Gwynne Dyer: Shutting down nuclear power stations is madness

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      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.




      Nov 21, 2012 at 6:03pm

      "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

      Nov 21, 2012 at 6:39pm

      A report from this link:
      -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:

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      Lee venables

      Nov 21, 2012 at 7:30pm

      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

      Nov 21, 2012 at 7:39pm

      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.

      SPY vs SPY

      Nov 21, 2012 at 8:13pm

      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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      Nov 21, 2012 at 8:29pm

      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

      Nov 21, 2012 at 8:43pm

      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 ( ).

      Caldicott is not taken seriously in medical/scientific circles.

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      S. hodges

      Nov 21, 2012 at 8:59pm

      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: 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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      Nov 21, 2012 at 9:47pm

      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

      Nov 21, 2012 at 10:57pm

      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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