By Tony Twine
The initial function of nuclear technology was not the generation of electrical energy for civil use but the (secret) production of bombs.
Weapons production continues today in at least 10 countries worldwide, with another dozen more who are pulling out all the stops to join the nuclear club.
In 1942, at the height of World War Two, the US government began the “Manhattan Project” supported by its British, French and Canadian allies, a crash program costing billions of dollars (even then), which involved almost all the world’s top physicists in a race to develop the atomic bomb before the Nazis. By 1944, many of these scientists – Einstein and Oppenheimer included — began to voice growing concerns that a nuclear arms race would follow any demonstration of nuclear military power. They were quickly proved right.
In August 1945, without any warning, the USAF warplane Enola Gay exploded an atomic (fission) bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima, with devastating effects. Just a few days later another atomic weapon of mass destruction annihilated Nagasaki. Soon after the unconditional surrender of Japan, all scientific and military collaboration on nuclear weaponry between the allies was unilaterally halted by the US government “in the national interest” (or was it paranoia due to Labour’s landslide at the “khaki” election of the previous year?). The result was that by 1946 the McMahon Act had effectively cut Britain, France and Canada off from the American nuclear programme. Nevertheless, the nuclear genie was well and truly out of the bottle.
Based on top military secrets stolen from the Manhatten Project and passed on by its “network of spies”, the USSR detonated its first atomic (fission) bomb in 1949, and its first atomic (fusion) bomb in 1953, closely following the first US atomic (fusion) bomb in 1952. Scared of being left out of a strategically powerful “nuclear club”, the post-war British (Labour) government secretly allocated massive public funds towards an atomic bomb project and exploded its first nuclear (fission) bomb in 1952. British nuclear scientists received covert help from their American counterparts, as the US government breached its own embargo in response to perceived threats of atomic war from the USSR. The first British (fusion) bomb obliterated Christmas Island in 1957, watched from a safe (!) distance by hundreds of thousands of unprotected service personnel. The French government also embraced this tried and tested route and “successfully” entered the nuclear club in 1962; China joined in 1966.
The feared nuclear arms race was now well and truly into stride.
“Atoms for peace”
Atoms for Peace was US government sponsored propaganda for the civil use of nuclear power for generating electricity, contained in an address by president Eisenhower to the UN general assembly in 1953. In fact this “peaceful initiative” provided the ideal camouflage behind which American “Cold War” militarists produced plutonium for missile warheads. As it happened, “Atoms for Peace” got off to a slow start in the US: private energy utilities entering this new industry had to be seduced with huge government subsidies for nuclear research, plant design, uranium mining, fuel supply, waste disposal — and legislation to limit liability in cases where accidents lead to human casualties.
The British experience
Successive Tory (and Labour) governments, having agreed the momentous decision to “go it alone”, set up the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), an extremely shadowy organisation with seemingly unlimited access to public funds and vested with total control over the stockpiling of plutonium produced at Calder Hall for Britain’s atomic weapons programme. Three years later in 1957, the first major accident in a British nuclear plant occurred at Windscale (now Sellafield), when a plutonium production reactor containing 11 tonnes of uranium fuel caught fire. As a result 20,000 curies of radioactive iodine were discharged to the atmosphere and dairy production contaminated in an area 500 square kilometres downwind. Number One and Two reactors were eventually entombed in concrete along with tonnes of spent uranium and newly created plutonium, for safety reasons. Over the period 1965-79 more than 120,000 curies of radioactive liquid seeped into the environment from leaky storage silos at Windscale.
“Atoms for Peace” was similarly adapted by the British government as the umbrella for covert plutonium production for weapons of mass destruction. Nevertheless, the UKAEA 3rd Annual Report 1956-57 outlined plans for a civil nuclear power programme based on 20 Magnox reactors, of the Calder Hall design, to be operational by 1965; in fact this programme was completed six years later in 1971.
