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.
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.
Lalon Sander is a Bangladeshi-German journalist.