Lalon Sander

Nuclear power is not the way forward

March 30, 2011
Efforts to spray water into the No. 4 reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, are seen in this March 22, 2011 handout photograph released by Tokyo Electric Power Co. Photo: Reuters

Efforts to spray water into the No. 4 reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, are seen in this March 22, 2011 handout photograph released by Tokyo Electric Power Co. Photo: Reuters

The tragedy of Fukushima has led to a flurry of activity in Germany: Within days, the coalition government of conservatives and liberals, known for its pro nuclear stance, temporarily shut down seven nuclear power plants and this past weekend hundreds of thousands of Germans took to the streets, demanding that all nuclear power plants be shut down forever. As it looks, four or five of the power plants the government has shut down will stay off the grid.

Growing up in Bangladesh and now studying and working in Germany, I seldom felt forced to take an explicitly Bengali or German stance on issues, arguing that usually there are rational and universal criteria to judge both societies against. However, nuclear power is one issue where I have to side with the Germans. While in Germany the discussion centres around the question, how quickly energy generation is going to be nuclear-free, Bangladesh government is planning a billion-dollar nuclear power plant at Rooppur. The German experience shows that this is an expensive, dangerous and irresponsible path.

One of the arguments usually brought forward in support of nuclear power is that it generates a lot of cheap energy. However, if you look closely, nuclear power is usually cheap only because it is heavily subsidised and the considerable risks nuclear power poses are externalised. Nuclear power is so cheap only because nuclear power plants do not have to be insured in the same way other power plants do. Why? Because it is impossible to insure against the risks such as the catastrophes of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl or Fukushima. And this is informed opinion: It’s what Nikolaus von Bomhard recently told the German daily Die Welt. Von Bomhard is Chairman of Munich RE, one of the world’s leading reinsurers. This man insures insurance companies.

So if nuclear power plants can’t be insured, how are they insured? The fact is, they aren’t. In Germany, the operators of nuclear power plants are liable only for damages up to 2.5 billion Euros. However, one of the only studies that tried to estimate the costs of an accident of the Chernobyl or Fukushima scale in Germany, came to the conclusion that one of these ‘‘non-design-basis accidents’’ would cost the German economy 5 trillion Euros – 2000 times what one of these plants is insured against, and twice Germany’s GDP.

Babies being tested for radiation in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima. Photo: Reuters

Babies being tested for radiation in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima. Photo: Reuters

The study, to be clear, was not ordered by some crazy eco-activists looking for astronomical propaganda arguments – it was ordered by a pro-nuclear government. So we can be pretty sure that the estimates are conservative. If the costs of insuring the nuclear power plants like any other power plant were considered, the price of nuclear power would rise hundredfold, a Kilowatt-Hour of electricity would cost almost three Euros instead of three cents.

Fukushima showed the world that nuclear power is, in fact, not safe as governments and pro-nuclear activists would have us believe. Theoretically, one of these ‘‘non-design-basis accidents’’ should occur only once in a few thousand years. To be generous, let’s assume that one would occur every 100.000 years. This would mean that with about 500 nuclear power plants operating worldwide, one such catastrophe would only occur every 200 years. History shows, however, that they take place much more frequently: There have been three in the past 42 years alone.

In a recent op-ed in Handelsblatt, the Chairman of the Bosch Group – one of the world’s leading technology corporations – wrote that risk assessment cannot be based on probability alone, but must also consider the consequences of improbable accidents, such as Fukushima: ‘‘If these consequences put the lives of so many people at risk, as is apparent now in Japan, we can no longer take chances.’’

One last argument against nuclear power is that it poses an uncalculable and irresposible risk for future generations. So far there are no realistic measures to dispose of nuclear waste. The waste products of nuclear power plants radiotoxic for tens of thousands of years, maybe even more. Almost every community, which has been told, the waste would be disposed of in their area, has opposed these plans. Germany, after 50 years of nuclear power, is yet to find a dump where radiotoxic waste can be stored for thousands of years.