A second generation of 14 Advanced Gas-Cooled Reactors (AGR) was finally completed in the mid-80s, 11 years behind schedule with a cost over-run estimated at the time of £3 billion. Again, the “waste” plutonium produced as by-product was recycled for use in missile warheads or stored to await reprocessing. Less than 4 per cent of Britain’s energy needs came from nuclear sources in 1975; today a total of 16 nuclear sites (including one PWR) generate 20%, for which every electricity consumer so billed pays a “nuclear levy”.
Following the 1974 oil crisis, the DoE and UKAEA predicted a need for 104GW nuclear generating capacity, or about 80 AGR equivalents, by the year 2000. After five years this absurd estimate had fallen by 50%, and to 20% a decade later. Not surprising really, when you consider the highest ever recorded electricity output in Britain of 50GW (from all sources including nuclear) was achieved on 11 January 1987. North Sea oil, cheap labour coal, even cheaper gas supplies, energy conservation, “lean-burn” technologies, periodic economic recession leading to changing permutations in government energy policy, i.e., privatisation, and, arguably most of all, the threat of catastrophic nuclear accident comparable to, if not worse than, Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, have all combined to reduce growth of civil nuclear power generation.
Working class opposition in the form of trade union strikes and boycott, e.g. Windscale and London Dumping Convention, plus demonstrations and campaigns initiated by various environmental/disarmament NGOs, such as CND, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, and public inquiries like Sizewell B PWR, have also played an important role in alerting the general public to the awesome dangers inherent in a militarised nuclear industry.
Radioactive waste disposal
The fission of uranium in a nuclear reactor, as well as releasing huge quantities of heat, produces large numbers of decay products, many of them radioactive, including iodine, xenon, caesium, strontium, cobalt, tritium and plutonium — about 26 isotopes in all. Some of these are short-lived. But not least among public concerns is how residual radioactive isotopes of high intensity, longevity and large volumes are made safe and isolated from the external, living world. For example, highly radioactive plutonium has a half-life of 24,400 years, much longer than our “inter-glacial” human civilisation has lasted so far, yet it first appeared on the planet barely 60 years ago.
The development of nuclear power has gone ahead without any long-term solution for the containment of nuclear wastes. It was generally assumed by nuclear scientists and naively accepted by government advisors that long-lived isotopes could be solidified, placed in sealed containers and buried in remote, subterranean, stable, rock formations i.e, geological burial. This is not yet an option and may never be — viz the NIREX survey for a £3 billion waste repository at Sellafield. In the meantime, radioactive wastes from nuclear reactors globally are now accumulating at 10,000 tonnes per year and reached 130,000 tonnes in 1995, all stored on site or at nuclear reprocessing plants. Just over 1,200 tonnes of this total is the artificially produced element, plutonium. Roughly 20% has been separated from spent fuel and turned into warheads for weapons of mass destruction. About 400 tonnes of separated plutonium is used for civil research and development into “fast breeder” fuel, or is awaiting recycling in non-breeder nuclear plants. The rest has been produced in civilian reactors around the world and remains unseparated or stored for eventual disposal. Yet this toxic material is still being produced as a by-product of routine nuclear reactor operations — there are 478 power reactors worldwide — at a rate of 40 tonnes per year.
Furthermore, all power plants themselves will, when they are decommissioned, be added to the nuclear stockpile of wastes. Some scientists warn the daunting and relatively untried task of decommissioning and dismantling a nuclear power plant will release even more radioactive isotopes to land, sea and air than were released during its active life. Currently, no government decision on this perennial nuclear crisis has been forthcoming and none is on the distant horizon, certainly not for high level wastes. Meanwhile, so-called medium level wastes are stored at the surface in huge volumes while lower level wastes are continuously “diluted and dispersed” into the wider environment where many have no natural equivalents and where they add to natural, though biologically damaging, background radiation levels.
