Political fallout is in our hands

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by Hazel Lewry

The campaign is now in full swing for all the parties, and the most interesting points for me so far have been focussed in two areas.

The London parties generally refuse to adopt the SNP position and rule out nuclear power.  The Lib-Dems are a bit wobbly over the issue (will the head office allow a non-nuclear stance?), the Labour party are full of doublespeak as usual, being caught between London’s dictates and voter opinion, stating simply “it can’t be ruled out”, ditto Bella’s Tories.  The other common ground for the parties of the Rose has been the tacit acknowledgement that the Union is a “busted flush” without Scotland’s resources.

Focussing just on the nuclear issue, with a new Scotsman poll indicating the Scots are not against nuclear, some investigation appears appropriate.  It began with the most unscientific of straw polls showing that while those who are not against nuclear have a “whatever” attitude to it, and it’s unlikely to influence their vote, those against appear adamant and generally would not vote for any pro-nuclear party if given a choice.  By dead reckoning that’s better than 20% of the electorate who will either not vote or go with the SNP on this issue alone, with as much again having a ‘soft’ anti-nuclear stance.

So when will the political fallout arrive?  Let’s hope it’s on or before May 5th, as even casual investigation reveals nuclear power is the potential “disaster in waiting” for Scotland.  This by extension applies as strongly to the Scotland Bill, one of whose major raisons d’être is to return planning permission to London.  This return of powers is ostensibly so that Westminster can ensure an ongoing nuclear programme in Scotland.  There is no other overt or apparent validity to this power grab against the general will of the Scots population.  Many things in the Scotland Bill may be smoke and mirrors, but not this one.

Then there is the problem of cost, with the UK government saying that should be around £2.6 billion, and EON’s Wolf Bernotat telling the UK government to estimate closer to £4.8 billion (before any cost overruns).  That figure was just to build, not operate, dispose of waste, or decommission the plants.  That’s a fair bit of a difference.  Energy generation costs are high, estimated at 6p/kwh as compared to 2p for hydro, of which Scotland still retains massive untapped potential. After Fukushima new design considerations may well make the above numbers look insanely optimistic.

The only generation three nuclear facility in Europe as of 2009 was in Finland, and that had no glimmer of producing power although being years behind schedule, plus it was tied up in a legal battle over cost overruns.  A second unit was started in France in 2007 at Flammenville, already cost overruns are better than 50% and the project is at least two years behind schedule.

Private industry is also telling governments that they can’t afford to build and run nuclear power plants.

So why the fuss and furore over nuclear power?  We’re assured its safe, economical and reliable.  Ignore Fukushima and Chernobyl the (largely Unionist) experts and politicians tell us – it just shows we really need new plants.

Especially now we’re all being told about the “new safe systems” ready to come online, a decades’ old story that’s apparently worth recycling and reselling to a public with a notoriously short term memory.  One needs only look at the data.  Between 1952 to 1982 there were 12 noted major incidents I quickly uncovered, and in 1982 to 2011 (a slightly shorter timeframe) there were 14.  That doesn’t say increased safety, but I acknowledge I didn’t do an incidents/kwh generated comparison – once there’s a disaster that’s a bit irrelevant.

We’re also told to look at how many deaths there are in similar industries like mining, and compare that with nuclear.  While any untimely death is a disaster, mining largely limits its casualties to those directly involved and does not indiscriminately spread its devastation, impacts and deprivations across nations and continents as happened after Chernobyl and is again apparent in Japan.  We should check on the Fukushima “fighting 50” in a decade.

Propaganda of perhaps the vilest type is often created by an industry continually striving to overcome a negative public image, especially in the wake of incidents over the years.  Yet around one third of the world’s nuclear plants have been quietly built in regions prone to earthquakes.  Where safer?

The nuclear lobby and their supporters will sometimes go so far as to inform us no one has actually been killed (excluding perhaps Chernobyl) in a peacetime power accident, and even there the damage was “limited”.  They’ll inform us that many of the “few cancers” resulting from it were entirely curable.  Let’s just say that a great deal of the data doesn’t agree with the nuclear industry’s stance. Some independent reports have the final casualty figures in the hundreds of thousands to the millions, with Greenpeace Ukraine having estimated a total of 32,000 direct deaths so far and 2 million plus severely affected – it’s all about how you want to use the statistics.

So where’s the truth?  Perhaps the best way to start it is to clarify what happens when we get exposed to hard radiation.  In lay terms I’m informed the electrons surrounding the atoms that make up our bodies get “knocked off” the nucleus.  This means that particular part of our structure isn’t what it was any longer.  Often it can get converted to water, hence the oozing boils, sometimes heat is generated at a molecular level causing “burns” – like getting cooked alive in a microwave.  DNA is disrupted.  All this can be done by radioactive particles as they arrow straight through us.

Our bodies can repair most minor and some major damage, but Mother Nature never prepared them for this.  We have absolutely no idea of the long term impacts on human DNA from hard core radiation, except that much, if not most of what happens isn’t reversible.  It may even have consequences for future generations, as research is showing DNA damage can be hereditary.

So now we know what we’re dealing with.  The nuclear industry tells us it’s worth the risk, it’s safe, and a major incident will never happen.  What’s the truth in the industry’s little over half century of existence?  Two accidents?  Three?  Many of us who are old enough remember Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, but just how many serious accidents have there been?  I’ve put a table at the end of the article to indicate how “safe” this industry really is.  I’ve mainly limited the table to incidents ranked 3 and higher by the IAEA (that’s where the Japanese authorities initially placed their current problems, a level 3 incident).