Thousands of years, this is the timeframe in which long term changes take place in the geological underground, this is the timeframe of the rise and fall of civilisations. A place would need to be found in which, regardless of the changes in society and geology, these wastes could be stored safely. Consider how different the world looked only a few decades or centuries ago, imagine how it will look in ten or even twenty thousand years. We can guarantee nothing, only that nuclear waste will remain a mortal hazard to all forms of life.

So what does this mean for Bangladesh? It means that investing in nuclear power is investing in an obsolete technology, which will only bring tragedy to millions of people and perhaps short term profits to a few. It means Bangladesh is making itself dependent on others to produce enough energy. It means we are putting the lives of our children, grandchildren, their grandchildren, of at least 300 generations of people at risk only to be able to use non-renewable electricity for a few more decades.

Instead, Bangladesh needs to invest in decentralised, renewable, and if possible carbon-neutral technologies. With biomass technologies, a number of industries could be taken off the grid. My research a few years ago showed that if all rice mills used their rice husks to generate power, they could be taken off the grid. There are low-yielding hydroelectric technologies, which do not need fast-flowing mountain rivers and dams to function: Set up in the rivers of Bangladesh, they could generate the few Kilowatts most villages require at the moment to electrify the whole country. Lastly, Bangladesh needs to heavily invest in solar technologies to make the country independent of non-renewable energy sources.

As long as the sights are set on the dubious promises of nuclear power this is unlikely to happen.

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Lalon Sander is a Bangladeshi-German journalist.

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11 Responses to “ Nuclear power is not the way forward ”

  1. Sakib Ahmed on November 7, 2011 at 4:18 am

    Soil erosion?

  2. GiantTrainSet on April 5, 2011 at 12:52 am

    No mention of coal?

    You wouldn’t think Bangladesh was sitting on a world class coal resource that has been waiting government approval to be mined for many years now. Potential to move the whole country forward for decades, while other power sources are brought on-stream, but the governments of the day have still not approved the mines.

  3. IK on April 1, 2011 at 8:24 pm

    The author is a “journalist” not an expert on this complex topic. That being said, he does raise interesting issues, but they are one sided. Without nuclear plants, Bangladeshis will have to live in darkness. Solar and other ideas are good ideas, but they are not practical in terms of delivering the needs of the people. It is tragic to see what has happened in Japan (and in other cities in the past), but one cannot only look at worse case scenarios. There will be a time when Solar and other technologies will replace Nuclear, but that time is not now.

    • sajjad on April 2, 2011 at 12:34 am

      The author is a journalist, my friend, but what are you? An expert in nuclear disposal? Do you have any idea of the condition of the Padma near Rooppur site? I don’t think you have. Please go & see. Bangladesh will NOT remain in darkness if the decision-makers of the day departs from Bangladesh.

      • IK on April 9, 2011 at 3:46 am

        The reaction is a knee jerk reaction….i.e., say NO to nuclear power plants. That’s not a smart decision.

        I am not a nuclear expert…but I have spoken to people who are. Have you? Or, are you relying on a journalist on an Op-Ed page to help you understand this matter?

        Unless you have some expertise on this subject….you should not be writing about it! What the journalist can do is point out his observations in Rooppur or the other areas…not try to influence strategic decisions.

        Thank you

        • Mamun Rashid on May 23, 2011 at 3:38 pm

          Even if you have talked to some experts on nuclear energy, that does not mean that you have the exact picture of what nuclear power is, its risks, and its socio-ecological costs. Let’s assume that you go to an allopathic who is a cancer specialist. Will he ever tell you, what actually a chemo therapy is?

          Chemo therapy has never healed a cancer patient, is never going to heal or cure any body. He is never going to tell you that chemo is final assault on the patient that is going to kill him soon! All you have to do is, to find alternative sources of information to educate yourself. So long you depend on mainstream sources, you will always remain blindfolded.

