 131 and inert gases into the atmosphere. In Japan in Tokaimura between 1995 and 1999 three accidents caused the immediate death of three people while more than 400 were exposed to high levels of radiation.

These are but a handful of examples that all too dramatically illustrate the inability to prevent nuclear accidents. When they do happen it's too late for everyone and for everything. Nuclear energy by fission is not as clean, safe, or economical as the powerful lobbies for it would have us believe.

The overwhelming reason that nations have adopted and sponsored nuclear energy as an energy resource is to be able to build and possess nuclear weapons. The US fear of the current Iranian nuclear programme is clear proof of that. The facts are that civil nuclear reactors use uranium as fuel. One of the by-products of uranium is plutonium, a radioactive element used to build atomic warheads. By means of civil reactors one can assure the availability of plutonium with which to construct nuclear weapons. Hence, as sure as night follows day, the exploitation of the civil use of nuclear power. And the economic and political interests involved will assuredly deny these truths.

The use of fission nuclear energy is an opportunity for and in the interest of a cabal that threatens everyone. But above all it is a crime against humanity.

* * *

Between 2002 and 2004 Pierpaolo Mittica visited Chernobyl-affected areas in Ukraine and Belarus three times, for a total of 45 days. The photographs in this slideshow are a selection from his book Chernobyl the hidden legacy, and are currently being featured at the Chernobyl National Museum. Please click the image below to launch the slideshow:

The True Cost of Nuclear Energy

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