Monday, November 15, 2010

Ron Smith: Sheep and Nuclear Waste

Greenpeace and other activists recently spent almost a week chaining themselves to railway lines, dressing up as sheep and blocking roads in a determined, but ultimately fruitless effort to block a shipment of nuclear waste from France to Germany. It would have been much more in the interests of German tax payers and energy consumers (not to mention the German police) if they had spent only a fraction of the time they devoted to the imaginative planning of fresh stunts, to attempting to understand the nature of the material whose transportation they condemn and the extensive arrangements that are made for its safe storage and ultimate disposal. Here are the basic facts for those interested in nuclear power and the use of civil disobedience by those who oppose it (and I speak as one who has actually been to the plant in France, where the material originated, and to the Gorleben facility, where it now is). And if any reader has a friend in Germany, it might be a kindness to pass this on.

Germany generates around 30% of its electrical power by nuclear means. It would be more, and the power would be significantly cheaper, if the German nuclear power industry had not been the victim of political sabotage over many years, due largely to the influence of the Green Party in the German Parliament. The specific point is that, for a long time, Germany has reprocessed spent fuel from its reactors in order to extract plutonium for further power production. This reprocessing also has a beneficial effect on storage/disposal at the end of the fuel cycle, since it removes the longer-lived isotope, plutonium-239. Reprocessing is currently done in France (and not in Germany) and the explanation for this is, again, more political (ideological) than technical. Germany could have reprocessed its own fuel; indeed a pilot plant for the purpose was in operation in Germany as early as 1971.

There is a general principle in the civilian nuclear industry that waste material is ultimately returned to the country where it is generated. This is why high-level waste from the reprocessing of German spent fuel is periodically returned to Germany for ultimate disposal. It is a service that France also performs for Japan (the subject of a column on this site, just about twelve months ago) and some other European countries. As in these other cases, the German consignments are contained in enormously robust shipping casks, which completely shield the radioactive contents from the environment and which are tested to resist extreme conditions of accident and fire. There has never been an accident with these shipments that has resulted in the release of radioactive material to the environment.

At Gorleben, the shipping casks and their contents are held in temporary storage until they can be finally placed in an underground repository over 3,000ft (nearly one kilometre) down in a thick layer of rock-salt. This facility has been ready for almost ten years and the reason emplacement has not happened has much more to do with political and ideological factors than it has to do with technical concerns. There are no plausible scenarios in which radioactive materials placed, as envisaged, in the vast galleries and storage areas below can escape to the environment. The salt layer was laid down some two hundred million years ago and it would not have retained its coherent structure if (for example) water was permeating through it.

Greenpeace is fond of saying that the ‘problem’ of nuclear waste has not been ‘solved’. This is simply not so. Wastes of various kinds from nuclear operations are being held and disposed of in a variety of locations around the world. The particular matter of the final disposal of long-lived isotopes was also the subject of a blog last March, where the facility at Carlsbad, New Mexico, which has been operating for more than ten years, was also described.

Given all this and all the problems of the world (environmental and other) Greenpeace and their allies could surely find a better cause to which to put their undoubted energy and imagination. It is also worth noting that if the activists were successful in their aim of closing down the German nuclear power industry (which is their avowed objective), Germany would need to import as much as 25,000 MWe from neighbouring countries and this would undoubtedly come from nuclear power. Otherwise, and given the global cooling that appears to have already begun, there are likely to be a lot of cold Germans, especially on those still, cloudless winter nights when not a windmill turns. At this point, the mindless destruction of the German civilian nuclear industry is going to look very foolish indeed. Protesters dressed as sheep, seem quite appropriate.

1 comment:

Brian said...

After reading Dr Smith’s article on the “attempts” by Greenpeace and its cohorts over German Nuclear Waste shipments, makes me wonder, or rather wish that the Comic Opera duo of Gilbert & Sullivan had written and composed in our own time.

What a field day they would be having with our World hypocrisies, but with our local ones as well. Regretfully comic opera has disappeared together with Vaudeville from our stage, a fact that must have come with great relief to Politicians.

One can but wonder after reading about the recent antics of the radical students in Britain recently inspired by anti-capitalistic motives against Government policies; whether similar groups in Germany and other countries around the world are gearing up in this ongoing World Depression (Apology “Recession”)? Certainly the fuel for a winter of discontent whether nuclear or otherwise is readily available with unemployment reaching towards 1930 levels.
It has become a most fertile breeding ground for active dissent, rivaling the period before the French Revolution of 1792, and the Russian epic of 1917.

We in “God’s Own Benign Environment”, have yet to take the real measures needed to save ourselves from becoming another Greece or Ireland economically. If and when, we have the leaders to institute such measures we might be able to join the real world. No doubt left wing organizations in New Zealand are already preparing a response!

Nuclear wise such an industry in New Zealand at the moment seems a distant prospect, especially so when we consider that successive Governments take cognizance firstly, from political minorities, instead of from economic necessity.

Fear is potent weapon, especially so when one views its relationship these days in ruling a country wisely. But then this brings to mind that “Folly” is a perennial chronic problem in government.

The dying Chancellor of Sweden under Gustavus Adolphus is reputed to have remarked:-

“Know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed”.