Nuclear Power - The Seduction of Mephistopheles

August 11, 2008
C R Sridhar

MEPHISTOPHELES, in the Faust legend, the name of the evil spirit in return for whose assistance Faust signs away his soul.’- Classic Encyclopaedia.

The trope of Nuclear Energy as Mephistopheles is rooted in history. The dropping of the Atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 by the Americans exposed to the world the destructive power of the Atom. The belief that nuclear energy was a benign genie in service of humankind received a rude jolt when accidents occurred in nuclear plants, one of which was the accident at Chernobyl in 1986 in Ukraine when Unit Four of the plant exploded spewing radioactive fission products into the environment. The fallout of radioactivity from Chernobyl had horrific medical and ecological consequences. It is estimated that nearly 10000 persons of 6,50,000 involved in the clean up operation died prematurely. The long radioactive tail reached large areas of the breadbaskets of the Ukraine and Byelorussia contaminating the soil. The fallout also affected other countries such as Austria, Germany, France, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Italy, Baltic states and other countries in the Northern Hemisphere. The incidence of cancer increased significantly among the population living in areas close to the nuclear plant.

The long radioactive tail of Mephistopheles

Before the Chernobyl accident, there was another accident that rocked the complacency of nuclear Industry who said that the chances of a meltdown happening were the same as a bolt of lightening striking a person dead in a parking lot. On March 28, 1979, a nuclear power plant at the Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania had a meltdown on account of a mechanical failure causing the core reactor to overheat. Soon large amounts of radioactivity escaped into the atmosphere. Radioactive water was also released into Susquehanna River, which drains into Chesapeake Bay, a major fishing location. Hundreds of people reported nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, bleeding from the nose, hair loss and skin rash. There were also reported deaths of farm animals and there were fears that the cows were radiated contaminating the milk supply. Official studies on the impact of radiation on health and the increased incidence of cancer among people living near the plant were not conducted raising the suspicion that the government friendly to the nuclear lobby were hushing up the bad news about the radiation and its effects.1

It would be short sighted on our part to view Chernobyl and Three Mile Island as isolated incidents not warranting a caveat on the use of nuclear energy. There were other incidents such as the accident at the Davis-Besse reactor (Ohio), which occurred in 2002. The inspectors found a cavity in the reactor pressure vessel. The stainless steel liner had not ruptured and a major tragedy was averted. The risks of such accidents would increase as the reactors are aging with the bulk of the reactors moving into the old age cycle. The near misses would dangerously increase as the years go by.

The bad news about nuclear safety does not go away. As recently as last month there were radioactive leaks in France. The Guardian (UK) reported ‘Last month an accident at the treatment centre during a draining operation saw liquid containing untreated uranium overflow out of a faulty tank. About 75kg of uranium seeped into the ground and into the Gaffiere and Lauzon rivers which flow into the Rhône.’ This is not the end of the story. As the Guardian again reports ‘But in recent days there have been other, lesser incidents at nuclear sites. In Romans-sur-Isère, north of Tricastin, at another site run by an Areva subsidiary, officials discovered a burst underground pipe which had been broken for years and did not meet safety standards.’ The environment minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, said there were 86 level-one nuclear incidents in France last year and 114 in 2006. More than 80% of France's electricity is generated by the country's 58 nuclear reactors - the world's highest ratio.2

Nuclear Renaissance

In spite of dangers associated with the use of nuclear energy, the seduction of Mephistopheles remains as potent as ever. With Bush – Cheney in US and Sarkozy in France pushing for nuclear energy as an alternative to oil, there appears to be a sort of nuclear renaissance emerging in the wake of oil crisis. The prospects for the nuclear industry seem bright after languishing in doldrums throughout the end of the Twentieth Century as result of environmental movements and protests.

The Nuclear Energy Institute - a propaganda wing of the Nuclear Industry - has spent millions of dollars in spreading highly misleading messages that Nuclear Energy is cheap, clean and green. The ads that reinforce the image of nuclear as a benign force show children gambolling in green grass. The caption at the top of the ad reads - Nuclear Electricity & Clean Air Today & Tomorrow.

Blunting the PR blitz

The propaganda of the Nuclear Industry has not gone unchallenged. In her book Nuclear Power is not the Answer, Dr. Helen Caldicott, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and a leading spokesperson for the anti-nuclear movement, subjects the ‘clean and green’ argument of nuclear energy to withering criticism. She accused the Nuclear Industry of hiding significant facts from the public and peddling nuclear energy with the same ethical disregard to truth as a snake oil salesman.

According to the author, nuclear power ‘is not clean and green’, because large amounts of traditional fossil fuels are required to mine and refine the uranium needed to run nuclear power reactors, to construct the massive concrete reactor buildings, and to transport and store the toxic radioactive waste created by the nuclear process. Moreover, the burning of this fossil fuel emits significant quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2)- the primary greenhouse gas- into the environment. In addition, large amounts of the now banned CFC are emitted during the enrichment of uranium. CFC is more dangerous than CO2 in creating the greenhouse gas and is also a potent destroyer of the ozone layer.

