Slow Burn

Uranium investors and nuclear advocates in Australia are hopeful that life has returned to normal. Day by day, Fukushima is fading from the headlines, and every other week it seems the uranium industry holds a conference to provide mutual reassurance that the “sideshow” in Japan, as one uranium executive put it, will not derail the industry’s ambitious expansion plans.

As the AUSIMM Conference program earnestly notes “Certainly, the magnitude of the natural disasters in Japan, Australia and New Zealand remind us of the power of Nature. Natural events such as these, while so unfortunate and so tragic in their human impacts, provide an opportunity to pause and plan, and to be better prepared for the future.”

Professor Barry Brook, one of the industry’s most articulate advocates, recently predicted a 20-fold expansion to 8000 reactors by 2060, once the ‘short term hysteria’ over Fukushima abates.

The Australian Government shares the optimism. Federal Resources and Energy Minister Martin Ferguson told the Austock Uranium conference in May 2011 that a bright future awaits: “If production meets predictions, [uranium] tonnage will double within four years – and quadruple within 20.”

All of this optimism is founded on a uniquely Australian form of inward-looking delusion, and a steadfast determination to ignore the fact that the global nuclear industry has hit the iceberg.

Confidence has evaporated in many of the countries with actual operating experience of nuclear power plants, as the reality of what is occurring on Japan’s Pacific coast sinks in. The nuclear industry had flatlined for two decades before the Tohoku earthquake; now it is starting to actually look terminal. Very little of this seems to have filtered through to dampen the indestructible optimism of the Australian uranium lobby, which is beginning to look downright unhinged.

News sites around the world have dusted off diagrams of the internal workings of boiling water reactors as people struggle to understand what plant operators are attempting to do in Tohoku and what is at stake. Even in the shut down or ‘scrammed’ state, a large nuclear power station will still generate anything up to 7% of its operating heat output, and that heat has to go somewhere. The task of operators is to keep the fuel elements in the core from melting their way out of the containment vessel, or reigniting in an uncontrolled fission reaction, whereupon massive releases of radioactive uranium and fission products can occur.

Nearly three months after the disaster, Japanese authorities admitted what most observers already knew: at least three of the plants suffered meltdowns in the hours immediately after the tsunami swamped the reactor complex. On April 12, the IAEA upgraded the severity of the disaster to the maximum of 7 on the INES scale, the same severity as Chernobyl.

Almost 25 years exactly after the Chernobyl disaster, history is repeating in Tohoku: uncomprehending children are scanned for external exposure by engineers in spacesuits, fresh fruit and vegetables are taken off the market, hundreds of thousands of people are evacuated leaving livestock and household pets to fend for themselves, and plume maps tell the clinical story of the world’s newest radiation sacrifice zone.

Fukushima is not Chernobyl. On April 26, 1986, engineers inadvertently blasted the side out of Unit 4 of the plant and proved that in a hot enough fire, even a graphite moderator will burn. An unknown fraction of the core inventory of uranium, plutonium and carcinogenic fission products went up in a terrible fire that burned for more than a week and contaminated a large part of the northern hemisphere. The industry and its allies has carefully downgraded the death toll every few years through a process of elimination. Because radiation-induced cancers can take more than a decade to arise and require detailed and expensive epidemiological studies to track, they are relatively easy to ignore. Orphanages in Belarus and the Ukraine full of deformed children rarely make their way into industry statistics, and nor do the hastily assembled regiments of ‘liquidators’ who attended the initial emergency and quenched the molten core before the plant was entombed in concrete.

Fukushima is more of a slow burn: a war of attrition that will probably go for decades. We may not have seen the worst of it yet; no-one has ever faced the challenge of three simultaneous meltdowns co-located with the wreckage of a high level spent-fuel pool, on a seismically active coastline. The situation at the time of writing is in a fragile holding pattern; with unprecedented pollution of the marine environment as cooling water leaks through the shattered structure as fast as emergency workers can pour it in.

The political tide is turning in Japan; Prime Minister Naoto Kan has already closed one vulnerable reactor complex at Hamaoka and has issued a moratorium on all further construction. Germany has recommitted to a total phase-out, as has Switzerland, accelerating the decline of nuclear energy across Europe. In the United States, the industry has been on financial life support for two decades, with private investors shunning the uninsurable, open-ended liabilities and ballooning construction costs. In the context of the wreckage of Fukushima, assumptions that 40 year old plants in the US will be re-licensed to operate for anywhere up to 60 years are no longer looking so certain.

In a detailed study that would cool the ardour of Australian uranium advocates if they took the time to read it, the authors of a recent Worldwatch Institute report note:

“At present, 12 of the world’s operating reactors have exceeded the 40-year mark … that number will rapidly increase over the next few years. Nine additional units have reached age 40 in 2011, while a total of 165 units have reached age 30 or more”

The same study spells out in forensic detail the decline of the nuclear industry that set in around 2002 as plant closures finally outpaced new reactor startups. The industry’s near term prospects are dire; with skyrocketing costs, a dwindling and ageing workforce, an ageing reactor fleet, and angry communities wondering who will be in the shadow of the next Fukushima. Investors have turned their backs and instead banked $151 billion on the rapidly growing renewable energy sector in 2010.

It is the surging strength and declining costs of renewable energy technologies that have most severely blindsided nuclear advocates. Paladin’s John Borshoff sets the tone:

“I won’t even countenance a renewable contributing anything significant to this whole fuel issue…” Claims to the contrary are, he says, “Bullshit…it’s a joke, a cottage industry, it’s hugely expensive…and only works 34% of the time. It’s just enough to keep people feeling warm and fuzzy.”

This venomous denial of the existence of a mortal competitor to the nuclear industry is relatively common within Australian political and mining industry circles, since the only remaining slender justification for the continued operation of nuclear power is the reality of climate change. The threat posed by plants like Torresol’s newly commissioned thermosolar plant in Spain is obvious: a zero emissions, utility scale baseload plant running on sunlight, producing no radioactive wastes, posing no weapons proliferation risk, and not requiring the evacuation of tens of thousands of people in the event of a plant failure. A solar complex 20 times the size is now under construction in California’s Mojave desert , indicating that economies of scale have finally arrived for the age of renewable energy.

As it did after the Sellafield fire, the Three Mile Island meltdown and again after the Chernobyl blast, the industry solemnly intones that it has learned its lesson and that Fukushima will be the last disaster. Given the world’s ageing reactor fleet and the proposed massive installation of new and untested reactors in China, this seems terribly naive. The glib assurances and strange optimism at the proliferation of uranium conferences – and I’ve been to a few – tells us that the Australian uranium industry has learned nothing, and will continue to believe in the future of the sector until the bitter end.

The question for the rest of us then, is what we plan to do about it, as citizens of the world’s third largest uranium exporter. Even as the global industry’s expansion plans stall and go into reverse, two of the largest mining companies in the world are proposing expansions to the troubled Ranger uranium mine in Kakadu National Park and the colossal Olympic Dam mine in central South Australia. Exploration companies are crawling over every square mile of Western Australia with four projects now working their way through environmental impact assessment processes. It seems there may be enough residual demand left in the world nuclear fuel market to make some of these projects viable. As the rest of the world contemplates whether this unloved technology has a future beyond long-term waste isolation, it is time for a moratorium on uranium mining here in Australia.

The prospect of uranium from my home state of Western Australia burning the skies over the wreckage of a reactor building in China or Indonesia is chilling. In the same way as we banned asbestos mining when the death toll got too high to ignore, it’s time to call an end to the carcinogenic ambitions of the uranium miners.