I’ve put the table there for another reason.  Scan it to 1998 and there’s no notice of any incident in the UK, particularly Scotland, for that year.  That’s because if nothing is actually released and no immediate injuries or exposures are reported it can be very difficult to obtain data from this secretive industry.  Underwear changes by engineers, technicians and support crews aren’t trumpeted from the rooftops as long as the ultimate disaster is averted.  That 12 hour clock can tick down to 1 second, but as long as the right wire is cut with 1 second still on the clock, little to no publicity!

One of the reported incidents at Hunterston, basically the same reactor type as Chernobyl, came close to spoiling Christmas holidays that year.  On Dec 27th 1998 a windstorm knocked out the cooling circuits.  The back-ups apparently failed.  Disaster was averted in the nick of time, as much through blind good fortune as anything.  Let’s not forget another Hunterston incident when our children’s soft drinks were contaminated – that didn’t make the IAEA list either.  As one Hunterston worker said of the 1998 cooling shutdown: “It is the most serious incident I have ever seen.  They had to take an emergency roll call of all staff using clipboards and bits of paper because even the computer swipe card system had failed.”  The original Scottish Environment Protection Agency report, which was filed here, is no longer available.  One can only wonder why, as no forwarding, re-direction or explanation is enabled and a search of the SEPA site fails to find it.

What would have happened had the failed back up circuits not been activated just in time that day.  Look at Japan today, or Chernobyl.  Japan now has about a 150 mile “safety zone” around their failing plants.

Apply that zone from Hunterston to Scotland instead of Japan and realise what we’re betting our health and our homes on.  Torness mostly overlaps.  The effects of the Japanese 30 km radius evacuation zone around Hunterston would see Ayr and all the towns along the Clyde coast as far as Greenock being evacuated, the area inland would stretch as far as the outskirts of Glasgow. Around Torness we would see the evacuation of all of East Lothian, right up to the eastern suburbs of Edinburgh.  However the US government recommends an 80 km evacuation zone, the effects of this around Hunterston would see the forced evacuation of about half the Scottish population, including Glasgow, Stirling, and Ayr.  Around Torness it would require the evacuation of Edinburgh, Dundee, and almost all of Fife.

It only takes one accident and we in Scotland have demonstrably come close to being there more than once.  The risks, they tell us, may not be high, but the effects on Scotland would be devastating.  And all this for energy we don’t require ourselves.

There really is a reason these nuclear powerhouses aren’t in London and Londoners are building new coal fired plants in the South East of England, not nuclear.  Where they do put nuclear south of the border?  Prevailing winds are intended to keep any plumes away from population centres.  The surprise so far is that no anti-nuclear party has made a significant vote grab by leafleting this and its Scotland Bill ties.

It’s our vote on May 5th, and as the shaded area shows, it’s likely to affect our homes and our future, too.  Nuclear or not, it’s in our hands.

Nuclear Power Station Accidents and Incidents (International Atomic Energy Association Data)

Year Incident INES Level
Country IAEA Description
2011 Fukushima 5 Japan Reactor shutdown after the 2011 Sendai earthquake and tsunami; failure of emergency cooling caused an explosion
2011 Onagawa Japan Reactor shutdown after the 2011 Sendai earthquake and tsunami caused a fire.
2006 Fleurus 4 Belgium Severe health effects for a worker at a commercial irradiation facility as a result of high does of radiation.
2006 Erwin USA 35 litres of a highly enriched uranium solution leaked during transfer.
2005 Sellafield 3 UK Realease of large quantity of radioactive material, contained within the installation.
2003 Paks 3 Hungary Partially spent fuel rods undergoing cleaning in tank of heavy water ruptured and spilled fuel.
1999 Tokaimura 4 Japan Fatal overexposures of workers following a criticality event at a nuclear facility.
1999 Yanangio 3 Peru Inicident with radiography source resulting in severe radiation burns.
1999 Ikitelli 3 Turkey Loss of a highly radioactive Co-60 source.
1993 Tomsk 4 Russia Pressure build up led to an explosive mechanical failure.
1989 Vandellos 3 Spain Near accident caused by fire resulting in loss of safety systems at the nuclear power plant.
1987 Griefswald Germany Excessive heating which damaged 10 fuel rods.
1986 Chernobyl 7 Ukraine (USSR) Widespread health and environmental effects.  External release of a significant fraction of reactor core inventory.
1986 Hamm Üntrop Germany Spherical fuel pebble became lodged in the pipe used to deliver fuel elements to the reactor.
1980 St. Laurent des Eaux 4 France Melting of one channel of fuel in the reactor with no release outside the site.
1979 Three Mile Island 5 USA Severe damage to the reactor core.
1977 Jaslovksé Bohunice 4 Czechoslovakia Damaged fuel integrity, extensive corrosion damage of fuel cladding and release of radioactivity.
1969 Lucens Switzerland Total loss of coolant led to a power excursion and explosion of experimental reactor
1967 Chapelcross UK Graphite debris partially blocked a fuel channel causing a fuel element to melt and catch fire.
1964 Charleston USA Error by a worker at a United Nuclear Corporation fuel facility led to an accidental criticality.
1959 Santa Susana Field Lab. USA Partial core meltdown.
1958 Chalk River Canada Due to inadequate cooling a damaged uranium fuel rod caught fire and was torn in two
1958  Vinca Yugoslavia During a subcritical counting experiment a power build-up went undetected – six scientists received high doses.
1957 Kishtym 6 Russia (USSR) Significant release of radioactive material to the environment from explosion of a high activity waste tank.
1957 Windscale Pile 5 UK Release of radioactive material to the environment following a fire in a reactor core.
1952 Chalk River 5 Canada A reactor shut-off rod failure, combined with several operator errors, led to a major power excursion of more than double the reactor’s rating