While it is true that nuclear electricity produces one-third of the CO2 emitted from a similar sized conventional gas generator, this is a transitory phase. Soon as the uranium ore declines in grade, more ores are required to be mined by using more fossil fuels. It is estimated that within ten to twenty years nuclear reactors will produce no net energy because of the massive amounts of fossil fuels required to mine and to enrich the poor grades of uranium ores. The tech-fix solution of obtaining large quantities of uranium by reprocessing radioactive spent fuel is not a pragmatic option as it is expensive, extremely hazardous for the workers and releases large amount of radioactive material into the air. In the long run the nuclear plants would emit the same amounts of greenhouse gasses and air pollution as conventional power plants.

Safe running of the nuclear plants do not guarantee they would be emission free. Government regulations allow the nuclear plants to emit thousands of curies of radioactive gasses and material into the air. There is also radioactive waste in accumulating in the cooling pools in the nuclear plants in the world. As the author warns, ‘this waste contains extremely toxic elements that will inevitably pollute the environment and human food chains, a legacy that will lead to epidemics of cancer, leukaemia, and genetic disease in population living near nuclear power plants or radioactive waste facilities for many generations to come.’3

A white elephant

Contrary to the optimistic pronouncement of the Nuclear Industry that nuclear electricity is cheap in as much as it costs only 1.7 cents per kilowatt hour when compared to coal costing 2 cents and gas fired power costing 5.7 cents it is actually exorbitant. The estimates are misleading as they are based on the operational costs of existing plants. Moreover as the author points out ‘ They represent a classic omission of capital costs from a pricing equation.’4 Once realistic construction and running costs are considered, the price of nuclear electricity rises from an estimated 3 pence per kilowatt hour (5 cents in US) to 8.3 pence (14 cents). The capital costs of new plants are very high whereas the costs of running old reactors are not that high. When other costs are added such as subsidies received out of tax payers money, managing pollution, health costs in the event of radiation and its treatment and costs of maintaining nuclear plants secure from terrorist attacks, nuclear energy loses its appeal as a cheap source of electricity.

The road to Perdition

Apart from the disadvantages of high cost and high risk, nuclear energy also opens the Pandora’s box of proliferation of atomic weaponry. Every nuclear power plant has the potential of being an atom bomb factory. A 1000-megawatt nuclear reactor manufactures 500 pounds of plutonium a year; normally ten pounds of plutonium is fuel for an atom bomb. A bomb made from the plutonium could easily devastate a city making the world an unsafe place. Any non-nuclear weapon state could easily acquire a nuclear plant and have the ability to make nuclear bombs.

With technology becoming simpler and information becoming available on the Internet, the technology to make bombs with nuclear material is not an esoteric skill, which is beyond the means of any rogue state.

In the Indian sub-continent both India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons. It is estimated that India has 65 nuclear weapons, Pakistan has 30 to 50 weapons and China has 400 weapons. To add to the dangerous scenario, India is being positioned by US to contain China’s rise to super power status. The simmering tension between India and China could worsen in the times to come. The uneasy relationship between India and Pakistan does not augur well for peace in the sub-continent. The prospect of nuclear Armageddon is not science fiction but a case of fiction becoming reality.

A more sustainable energy policy

Electricity is generated when heat boils water converting into steam, which turns turbine-producing electricity. From the energy perspective ‘a nuclear reactor’ - in the words of Helen Caldicott - ‘ is just a very sophisticated and dangerous way to boil water - analogous to cutting a pound of butter with a chain saw.’5

Globally, coal supplies about 64% of the world’s electricity, hydro and nuclear each provide 17%, and renewable energy provide 2%. But recent studies indicate that solar power could supply clean electricity to 100 million people living in the sunny parts of the world by 2025. Tidal and Wind power could provide up to 20% of the UK’s current electricity needs. An integrated energy plan using a mix of wind power, cogeneration, geothermal energy, biomass, and tidal/ wave power combined with energy conservation could displace existing reliance on nuclear power. And with the shift of resources in the form of billions of dollars given as subsidies to the nuclear industry to renewable energy the dream of a clean world environment would be realised.

Individuals need not be mere pawns in the game that big energy corporations play for their own ends. They could play an important role in measures promoting energy conservation – simple acts as not driving fuel guzzling SUV’s, not leaving lights burning all over the house, relying less on air conditioners and heaters by allowing the sweat glands to work more or wearing heavy sweaters in times of winter. Some lifestyle changes are painful but necessary. But self- sacrifice and nobility also motivate human beings. As Helen Caldicott aptly says in the last chapter of her remarkable book, ‘These are the qualities that will lead the world toward sanity and survival.’6 

Also hopefully, end the fatal seduction of Mephistopheles once and for all.

