BZE interview Dr. Jim Green from Friends of the Earth about nuclear energy

Beyond Zero's Matthew Wright speaks to Dr. Jim Green of Friends of the Earth, about the risks of a potential transition to Nuclear energy, the motivations of it's supporters and the superiority of renewable energy.

Beyond Zero intervew Dr. Jim Green

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Matthew Wright: We are very happy to be able to present to you, Dr Jim Green, from Friends of the Earth based in Melbourne. He is Friends of the Earth National Anti-Nuclear campaigner, and we have got Dr Jim Green on the line. Hello Jim?

Jim Green: G’Day Matt.

Matthew Wright: And, nuclear industry, and nuclear power is very topical at the moment, obviously, with the coalescing of both the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster around 25 years ago, I think a week or so ago, combined with the happenings at the Fukushima plant, Daichiich 2 plant, post the tsunami and the fact that just about every plant in the world is a 2nd generation plant like that Fukushima plant, and to varying degrees has those risks associated with it.

So, we thought we’d get someone who’s got some good insights into that industry, not just the actual power generation at the reactors, but also the total life cycle, so what happens in the exploration extraction, mining, transport, and then finally the power production at the plants, and then waste disposal and any links to other industries, so its great to have Jim on the line.

So Jim, just to start off, can you tell us a little bit of history about yourself, and how you got involved in this field.

Jim Green: Well I did honours degree in public health, and then I went to Wollongong Uni, and did a PhD. And a topical issue then was the proposed replacement of the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor, which seemed an interesting topic because it has a number of medical and public health implications, because it was clearly it was a major controversy at the time, so that’s what I did my PhD thesis on, so that was my first introduction to nuclear issues, and it has just gone on since then.

Matthew Wright: And did anything inspire you into the area? Were you interested in the environment, or in social health? Or, what was that… sort of thing?

Jim Green: Well, obviously the public health aspects, but, when I started to study the issue, what really struck me was how frequently peaceful nuclear programs are used for cover for weapons production, or for developing a nuclear weapons capability. And that’s been my major motivation over the past 15 years or so. Because it happens so often, and because nuclear weapons, as you know are the most destructive, immoral, and indiscriminate weapons.

So a nuclear power future essentially means, nuclear weapons, and it’s the killer argument against nuclear power, and all things nuclear.

Matthew Wright: Now it does seem, that the nuclear, the idea of going to a nuclear future is really deeply imbedded and ingrained in some peoples psyche, those who are linked to the nuclear industry and so on, but there is a hardcore 10-20% of Australians, and a similar in different countries, obviously not in Germany, but in most countries like UK, like Australia and US, who really are sold on the idea of a nuclear powered economy.

Can you give us some ideas about where there thinking came from? Why they’ve bought into that? I’m talking the social buy in by a significant demographic of the public.

Jim Green: Yeah, well there were quite a few reasons. I will just touch on a few. I guess the most legitimate reason is that some people are terribly concerned about climate change, and they are sceptical about the potential for renewable energy, so that argument is at least coming from a good place, in a sense that it is a concern about the planet, but of course you know, the potential for renewables is there, but that potential needs to be expanded through further R & D.

I guess the more worrying aspects of the pro nuclear push, well one of the more ridiculous ones, is people like John Howard. There’s only one possible reason that he could be supporting nuclear power when he was Prime Minister, is that greenies hate it, and he was trying to drive a wedge through the environment movement, and he also wanted to drive a wedge through the labor party. But it backfired on John Howard really badly; it just turned out to be a major liability for him in the 2007 election which he lost.

And, you know there is just this general attraction with techno-fixes to complex social and environmental problems that lends itself to support for nuclear power. So there is quite a few different reasons.

But it has fallen away pretty badly in the wake of Fukushima, that’s support for nuclear power. The broad-brush picture is, there was likely to be modest expansion of nuclear power in the coming decades before Fukushima, but now I would say the most likely outcome is that nuclear power will be stagnant over the next 20 years, just as it has been stagnant for the past 20 years.

Matthew Wright: And… you touched on Fukushima, and just prior to that there was a renaissance in talking about a renaissance of nuclear power, and there did see to be a wave that had hit the media, and struck a chord, talking about validating nuclear power.

What do you think caused the rise of the media mentions and the positive messaging around nuclear from certain sectors? What caused the rise in the 2 or 3 years leading up to the Fukushima disaster?

Jim Green: Well, the nuclear industry has been pushing to be seen as the solution for climate change for a couple of decades now, and they were doing it relentlessly, and without much luck for the first 10-15 years. And the lesson would be persistence. They were just so persistent with their message about the nuclear solution to climate change, that eventually it cut through.

And obviously it cut through a lot more in the conservative parts of the media, in Australia. The Australian newspaper would be an obvious example. So, there was all of that sort of stuff. Wedging the Labor party, wedging the environmentalists, and of course it’s a well funded industry, and they have had their PR teams working hard, and there are people like Patrick Moore, who was involved in the early days in Greenpeace, but has since flipped over the other side, and now works for corporate politicise, actually in Australia at the moment talking up nuclear power.

So yeah, a concerted campaign. And tied in with that is the concerted campaign to demonise renewables as well, and to portray renewables as being incapable of meeting the challenge.

