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ENERGY: Only Nuclear Dreams Mushrooming

Julio Godoy

PARIS, Jun 13 2008 (IPS) - The proposal by the Paris-based International Energy Agency for more than 1,400 nuclear power plants to be built over the next 40 years is unfeasible, environmental activists say.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) the energy agency of the Organisation for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD), the official think tank of the 30 most industrialised countries, released a report Jun. 6 on ‘Energy Technology Perspectives’ in the face of climate change and falling oil reserves. The IEA called for an “energy revolution”, and urged investments worth 45 billion dollars for the next 40 years in wind energy and nuclear power plants.

The report says about 1,400 new nuclear power plants should be built until the year 2050 to guarantee electricity generation and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, believed to be the cause of global warming and consequently climate change.

Nobuo Tanaka, executive director of the IEA, said at the presentation of the report that “we would have to build…32 new nuclear plants each year, and wind capacity would have to increase by approximately 17,500 turbines each year.”

The report mentioned the need to resolve questions on “geologically stable sites for nuclear reactors” and waste storage, but offered no solution to these problems.

The report also failed to mention how the huge additional demand for uranium, the fuel for nuclear power plants, could be met. There are at present 439 working nuclear power plants around the world.

Thirty new facilities are under construction, and practically all are facing one problem or other. Only 10 of these new projects have started recently; all others are at least 20 years old, and have faced numerous difficulties in the construction process.

The IEA proposal was received with downright criticism. German minister for the environment Sigmar Gabriel called the IEA proposal “a rampage”. Some environmental activists have urged the OECD to stop financing the agency as long as it is not able to perform a “responsible job”.

“You cannot handle the problem of the future of energy in a more irresponsible way than the IEA has done with its proposal,” Gabriel told German media. Gabriel pointed out that there is just not enough uranium to fuel the proposed new 1,400 nuclear power plants.

“The only other way to fuel the plants is to enrich plutonium, which in turn is the best way to nourish the proliferation of nuclear weapons,” Gabriel said. “That situation would be a nightmare worse than any of our maddest dreams of the Cold War.”

The enrichment of used uranium to obtain plutonium is the technical alternative to using natural uranium as a combustible for nuclear power plants.

Plutonium, a rare radioactive element, has been called “the most complex metal” and “a physicist’s dream but an engineer’s nightmare.” It can be generated by the fission of uranium.

Hans Josef Fell, who handles technology and energy issues for the German Green party, dismissed the IEA proposal as “unfeasible and absurd.”

Fell said the IEA has in the recent past produced erroneous forecasts on all energy questions. “As late as 2004, the IEA forecast a price of fossil oil of 22 dollars per barrel for 2008,” Fell told IPS. Last week, oil price hit 139 dollars a barrel.

Fell said extracted uranium provides for some 60 percent of the energy demands of nuclear power plants. The other 40 percent comes from the artificial enrichment to plutonium.

“The IEA does not say from where the enormous amounts of uranium shall come to meet the new demand represented by 1,400 new nuclear power plants,” he said. “With this report, the IEA has lost its last credibility.” Fell said the price of uranium has been surging since 2005, and this price increase is an indicator of the scarcity of uranium.

The IEA proposal was also badly timed. In the same week that the proposal was announced, two European nuclear power plants, one in Slovenia and the second in Germany, reported technical difficulties.

On Jun. 4, Slovenian nuclear authorities said the nuclear power plant at Krsko was shut down after a “grave anomaly” had been detected. The Slovenian government said later that no radioactivity was released into the atmosphere, but by then alarm had spread all of Europe.

Jan Beránek, environmental activist at the local branch of Greenpeace, said that the Krsko accident “stands as a testament to the threat that all of Europe’s nuclear facilities pose to its population and environment and beyond.”

Beránek said those “who are planning to build more nuclear reactors must heed this warning and reject nuclear technology.”

Two days later, the German nuclear power plant operator Energy Baden Wuerttenberg confirmed that it had shut down its facility at Phillipsburg, some 500 kilometres south of Berlin, and located near densely populated cities such as Heidelberg, Mannheim and Karlsruhe.

In both cases, leakages were discovered in the reactors’ cooling systems.

A similar incident was reported in May at the Ukrainian Riyne facility. Leakage from the cooling system forced the state nuclear power company Enerhoatom to shut down the plant.

This string of accidents in radioactive facilities comes after other anomalies have been detected in nuclear power plant related programmes.

Late in April, the German and French governments jointly decided to stop transportation of radioactive waste from the French nuclear recycling plant La Hague to a temporary deposit in Gorleben in northern Germany.

Radioactive waste from German nuclear plants has for years been recycled at La Hague in order to reduce radioactivity of the final waste, and to obtain as by-product a mixed oxide fuel that can be used again in nuclear power plants.

The decision to stop transportation of the radioactive waste followed a report by the German Federal Agency for Materials Research and Testing (BAM, after its German name) that said the special wagons that carry the waste, also known as castors, are not proof against contamination of the atmosphere, and might not remain intact in the event of an accident.

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