1 Nuclear Power is not the Answer- Helen Caldicott- Books for Change- pages 65-74.
2 Accidents tarnish nuclear dream-environment- The Guardian.
3 Nuclear Power is not the Answer- Helen Caldicott- Introduction- page ix.
4 Nuclear Power is not the Answer- page 19.
5 Nuclear Power is not the Answer- page xii.
6 Nuclear Power is not the Answer- page 183.

Sridhar is a Koshy's regular, a Tinto Brass fan, and a cynical Bangalorean
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August 11, 2008
05:00 AM

nuclear energy is a dead, radioactive end. not a single redeeming feature.

August 11, 2008
06:23 AM

Great Article!! Very complex points put across rather succinctly and thoroughly researched!! Wish our policy leaders have the patience and enenrgy to do such painstaking work to debate nuclear policy issues rather than reducing it to electoral game!!

August 11, 2008
08:53 AM

We will all die in 5 years. The arctic ice is melting....

August 11, 2008
09:42 AM

I second the condemnations of nuclear power found here, including your own article. But the question remains, as the wise old mouse pointed out to his angry compatriots "who will bell the capitalist cat?"

When you have a solid answer to that one, you have done the whole world a favor....

August 11, 2008
11:05 AM

Nice post.

The disposal of nuclear waste is a huge issue. It is believed that the US Navy was responsible for dumping large amounts of nuclear wastes in containers into the Ocean Beds. When some of the containers did not sink, navy gunners riddled the containers with bullets to enable the waste to sink to the ground.

The sad fact is that the global scenario is most propitious for a nuclear renaissance. The almost sudden rise of the realization that global warming is a serious threat( I am referring to "popular perceptions" here) and the inability of renewable technologies to emerge as significant alternatives has resulted in nuclear energy emerging as the most viable option to a large number of people. Notice that the environmental aspect of the nuclear deal was pretty much sidelined in the recent debate. So the bad news looks set to get worse :(

Bob Nichols
August 11, 2008
12:09 PM

Congrats! Your article is a modest start.

In truth, all reactors leak deadly uranium gases all the time; they can't help it, that is the way they are designed.

I am concerned that your article and many others in this vein focus on the unusual events and don't connect the dots of the daily leaks of uranium gases.

You are a very good writer. I look forward to seeing more articles that are a little more discerning.

Have a good day and good research!

August 11, 2008
09:04 PM

Sridhar- awesome! Did you send a copy of this to Dr. Manmohan Singh? Of course he knows this stuff but then all that lovely money to "build" all those "lovely" reactors- think f the "deals" the "kickbacks"- it is election year next year, remember? You and I will not contribute to any party. Who will, then fund the elections- the next reality show to hit us next year?

August 11, 2008
11:44 PM

Chandra # 3

In the long run we are all dead. But we must be more circumspect of dying of nuclear radiation!

August 12, 2008
12:17 AM

Dear Bob, #6

Your comment-'I am concerned that your article and many others in this vein focus on the unusual events and don't connect the dots of the daily leaks of uranium gases.'

In the piece I had clearly mentioned that Nuke energy is intrinsically an unsafe bet.If all the dots of daily leaks are connected then a frightening prospect emerges:We are ingesting in small doses unacceptable levels of radiation which is- to put it mildly- injurious to health.

Add other dots to the picture- most of the nuclear reactors (out of some 400+)are in the aged cycle with the chances of a meltdown a certainty any time.If you add another dot to the picture- the threat of a terrorist attack on any nuclear facility- the scenario becomes very dangerous indeed.

August 12, 2008
12:49 AM

thedailypheesh #5

The disposal of radioactive waste is a matter of serious concern.The US passed the Nuclear waste Policy Act promising to take responsibility for the nuclear waste from nuclear power plants. A site was chosen- The Yucca Mountain (Nevada)- which was designated as a primary repository.

Studies confirmed that the Yucca Mountain is situated in the earth quake zone and other reasons such as the seeping of radioactive waste from the Mountain to the ground water levels contaminating the nearby farms and springs.

Not a single radioactive waste has been dumped in Yucca Mountain.The project was abandoned.

If I understand correctly the wastes are dumped in and around the 103 reactors operating in US.

August 12, 2008
12:20 PM

a major problem is, as sridhar has pointed out, the fact that due to concerns over climate change, the nuclear energy lobby has come back peddling its wares as a "clean" alternative. Talk of irony or lack thereof. A lot of otherwise serious people argue that there is a difference between so-called "peaceful" uses of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. The end result is pretty much the same....the proverbial chopping off the branch of the tree we are sitting on. Nuclear energy is a deadend, regardless of how one tries to justify it for the same of making a buck.

For an interesting, but a slightly different take on these issues, might i suggest:

Hugh Gusterson, People of the Bomb: Portraits of America's Nuclear Complex (University of Minnesota Press, 2004),

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