Gwynne Dyer: Shutting down nuclear power stations is madness

After the loss of 10 million American lives in the Three-Mile Island calamity in 1979, the death of two billion in the Chernobyl holocaust in 1986, and now the abandonment of all of northern Japan following the death of millions in last year’s Fukushima nuclear catastrophe, it is hardly surprising that the world’s biggest users of nuclear power are shutting their plants down.

Oh, wait a minute...This just in! Nobody died in the Three-Mile Island calamity, 28 plant workers were killed and 15 other people subsequently died of thyroid cancer in the Chernobyl holocaust, and nobody died in the Fukushima catastrophe. In fact, northern Japan has not been evacuated after all. But never mind all that. They really are shutting their nuclear plants down.

They have already shut them down in Japan. All of the country’s 50 nuclear reactors were closed for safety checks after the tsunami damaged the Fukushima plant, and only two have reopened so far. The government, which was previously planning to increase nuclear’s share of the national energy mix to half by 2030, has now promised to close every nuclear power plant in Japan permanently by 2040.

In a policy document released last September, the Japanese government declared that “one of the pillars of the new strategy is to achieve a society that does not depend on nuclear energy as soon as possible.” In the short run, Japan is making up for the lost nuclear energy by running tens of thousands of diesel generators flat out, and oil and gas imports have doubled. In the long run, they’ll probably just burn more coal.

The new Japanese plan says that the country will replace the missing nuclear energy with an eightfold increase in renewable energy (wind, solar, et cetera), and “the development of sustainable ways to use fossil fuels.” But going from four percent to 30 percent renewables in the energy mix will take decades, and nobody has yet found an economically sustainable way to sequester the greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels.

The truth is that as the Arctic sea ice melts and grain harvests are devastated by heat waves and drought, the world’s third-largest user of nuclear energy has decided to go back to emitting lots and lots of carbon dioxide.

In Germany, where the Greens have been campaigning against nuclear power for decades, Chancellor Angela Merkel has done a U-turn and promised to close all the country’s nuclear reactors by 2022. She also promised to replace them with renewable power sources, of course, but the reality there will also be that the country burns more fossil fuels. Belgium is also shutting down its nuclear plants, and Italy has abandoned its plans to build some.

Even France, which has taken 80 percent of its power from nuclear power plants for decades without the slightest problem, is joining the panic. President Francois Hollande’s new government has promised to lower the country’s dependence on nuclear energy to 50 percent of the national energy mix. But you can see why he and his colleagues had to do it. After all, nuclear energy is a kind of witchcraft, and the public is frightened.

The tireless campaign against nuclear energy that the Greens have waged for decades is finally achieving its goal, at least in the developed countries. Their behaviour cannot be logically reconciled with their concern for the environment, given that abandoning nuclear will lead to a big rise in fossil fuel use, but they have never managed to make a clear distinction between the nuclear weapons they feared and the peaceful use of nuclear power.

The Greens prattle about replacing nuclear power with renewables, which might come to pass in some distant future. But the brutal truth for now is that closing down the nuclear plants will lead to a sharp rise in greenhouse gas emissions, in precisely the period when the race to cut emissions and avoid a rise in average global temperature of more than two degrees C will be won or lost.

Fortunately, their superstitious fears are largely absent in more sophisticated parts of the world. Only four new nuclear reactors are under construction in the European Union, and only one in the United States, but there are 61 being built elsewhere. Over two-thirds of them are being built in the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China), where economies are growing fast and governments are increasingly concerned about both pollution and climate change.

But it’s not enough to outweigh the closure of so many nuclear plants in the developed world, at least in the short run. India may be aiming at getting 50 percent of its energy from nuclear power by 2050, for example, but the fact is that only 3.7 percent of its electricity is nuclear right now. So the price of nuclear fuel has collapsed in the last four years, and uranium mine openings and expansions have been cancelled.

