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Nuclear energy: Questions the world needs to address

Aug 09,2015 - Last updated at Aug 09,2015

The Fukushima catastrophe on March 11, 2011, was a major turning point in the brief history of nuclear energy technology. Three days later on March 14, the German Bundestag unanimously decided to enforce an 11-year-old majority vote of 98 per cent to phase out nuclear energy, which supplied 23 per cent of the German grid. 

Two months later, Switzerland voted to phase out its five nuclear reactors, which supplied 40 per cent of its energy. Spain pledged that it would not build any new nuclear reactors. That same summer of 2011, Italians voted overwhelmingly (94 per cent) against a nuclear option. In total, 15 Western countries (Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Austria, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, New Zealand, Norway and Portugal) announced a decisive refusal in contracting nuclear power plants, or embraced the gradual shutdown of their current plants, one by one, to substitute them with gas, renewable sources or even, temporarily, coal.

At the same time, Peter Löscher, then CEO of Siemens, a major contractor in the nuclear industry,  announced that his company would abandon the nuclear power business, declaring that  its “renewable energy unit — which is part of its environmental technologies division — had the strongest growth of any of its lines of business”. 

There remains, of course, a huge nuclear industry that began life in the 1950s and 1960s, today employing thousands of workers — a major responsibility for the governments where they were created. One example is AREVA, the French nuclear industry contractor, a state-owned industry that employs 48,000 people in nuclear energy and power generation. AREVA cannot easily pull out of nuclear without a major political problem for France. The same applies for Russia’s Rosatom. Both companies have faced charges of corruption, bribery and illegal practices in the past five years.

The nuclear industry, as in France, was able to develop a strong lobby to sustain its existence even after the three major catastrophic accidents: Three-Mile Island in 1978, Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011. This lobby is unable to find any new projects in the Western world due to high safety regulations imposed over the past years, along with popular democratic votes that refused this risky source of energy. Those safety regulations have led to very high costs making the nuclear industry unfeasible in comparison to industries such as gas and renewable energy. Now, companies like AREVA or Rosatom have turned their attention to developing nations. 

And where would developing nations find a ready source of finance for mega-projects such as nuclear power? Two major factors making it very worthwhile for the nuclear lobby to invest in mega-projects in the Third World are a strong vulnerability to high level corruption and a weak legislature in safety and liability. Not only is it easier to feed everyone under-the-table, but projects costs are slashed in the face of minimal safety and a governing environment that has little to no accountability to its citizens. 

The Jordan case

In Jordan, the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission neglected international standards set by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in its document TEC-DOC 1513. These guidelines clearly emphasise that citizens living in the vicinity of nuclear power plant sites must be consulted and their consent acquired as one of the first measures immediately after feasibility studies. The failure to consult with Jordanian citizens resulted in the storming and destruction of the nuclear research reactor offices at the Jordan University of Science and Technology in northern Jordan in July 2012. Neglect of citizen consent will always result in a violent backlash against nuclear power sites. Not only was citizens’ consent neglected in Jordan but also too many IAEA guidelines, as if the project was a chicken farm and not a nuclear power plant.

In January 2012, 500 Egyptians from surrounding villages broke into Daba’a Nuclear Site in Matrouh Governorate after years of protesting against the site. The charge was led by a Salafist leader who opposed the project for health reasons. The result was theft of most of the site’s contents, including 18 radioactive sources that are still missing today. Seven nuclear facilities in Iraq have been damaged or effectively destroyed by the looting that began in the first days of April 2003, when US ground forces thrust into Baghdad. In the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, the local Polish government that took over the buildings of the Zarnowiec Nuclear Power Plant in Poland was unsuccessful in preventing the already constructed buildings from falling into disrepair. Several of them were looted by local citizens.

Many ask what the role of the IAEA is and what  it should be. Clearly, and as we have seen in relation to Iran, the agency’s main role is to patrol the proliferation of nuclear weapons. But would the IAEA stand strong against a nuclear power plant project for the production of electricity or medical radioactive isotopes where its development clearly bypasses correct regulation and due process, or would that be considered a matter to be resolved at the discretion of the national regulatory committees of each country? That question has yet to be answered with new nuclear projects on the rise in Third World countries.

Now, you hear of all kind of developing countries — some with struggling economies, others with failing economies — projecting nuclear as a future source of energy. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, the UAE, Jordan, Yemen, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan, Chile, Ecuador, Bangladesh, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, the Philippines and others have either announced their intention to build nuclear plants or have already started to do so. This energy source is imposed by governments, despite the fact that many of these countries enjoy more than 330 days of clear sunshine unblemished by sand or salts, or have strong winds, that will support a highly efficient wind turbine farms.

The UAE contracted the building of four nuclear power plants worth $20 billion (plus another $22 billion in infrastructure, operation, waste management and decommissioning funds) while neglecting a huge coastline that could encompass an efficient offshore wind power industry. Instead of concentrating on energy efficiency and reducing energy consumption of its major cities (Dubai and Abu Dhabi), the UAE is spending $20 billion on the Masdar City project to be inhabited by 50,000 people in 10 or 15 years from now. Saudi Arabia also announced that it is studying the possibility of contracting 16 nuclear power plants. Strong energy efficiency regulations could have solved 50 per cent of the energy bill waste in such countries knowing that 80 per cent of the Gulf energy is spent on cooling glass buildings of very poor insulation. 

Should the world look into the underlying reasons for the nuclear lobby’s Third World clients and probe the potential human and environmental disasters that may ensue from such relationships, or is the issue of proliferation and illegal military industry the IAEA’s only responsibility? It is a question the world needs to answer.

 

The writer is president of the Jordanian Friends of Environment. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times. 

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