Reprocessing and enrichment
While initial efforts were dedicated almost exclusively to military objectives, a civil use for plutonium was discovered, almost by accident. Though rare in nature (fissile) uranium can be burnt in a “thermal” reactor where some of the input fuel — about 1.6% — is turned into plutonium. Once extracted from spent fuel this plutonium can be mixed with relatively more abundant (fertile) uranium to make new fuel. This “mixed oxide fuel” (MOX) can be burnt in thermal nuclear plants, for example the Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR) at Sizewell. However, plutonium burns more efficiently in the Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR), a reactor configuration which produces more plutonium than it burns — hence “breeder” — and so enables spent fuel to be constantly recycled and reprocessed into new MOX fuel, for more FBRs which themselves produce more fuel to “seed” even more FBRs, forever!
At least, that was the amazing theory. In practice this concept has presented nuclear scientists, engineers and other related boffins with a formidable technical challenge. So much so, that after 40 years of on-off research and development, endemic breakdown, low “breeding” ratios and crippling costs to the “public exchequer” — £3 billion so far — the British prototype FBR, located for safety reasons on a remote site at Dounreay, has been switched off — indefinitely. At least, that is the “official” reason. In fact this decision was purely strategic — the plant had completed production of its quota of weapons-grade plutonium for Trident nuclear warheads.
The commercialisation of reprocessing and recycling of nuclear fuel by the separation of plutonium links domestic plants, which need reliable supply, with customer governments, who want access to expensive nuclear facilities. The critical danger inherent in such a policy with regard to plutonium reprocessing and enrichment technology is one of nuclear proliferation. Proliferation risks increase in direct relationship to the availability of plutonium and its trade as a hugely profitable fuel commodity worldwide. Attempts to minimise this risk have resulted in double standards being applied. For example, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), appears not to have the power, or the inclination, to impose physical controls to stop the spread of reprocessing and enrichment technology for nuclear warhead manufacture, in the case of Israel or Pakistan, despite its rigorous policing of the Non-Proliferation Treaty with respect to Iraq. While nuclear weapons proliferation is supposedly controlled and prevented via the NPT, the quantity of “materials unaccounted for” is estimated at about one per cent, a chilling fact when you consider it takes less than 0.01 tonnes of plutonium to make an atomic warhead.
Other international treaties set up during the Cold War have also failed in their stated objectives: indeed Strategic Arms Reduction (START), Strategic Arms Limitation (SALT), STOP(!), whatever, are a sober reflection on the insane military mind and its belief that survival of capitalism is predicated on strategies of “mutual assured destruction” (MAD). How else do we explain how the “peace dividend”, that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity arising from the ashes of the Cold War, is, on the one hand, invested toward current and future decommissioning of 10% of the global arsenal of 60,000 nuclear warheads, and on the other, squandered by the British state on an even more powerful nuclear weapon delivery system such as Trident.
There are no ground rules for the international plutonium business; the search for mega profits is the only driving force. But behind the scenes the British Government is frantically pulling all the strings to establish a framework for a private, competitive nuclear industry than can finance, build, sell and operate nuclear power stations, both at home and abroad. British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) is the key player in the domestic nuclear market, operating the spent fuel reprocessing and recycling plant at its vast Sellafield site. Here, BNFL produces different nuclear fuels to order to suit different reactor types. However, the new Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP), has proved hugely expensive and its future was only secured by German and Japanese contracts worth £2.5 billion and set up before the pilot plant was even built. Now BNFL wants to expand operations to develop mixed oxide fuel (MOX) on a commercial scale to take advantage of an expanding global market for nuclear fuel cycle services.
The central question driving BNFL’s plans for MOX expansion is simple: how to grab its share of the plutonium business and make billions of pounds? The competition has already stolen a critical march. For years now, COGEMA of France has been producing MOX fuel at the giant Cap de la Hague reprocessing plant for burning in domestic and foreign PWRs for example in Japan and Germany. Britain operates AGRs and MOX cannot be burnt in them. Apart from Sizewell B there is no on-going national programme for building PWRs so, for the next 10 years at least, BNFL can only develop MOX for the external market (PWRs make up 85% of reactor types globally).
