Chernobyl is a long way from the UK, but some of the radioactive pollution was carried there by the wind. That means that even 20 years later, sheep on hundreds of farms in hilly areas have to be tested for radiation before their meat can be eaten. After the explosions at the power plant, heat and smoke from the fires carried radioactive material 1km up into the sky. A north-westerly wind blew the pollution across Europe.
In Sweden, 1,000 miles from Chernobyl, some scientists noticed that radiation levels had doubled but they didn't know why this was happening. That was because the Soviet Union, which controlled Ukraine at the time, was very secretive and had not yet admitted to the world that there had been an accident. The wind carried the radioactive cloud past Sweden to Holland, Belgium and the UK. By now the Soviets had been pushed into telling the world what had happened at Chernobyl.
The radiation that escaped from the reactor's core was eventually detected in countries all over the northern hemisphere. The day after the accident nearly 50,000 people were told to leave the nearby town of Pripyat. Everyone who lived in the town got out in about two and a half hours. Today you can still see some of their belongings just where they left them - that's because these people were never allowed to return to their homes.
They had to leave because of the danger to their health from radiation, and that danger has not gone away. The power plant, the town, and areas around it will be too dangerous to live in for hundreds of years. There is a 30km exclusion zone around the power station. Inside this zone, it's against the law to live or run a business like a shop or factory, but people can go to this area to visit.
Scientists have been surprised by how well the area's wild animal population has recovered.
The animals suffered from the radiation, but they have benefited from the lack of people. There area is now home to wolves, wild horses, wild boar and lynx.
In 2001, Dutch chemist and energy systems expert Jan Willem Storm Van Leeuwen and nuclear physicist Dr Phillip Smith published a paper based on peer reviewed methodology which showed that when the concentration of uranium ore is mined rock drops below a level of 0.02percent, nuclear power uses more energy in the form of fossil fuels than it generates as electricity. Their work demonstrates that nuclear power faces an identical situation to fossil fuels – there will come a point at which more energy is expended in extracting the fuel from the ground than is eventually available at the plug. The question is, how long will rich uranium ore last?
The most widely accepted estimate suggests that the world’s known uranium deposits could fuel the current fleet of reactors for around 42 years. However, this is based on an assumption that the world’s nuclear fleet will expand no further. Contrary to this, India has announced plans to build a further 24 reactors, China another 40, Japan 13, Russia 40, and the United States expects private sector applications for another 29.
If these projects go ahead, the demand for uranium will soar. Attempting to supply just 16 per cent of world electricity demand from nuclear power will lead to the exhaustion of rich ore reserves within 12 years, according to environmental scientist and author Paul Mobbs. The world’s largest uranium mine is Australia’s Olympic Dam. Operated by mining giant BHP Billiton, it currently mines uranium in the region of 0.05 per cent concentration, and is only economic because it also produces copper, silver and gold. Its future uranium reserves, upon which many of the nuclear industry’s hopes are pinned, hover around 0.022 per cent, dangerously close to the level at which nuclear power becomes a net emitter of greenhouse gases.
Despite its 50-year history, nuclear power is still unable to survive without subsidies. In the UK , the government has set aside some £75 billion of taxpayer’s money to deal with legacy nuclear waste, and has financially guaranteed the decommissioning of two defunct ‘Magnox’ reactors. It should be emphasized that no private sector company will undertake the building of a new nuclear power station without a guarantee that assistance will be available to deal with waste that will last for hundreds of thousands of years. Currently, the UK has a stockpile of more than 100,000 tonnes of nuclear waste, which is set to grow to at least 500,000 tonnes by 2050, even without new plants.
The nuclear industry is keen to stress that new reactors would produce much less waste than past ones. But the campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has shown that the proposed new reactors for the UK, Westinghouse AP1000s, actually produce more High Level Nuclear Waste (HLW) per unit of output than the current fleet of power stations. Figures released by the UK Government’s Committee on Radioactive Waste Management show that while the volume of waste future power stations might produce is not great, it would increase the radioactivity of Britain’s stockpile by 165 per cent. It is this HLM waste that is the hardest – and most energy intensive – byproduct to deal with.
For example, the New Jersey’s state department of environmental protection has ordered the Oyster Creek nuclear power station to stop the spread of tritium-contaminated water, which has reached a major aquifer that supplies potable water. The department said there was no imminent threat to water supplies but has launched an investigation into the leak, which originated in below-ground pipework. The issue was detected last April but the department noted that the subsequent actions of Exelon Corp, which owns the plant, have not been sufficient to contain the spill. It is understood that at its current rate of spread the pollution plume would not reach the nearest well for around 15 years.
A cocktail of highly radioactive isotopes, including uranium and plutonium, HLW is so radioactive when removed from reactors that it must be sealed and actively cooled in ponds of water for 50 years, or ‘vitrified’ in glass. In an energy-constrained future, could we afford to pay for this legacy?
Of the 40 or so countries that will have to address the long term management of long – lived radioactive wastes, the majority have adopted a policy in favour of deep geological disposal. Of those who are yet to decide, none has adopted a policy in favour of indefinite (as opposed to Interim ) storage, although the Scottish government is currently consulting on a variant of this for the more limited inventory of waste located currently in Scotland.
The US has a geological disposal facility, known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant that has been operating successfully for many years; Finland is in the process of excavating its deep repository; France is characterizing its preferred site; Sweden selected its preferred site last year with strong public support; and many others are going through the siting process.
Whilst some countries are facing challenges in repository site selection, such as Japan for HLW and the US spent fuel, these are not due to the technical/scientific reasons for disposal. What is the ethics of a decision to despoil the planet with intrinsically dangerously material; Dig very deep holes and bury our waste?
It remains to be seen what Ohakim’s options are in the planned Owerri nuclear plants.