More people die from coal pollution each day than have been killed by 50 years of nuclear power operations—and that’s just from lung disease. If you include future deaths from global warming due to burning fossil fuels, closing down nuclear power stations is sheer madness. Welcome to the Middle Ages.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Comments (46) Add New Comment
ACMESalesRep
"More people die from coal pollution each day than have been killed by 50 years of nuclear power operations—and that’s just from lung disease."

Furthermore, coal plants release more radioactivity to the atmosphere due to the presence of naturally occurring uranium and such in the fuel. Nuclear power plants have to adhere to strict standards for the release of activity. Fossil-fuel plants don't. That's a dirty little secret the anti-nuclear lobby doesn't like to mention.
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Mark Fornataro
A report from this link:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=xkXt93-Qghw
-states in part " according to a recent study from Fukushima Medical University 36% of the children in the area have overgrown thyroid glands leaving them prone to cancer"...
And Dr Helen Caldicott (now on a speaking tour of Japan on the dangers of nuclear energy) states that the book Carbon-Free and Nuclear Free offers "a proposal to save the planet without the cancerous,radioactive, proliferation-prone side effects of nuclear power." Unlike Gwynne Dyer, Caldicott has specialized in learning about the effects of nuclear power for at least the last 3 decades and does not have such a rose-tinted-glasses view of the subject. The final death count from Chernobyl may be close to a million: " the New York Academy of Sciences in their Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences... presents an analysis of scientific literature and concludes that medical records between 1986, the year of the accident, and 2004 reflect 985,000 premature deaths as a result of the radioactivity released" from:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chernobyl_disaster
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Lee venables
you have some valid points but you would be wise to do some research beyond what nuclear lobbiests spoon feed you and you might have a balanced article.
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Big Blue Marble
If nuclear is so great use private enterprise to bankroll the entire investment from start to finish. Oh wait, that's impossible even after more than 50 years of development because nuclear power is not economic in any way, shape or form and no private investors will touch it without public investment guarantees.

This is before we even talk about what to do with the highly radioactive waste that will remain a hazard to all life on earth for thousands and thousands of years into the future. What right do we living today to burden future generations with our mess so that we can have the convenience of running our dish washers, microwave ovens, and big screen TV's and otherwise taking electricity for granted and wasting electricity in any number of ways.

We can produce electricity a whole lot faster using renewable forms of electricity than we can building new nuclear plants which can take 10 to 20 years to get on-line and nuclear is not - as the industry likes us to believe - a green technology. It takes a lot of fossil fuel to find, mine, process and manufacture and transport finished nuclear fuel rods; that has to be factored into the equation of how green nuclear power is.
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SPY vs SPY
Thanks for this article.

There is an enormous amount of Bullshit Eco - Logic out there that everyone seems to afraid to confront.

I read an article in the Globe and Mail 20 years ago that said, if every refrigerator in Ontario was immediately replaced with the most modern and efficient one that was available at that time, Ontario could have closed down One Nuclear Reactor.

It is time for a National Strategy and Evaluation of how energy is used by Canadians in every aspect of our lives. It has been speculated that Canada could reduce energy use by 30 - 50% if we were really determined.
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GregG
Neither nuclear power nor coal are any kind of solution; long term we won't be relying on either. At least with coal plants you can close the doors and walk away. The mess from aging reactors as they fall apart will accelerate; they're getting exponentially more expensive to decommission at the same time that our economies are getting exponentially poorer.

We're either going to find a real solution to the planet's problems, or we're not, and splitting the difference between coal & nuclear won't make the difference -- so let's stop dragging the nuclear stench with us into the future.
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John Tucker
Thyroid abnormalities are COMMON in coastal Japan. Even the doctor that made the study stated it was "unclear whether this represents an abnormally high percentage"
Indeed higher percentages of abnormality are found elsewhere in coastal Japan:

High thyroid volume in children with excess dietary iodine intakes ( http://www.ajcn.org/content/81/4/840.full ).