This dilemma explains the recent purchase by BNFL of the nuclear power wing of ABB, a Swiss-Swedish company, for £400 million. This acquisition will be added to the resources of Westinghouse Electric, also constructors of PWRs, and purchased last year by BNFL. This buyout reveals that BNFL is trying to create its own “plutonium recycling zone”, as it attempts to specialise in MOX fuel, PWR supply and spent fuel reprocessing in a volatile and shifting nuclear “supermarket”. Almost overnight BNFL has become well placed to compete for PWR sales globally, as well as operating PWRs in the US, Europe and Asia, with an additional four planned sales to South Korea to add to four already operational. All these nuclear operators have now been offered fuel “discounts” aimed at seducing them to convert to burning MOX purchased from BNFL.
In return BNFL is seeking long-term contracts and watertight guarantees for the return of “spent fuel” for separation from “thermal” nuclear operators which will be legally binding on all its customers — even when energy and environmental programmes of elected governments subsequently call for withdrawal from such contracts such as Germany and Japan. An undesirable property of irradiated fuel, after six years at the core of a PWR, is that it is 100 million times more radioactive than fresh nuclear fuel, while the total volume of hazardous nuclear wastes after reprocessing is 1000 times greater than that of the spent fuel. This begs the question of whether BNFL has access to enough funds, public or private, to invest in the necessary control systems and safe storage capacity for the growing inventory of intensely radioactive fission products and of excess plutonium pending any decision on its re-entry into the nuclear fuel cycle. At the same time, the anticipated Government sale of 49% of BNFL to the private sector, even before a safe and reliable method of immobilisation and isolation of nuclear wastes is proven, threatens to raise deregulation of the nuclear industry to a frightening level because, as we have outlined, the separation of plutonium for commercial use, especially for overseas clients, is a primary proliferation risk.
In the relatively brief history of nuclear power there has been a whole litany of nuclear accidents, some more serious than others. As a result a number of reactors, reprocessing and storage facilities have been closed, most prematurely, such as Browns Ferry (US), Windscale/Sellafield (UK), Enrico Fermi (US), Lucens (Swz), Idaho (US), Chalyabinsk (Russia), Three Mile Island (US) and Chernobyl (Ukraine).
The latter two examples are worth outlining in more detail.
The accident to the PWR at Three Mile Island in 1979 was the result of a loss of reactor core coolant (water) which uncovered the core and melted 1/3 of the fresh fuel. Fission products immediately flooded the containment building and some radioactive isotopes, Krypton, Xenon and Iodine, escaped to the environment. Three workers suffered contamination. Probable excess (long-term) cancer deaths are put at between 10-100.
The accident at Chernobyl in 1986 was the result of an uncontrollable power surge in the reactor core which caused an explosion and blew the biological shield off the top of the RMBK (a reactor type similar to the PWR). The core melted and dispersed a radioactive cloud, including plutonium, over much of Europe. Thirty-one workers died and 200 suffered severe radiation sickness. 190,000 people were evacuated. Probable excess cancer deaths vary from tens to hundreds of thousands, of which 90% will occur in western Ukraine.
Chernobyl is the most serious accident to have occurred at a nuclear site, so far. It is worth noting that the incident was cloaked in state secrecy and only came to light when radiation alarms went off in Sweden.
The Rasmussen Report
Probabilistic risk analysis is widely applied to nuclear reactor operations. The most comprehensive study to date (at least, publicly available) remains the Rasmussen Report, published in America to smooth the path of the PWR. This report concludes that the risk of death from 100 nuclear power plants are comparable to those from meteorites ie. very low. The risk of a reactor core meltdown, such as occurred at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl is reckoned at 1:10,000,000. Based on probability, therefore, neither of these accidents nor those cited above should have happened. But — they did!
