Nuclear power plants – ”no significant harm?”-risks of catastrophic accidents, wastes dangers to future generations, water consumption.

3 months ago 89

Not green and not sustainable,  The science-based case for excluding nuclear power from the EU taxonomy, Beyond Nuclear, 15 Jan 2022,  ”………………………Does the present generation of nuclear fission power plants ‘do no significant harm’? 

To answer this question, two specific issues for nuclear power stand out: the risk of a catastrophic accident and the management of high-level nuclear waste (HLW). Nuclear fission energy is characterized by low probability, high consequence risks to humans and the environment. Even the JRC recognizes that the risk of a severe nuclear accident cannot be excluded, even in the best commercially available nuclear power plants. 

The disaster in Fukushima (2011) was triggered by a process that these nuclear reactors were not “designed” to withstand. These circumstances shed light on the limitations of the technical risk assessments, which have not fully taken into account beyond design risks in particular of core melt accidents. 

The events in Fukushima have made it apparent that such assessments are based on specific assumptions, for example on seismic safety or the maximum height of a tsunami, and that reality can disprove these assumptions. Deciding whether such risks belong to the category of ‘tolerable risks’ for a given society depends on the various risk regulation measures put in place. Especially relevant for nuclear fission power is the fact that the liability of the operator in the case of a severe accident is limited and the remaining costs are (largely) taken on by the state (privatization of profits, socialization of risks).

The Taxonomy architecture is not designed to cater for such risks that carry an intergenerational impact lasting for thousands of years, making it an unsuitable instrument to decide on the sustainable nature of nuclear power. 

The characteristics and nature of HLW generated by the nuclear fission process present long-term intergenerational risks and thereby challenge the principle of ‘do no significant harm’ to the extent that nuclear fission energy may not be considered eligible for the EU Taxonomy. 

This was made abundantly clear to the Commission in the TEG’s recommendations, which were not published in their entirety. Independent, scientific, peer-reviewed evidence compiled by TEG provided confirmation of the risk of significant harm arising from nuclear waste. 

The back end of the fuel cycle is currently dominated by the containment of spent fuel rods and waste from nuclear power facilities. Safe and secure long-term storage of nuclear waste remains unresolved and has to be demonstrated in its operational complexity. Whilst the nuclear industry and international nuclear waste experts provide assurances of multiple engineered safeguards designed to reduce the risks from nuclear waste through geological disposal, the question remains whether, despite the solid scientific basis and thorough geological knowledge gathered, in the absence of experience with this technology, one can really guarantee that HLW will remain isolated from humans and the environment for thousands, let alone millions of years. 

The fact that a ‘solution’ has to be found for the existing quantities of waste (as well spent fuel as conditioned high level waste forms), and that geological disposal is the least bad solution for this, does not imply that nuclear power can suddenly be classified as a ‘green’ energy source. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that the risks presented by nuclear fission energy to the ‘do no significant harm’ principle and technical screening criteria of the EU Taxonomy means that it can not be considered EU Taxonomy eligible or aligned as long as the technology and fuel cycle management has not proven to be sustainable as a whole.  

Other concerns with regard to DNSH criteria 

Nuclear fission power plants require about three cubic metres of cooling water per megawatt hour (MWh) produced. A nuclear plant’s cooling water consumption is higher than that of fossil-fuel plants. Throughout the world, new nuclear plants and existing plants increasingly face cooling water scarcity induced by heat waves, a situation that is likely to be aggravated by climate change. More efficient cooling technologies could be considered, but this adds to the already high costs of nuclear power plants. 

For reasons of having access to enough cooling water, nuclear plants are mostly sited in coastal or estuarine locations, but this makes them vulnerable to flooding and extreme events that climate change may occasion. The siting of nuclear power plants along coastal zones presents adaptation risks associated with sea-level rise, water temperature rise, coastal erosion as well as natural catastrophes such as the Fukushima disaster demonstrates. 

The Fukushima disaster reveals how powerless human operators are when nuclear systems escape full, continuous control. Instead of helping to address the impacts of the Tsunami as renewable energy sources would have, the devastated nuclear power plant strongly aggravated the emergency relief in the province and left huge new problems of liquid waste and radioactive waste resulting from infrastructure and land cleaning activities, never encountered before in densely populated industrial areas. 

Furthermore, when major nuclear plant accidents occur significant land areas become unsuitable for human habitation (e.g. Chernobyl, Fukushima). 

Advocates of nuclear power draw attention to the survival of natural flora and fauna in zones contaminated by radioactive materials and precluding human access. However, this is presumably not the type of ecological protection and resilience that the EU Taxonomy aims to achieve. Surface or underground mining and the processing of uranium ore can substantially damage surrounding ecosystems and waterways. The huge volumes of associated mining waste in developing countries are normally not considered in life cycle waste inventories of nuclear energy producing countries. 

More critically, the adverse effects on local environmental conditions of routine discharging of nuclear isotopes to the air and water at reprocessing plants have not been considered thoroughly enough. A number of adverse impacts (of radiation) on soil/sediment, benthic flora and fauna and marine mammals has been demonstrated ………………………………

Read Entire Article