Caldicott is not taken seriously in medical/scientific circles.
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S. hodges
This information extracted from Dr. Caldicott!s site: In addition the article highlights the issue of the enormous release of chlorofluorocarbons annually produced by the enrichment of uranium:

According to the United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC), which runs the only U.S.-owned uranium enrichment facility in Paducah, Kentucky, the enrichment cycle releases 300,000 pounds, or 150 tons, of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) into the atmosphere yearly.

The radiative properties of CFCs make them a dangerous global warming agent — 1,500 times more potent than carbon dioxide, according to EPA figures. Ozone-depleting CFCs have been banned in the U.S. except in the processing of uranium ore. Source: http://www.nuclearfreeplanet.org/categories/environment.html. Also nuclear reactors have had to be shut down due to hotter summers and fears of boiling the river water.
Nuclear Accidents never end. Dyer,s article leaves most important information out.
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Anuj
Such a mypopic view of a serious issue....Next time research well about the actual casualaity numbers at Chernobly (and not those parroted by WHO/IAEA) and the exclusion zone which still remains out of bounds after decades. Apart from the human losses and mutations and suffering, the whole environment is contaminated for centuries. I must say this article is in very poor taste....
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Dave Shelton
I see that Germany has now crossed the 25% threshold - 25% of its power comes from renewables now. Japan I think will take the same path. The decisions here are simple risk/reward. The USA (for instance) has the benefit of a few years of some cheapish electricity from some very cool (nuclear) technology, versus the risk of losing the whole country if Indian Point does a Fukushima and NY is rendered uninhabitable

The GE mark 1 boiling water reactor, of which there are still a number cooking away in the States - if the GE Mk1 loses power, it blows up. Simple. That's why they have so many backup power sources, like on site diesel generators. This is fine as long as you have power to pump the diesel fuel to power the backup generators, or to power the pumps for the trucks to deliver more fuel. The reactor can be shut down and not be delivering power and it still needs months of cooling to prevent a meltdown. So, if there is a long and widespread power failure the US has an existential problem.

Each GE MK1 is a potential planet poisoner. At Fukushima, If the wind had been blowing to the South and carried the hot particles and smoke over Tokyo - well, that would have been it for Japan.
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Louise Burckhardt
10 million lives lost as a result of Three Mile Island???????
Where??????
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petlab
Dear Mr Dyer,
I refer you to your first paragraph. It is only a matter of luck that those consequences aren't real. There but by the grace of God as they say. The China syndrome was so close in Japan that we should all be eternally grateful that we didn't actually manage to allow that to happen. And by the way it is still waiting to happen, like a ticking time bomb, if there's something that causes another loss of water in the cooling pools where the spent rods are stored. Something like another earthquake.
The legacy of waste that all the money and resources of the world community still doesn't have a plan to properly deal with it. Is perfect evidence on how much you're wrong.
Find another job or retire and spare us this trash. You've betrayed yourself by writing this condescending crap.
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Ed Carl
Petlab,

The fuel rods in the cooling pools do not have enough heat generation to melt, let alone vaporize and caused your anti-nuclear wet dream catastrophe. A China syndrome did not occur in Chernobyl where they did not restore any sort of cooling for a week as the core melted. The core has simply hardened inside the building. A China syndrome is a joke, if you honestly think a core could melt to China, you have bigger problems.

Do you realize that the nuclear industry pays for long term waste storage, its built into the price of electricity. Yucca Mountain was declared to be perfectly fine by all of the people working on it. Obama's administration shut it down for political reasons, not scientific ones. Besides, eventually we will deploy generation IV plants that will be able to harness the remaining >90% of the recoverable energy left in the spent fuel.


The rest of the anti-nuclear fear mongering comments here are astounding. I have seen Helen Caldicott's name mentioned here a couple times as a reference. This woman is a joke in scientific circles. Her claims are ridiculous and most of the time flat out lies.