          Last but not the least, a question to you: why e.g. Germany has decided to shut all of their nukes by 2020? Have they gone crazy?

  4. Khaled aaref on April 1, 2011 at 7:50 am

    Given the recent disaster in Japan, yes, I agree, the issue is pertinent. However, what is a viable alternative? The rest of the world’s demand for power, most of it generated by carbon based fuels, has put Bangladesh in the epicentre of the gradual devastations of climate change.

    With a population base expanding and predicted to be 250 million by 2050, the rate of employment has to go up, for which we need massive investments in industry and infrastructure, for which we need electricity. We still have not commercially exploited wind energy, which also requires massive investments; we also supposedly don’t have the critical mass in terms of wind flow, thanks to our geography, to make it work other than the coastal areas.

    Solar power, at this point, is a green tool, a PR exercise in green technology for the rich, since it’s not economically viable, or a source of power of last resort where the grid has failed to reach.

    My concern for the safety of nuclear power plants is not the technology itself but our efficiency in running it. The case in point is the recent blow-out in the Raozan power plant. The negligence of a few personnel led to the explosion there that made part of the plant redundant, at a time when we are facing acute shortage of power.

    With each disaster, the technology in nuclear generation and safety precautions are improving. It is not the technology it is the people, our own people that I am concerned about. In a country like France, where more than 70 percent of power comes from nuclear energy, there have been no major accidents so far.

    I am all for nuclear energy, but only after I am convinced that the human error and negligence can be contained while operating.

  5. CURT PETERSON on March 31, 2011 at 6:22 pm

    One of the unavoidable faults of democracy in a material world is that governments make short-sighted, short-term decisions that will enable voters to continue gratifying but self-destructive behavior. In the U.S., this is complicated by large energy companies, including the nuclear industry, being able to invest large sums of money in the political campaigns of legislators who can favor their position in the democratic process.
    These two factors muddy the waters around nuclear power policy, and foster polarization on conservative-liberal lines among legislators ignorant on the subject and willing to be easily bribed.
    If recycling rice husks can actually produce electricity for Bangladesh without polluting water and air like other biomass burning methods, and eliminate the chance of nuclear catastrophe, disposal problems and expense at the same time, it sounds like a no-brainer to me.

  6. sajjad on March 31, 2011 at 3:30 pm

    Well my friend, Bangladesh is an expert in getting obsolete technology wherever and whenever it can. Look at the recently introduced obsolete MICR technology for Bangladesh Bank’s clearing house, the bar-coded passport, and so on!

    Our only hope is the farmers in Rooppur, would stand up and protest.

  7. arshad on March 31, 2011 at 12:18 pm

    I agree that nuclear energy is not exactly a panacea, but on the other hand, solar energy is not a carbon friendly technology either. One has to weigh-in the carbon consumed in the production of these cells as well.

    IMHO, the logical thing to do is to be abstemious in energy use. Though this makes me a neo-luddite – but in the name of advancement using gas guzzling cars, giant screen TVs, etc. are not eco-friendly steps.

  8. Rahman on March 31, 2011 at 12:45 am

    This article is discouraging. People know that it is harmful to use any chemical but we do use chemical. Every government and scientists know it is risky and life threatening to invent and use any kind of bomb but are they paying heed to it? Are they refraining from making bombs and military technology?

    The United States alone has like 5000 nuclear warheads. Don’t they know the risk of having those nuclear power plants and warheads? Even after Bhopal nuclear tragedy, did India or Pakistan stay away from nuclear proliferation? China and USA are helping Pakistan and India to enrich nuclear enrichment program.

    If you keep thinking that you will drown, you will never learn to swim. So, life itself is a risk!!

    Bangladesh should go ahead with the nuclear power plant project. We’ll just have to be extra careful so that nothing bad happens.

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