The nuclear state
The nuclear state threatens the civil rights of virtually everyone in Britain, not least because of its paranoia and secrecy. One of its foci is the need for draconian levels of security to ensure that plutonium — the material for nuclear weapons of mass destruction — does not fall into “dangerous” hands. Such security has already entailed (secretly) arming a 400-strong “civil” nuclear police force, via the Atomic Energy Authority (Special Constables) Act.
The nuclear state requires “positive vetting” and surveillance of individuals and political organisations, secret dossiers on private citizens, plus other extreme infringements of civil rights.
As the Flowers Report on Nuclear Power said 25 years ago: “What is most to be feared is an insidious growth in surveillance in response to a growing threat as the amount of plutonium in existence, and familiarity with its properties increases... secret surveillance of member of the public or employees who may make ‘undesirable’ contacts... might include the use of informers, infiltrators, phone tapping, checking on bank accounts, the opening of mail... general search warrants, restrictions on general assembly and suspension of habeas corpus i.e., martial law. No doubt many of these methods are already applied to certain small groups”.
At nuclear power sites worldwide, “positive vetting involves rigorous scrutiny of workers lives by security guards including regular reviews of political associations to reveal possible contact with ‘subversive’ organisations. Such vetting is used to uncover ‘psychological and character defects’ with respect to matters of national security”.
Fusion and alternatives
Of the fusion reactions that have been investigated as power sources, that between deuterium and tritium produces most energy. In Britain, controlled fusion reactions are being conducted under the Joint European Torus (JET) project. After more than 50 years of research and development, costing the taxpayer billions of pounds, controlled fusion has been achieved for very brief periods of time — 1.6 seconds is the best time yet for the key parameter, i.e., the Lawson Produc” — but, so far, has not been harnessed to produce electricity. Scientists in this field speak of a fusion reactor producing civil electrical power as being many decades away.
From the perspective of capitalism, nuclear energy is a “strategic resource.” It can replace manpower; it can annihilate inhabitants of a city; it is a highly centralised “technical fix”. However, energy needs can be modified and reduced, energy sources can be modified and multiplied.
In comparison with other states, especially in the EU, Britain is well-endowed with energy resources. It has very large coal reserves, is currently self-sufficient in oil and natural gas, and, indeed, has been a net energy exporter since 1980. It has little by way of uranium reserves. Britain has large areas of coastline which could harness wave power, and potential sites for tidal power stations. Even modest recycling and reuse strategies have great potential for resource conservation, for example direct heating schemes, thermal insulation, heat pumps, solar, geothermal and biomass energy. In Britain, half the energy wasted when burning oil, coal and gas could be recovered by combined heat and power networks (burning a premium fuel like gas in power plants was always criminally wasteful).
A sustainable energy plan
Britain should rid itself of the debilitating burden of nuclear power. For workers in the industry, the choice is between job redeployment or an unsafe workplace. For the public at large, the evidence for potential slow radiation poisoning, causing irreparable damage to health and the environment demands the following:
* A complete halt to construction and commissioning of nuclear power stations, such as PWR.
* The phased decommissioning of existing nuclear power stations, such as Magnox, AGR, FBR.
* Continued research and development to find an environmentally safe solution to nuclear waste disposal.
* Research and development on decontamination of all nuclear sites and surrounding land.
* Reprocessing centres, such as Sellafield to halt all work on fuel separation.
* Reappraisal of fusion research.
* Trident to be decommissioned and scrapped.
* Maximise research and development on renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar and wave.
References and sources:
W Patterson, The Plutonium Business; Nuclear Engineering (various);
Open University, Science Matters;
New Scientist (various);
Earthscan, The Future of Energy Use;
G Foley, The Energy Question;
US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, The Ranussen Report;
Commission on Environmental Pollution, The Flowers Report;
FoE, The End of the Nuclear Dream;
A Roberts, Hazards of Nuclear Power;
R Bertell, No Immediate Danger;
R Carson, Silent Spring;
International Institute of Energy and Development (various).