Anuj, people are moving back into the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Since Chernobyl the area has turned into a sort of nature preserve without humans around. Species that were on the brink of extinction have flourished in that area. And then some people never left the exclusion zone and have not turned into mutant slugs, they seem to be more healthy than the people who left their homes.
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Mitchell Maricque
Unfortunately, the creed of the nuclear power fascist dictates that human beings are indestructible when exposed to radiation from a destroyed nuclear power plant.
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petr aardvark
One of our family friends in Czechoslovakia who worked in agriculture at the time of the Chernobyl incident, went around with a geiger counter in the countryside and it was off the scale - they had to keep quiet about it - but he said - the cattle are grazing on this land and the milk is still being collected. He died in 1988 from leukemia. Though I agree that the nuclear power option is one of the solutions and still safer than coal power plants are very expensive. Looking back at the nuclear industry in Ontario in the 1970's despite all the talk about the industry most of the time the plants were not running.

I do think there are still other alternatives, which Dyer himself suggested a few articles ago like using solar etc. to convert air to gasoline for instance. Or recently NPR had a science broadcast which stated that windpower alone could meet 50% of the worlds energy needs (2030 allowing for growth) - by building 4 million turbines on land & sea. Which may sound like a lot but consider how many cars and other vehicles are built each year. Most of the materials are steel and concrete and for the rare-earth materials Neodymium are still in plentiful supply. Combine this with solar and geothermal, and hydro for the other half.

Regarding geothermal as well, MIT did a study and concluded that pretty much anywhere in the continental US if you drill 5km or better 10km (which is done regularly by the oil industry) and frack it, drill a second hole pump in water and you have very hot steam to run turbines. And also much cheaper than nuclear.
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dx
Eliminating Nuclear power generation is only fixing one problem, future environmental prosperity means fixing another main problem as well. Burning oil.
Reducing consumption of both forms of energy is what is needed. A bit of rationing never hurt anyone. It will take a while to build the new clean energy infra-structure and that will be motivated by a lack of energy that must be filled. Dirty energy use must be halted NOW. We will learn to live with less energy consumption just like we used to before cheap mass produced energy hungry gadgets over ran the Earth.
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Russ Hunt
It's important to read George Monbiot on exactly this issue. He's got the facts and background to back up what Gwynne Dyer is saying here. We will kill _many_ more people with coal and nuclear, and there is no way to escape that by saying, yes, wind or thermal will save us. Short term, they won't. Long term, we're all dead.
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J M
It's like this.
People want stuff.
Making stuff requires energy.
Only nuclear and coal can deliver the energy needed, renewables maybe someday.
Gotta choose between less stuff and nuclear waste and global warming.
Your choice.
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P.Peto
Considering the inability of the Nuclear Power Industry to operate safely without meltdowns and it's inability to safely dispose of radioactive wastes, it is not madness to shut down nuclear reactors;it is, in fact, prudent to do so. Let's not go half way either;nuclear disarmament is also the most prudent course of action. However,neither is going to happen due to politically powerful vested interests. It's pity the elites seem so frequently to over-rule the wishes of the fearful masses. A true democracy would respect their wishes. Perhaps Germany,Japan,etc may prove to be true democracies after all.
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James Blatchford
Nothing like talk of nuclear proliferation to spice up the day. I actually think Mr. Dyer has broken the silence on yet another inconvenient truth...we aren't done dancing with nuclear power quite yet. Should we reduce consumption, pursue renewables, compost and compromise? Yes, yes and yes. But the solar furnace still beckons...imagine a technology the size of a golf cart that could safely power entire cities...crazy you say? I'm not so sure. Perhaps one day we will look back on this era and wonder why we were so damn daft that we couldn't park our fears and animosities and put the miracle of stars to good use. No need to crucify me, or Mr.Dyer, I'm just sayin'.
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