And yeah, on the flip side is the social movements, and the anti-nuclear movement. And like all movements, it bubbles along at a fairly modest pace, with some occasional spectacular leaps in activity. So in Australia we had 100’s and 1000’s of people out on the streets to stop the Jabiluka mine, then we had another mass movements in to stop the nuclear waste dump in South Australia.

But, between those periodic upsurges, it’s pretty low. And in Australia we have been a victim of our own success really. Its hard to generate a major campaign against nuclear power, because people don’t think it’s likely to happen, and I think they are probably right.

Matthew Wright: We do have a major part to play though, as one of the 5 biggest producers of uranium ore I guess?

Jim Green: Oh totally. And that’s where we are trying to focus our energy. As you know, Australian uranium has been used by Tepco. It’s almost certainly used at Fukushima. It’s almost certainly radioactive by-products of Australian uranium that have been spreading around the globe over the past couple of months. In fact, that radiation plume from Fukushima has reached all the way back to Australia.

And, Yvonne Margarula who’s the senior traditional owner for the Mirra people on who’s land the uranium mines sit, she’s said how deeply saddens she is that uranium from her land is used in this catastrophe but, there is no such humility from the uranium industry itself. And its not promising to lift it’s standards, and I think it is going to be business as usual once all the public concern dies down.

One of the messages from this disaster at Fukushima, is public vigilance, is going to be essential if there are going to be improvements in the nuclear industry, and public vigilance, and public action is going to be necessary to phase this industry out, and get rid of it once and for all.

Matthew Wright: And, the pro nuclear campaigners have a number of claims that I think are relatively easy to debase. One of them I guess is that China, South Korea, a number of Asian fast developing countries are embarking on nuclear programs, and they say that is the reason that nuclear is back, that there’s a nuclear renaissance.

Can you tell us about those programs? My understanding is that they are actually installing the older generation plants that the west won’t actually accept.

So I am wondering if you can say whether that really is a signal that there is going to be the potential to build more plants in the west because of that. Because if they are automating the older generation plants, then that doesn’t help deploy plants in the west.

Jim Green: No. If we take China for example, yeah, quite a lot of the reactors that are under construction there are a generation 2, so they are reactors that wouldn’t stand a hope of being licensed in the west, and add to that a whole bunch of problems in China with unevenly and, generally poorly trained workforce, and ingrained corruption, and secrecy, and repression, and imprisonment of whistleblowers, you’ve really got a recipe for more Fukushimas in China.

The thing that will be even worse is when there is major accidents in China, they will be covered up, if we get any information from them at all, it will be through international radiation monitoring. But getting back to the nuclear renaissance, there is only 4 countries, where there has been talk of any significant expansion of nuclear power over the coming 20 years, which are China, India, Russia and South Korea.

Now, there will be some expansion in some, or all of those 4 countries, but that leaves another 188 countries, where there won’t be a significant nuclear expansion so, the US is sometimes mentioned. You would have heard so much talk about the nuclear renaissance in the US but, it’s dead in the water.

There’s this farcical situation, where the US government is offering literally billions of dollars in loan guarantees to energy utilities who are still backing out of nuclear projects despite having money literally thrown at them. So there certainly won’t be any nuclear renaissance in the US, certainly in Western Europe. It might be that the growth in China and India and one or two other countries, that that matches the decline of nuclear power in the rest of the world.

So, that’s a reasonable sort of picture, and it’s in that context that we can expect nuclear power to be more or less stagnant over the next 20 years.

Matthew Wright: But there is that moratorium they have announced in China and some internal concerns based around what you were just talking about, they don’t want to have a Fukushima in China, they are concerned they’re standards may not quite be there, and so at the moment they have decided not to commence any new plants, and there is a holding pattern on, and they are reviewing existing ones.

Do you think there is the potential that could slow China down?

Jim Green: Yeah, I think that will slow China down. And it might hopefully force some modest safety improvements. But, just because of the nature of the Chinese regime, they are not terribly sensitive to public pressure, and as I mentioned, they imprison whistleblowers, and they control the media, so I think it will slow down the growth of nuclear power in China, but it wont stop it.

Matthew Wright: And, in the US, you mentioned the US, billions of dollars, in fact, tens of billions of dollars of federal loan guarantees offered to nuclear power developments, particularly I think in Georgia and Florida.

Can you give us a status update as to whether those projects are moving ahead at any sort of pace?

Jim Green: Yeah, no. They are not at all. And if we go back 10 years ago, George Bush was throwing literally billions of dollars at the nuclear industry just as now president Obama now is. And George Bush was saying 10 years ago that there was going to be a major renaissance of nuclear power in the US, and there would be at least 3 large plants, new plants, online by 2010, and well, here we are at 2010 and there are no new plants. And there’s precious good of any being built in the near future.

So yeah, it’s dead in the water, but, you know, the industry is determined, and it has got a willing ear in Washington so, now the debate in the US is about whether the government will throw even more billions of dollars at the industry. At the moment there is about $18 Billion in loan guarantees available to nuclear power companies, and they are looking to up that to about $50 Billion, which might be enough of an incentive to get one or two new plants online, but nothing more than that.

Matthew Wright: Yeah, I had heard the figure of about $48 Billion being floated around. Now, But that Georgia plant, they had procured some equipment, so there must be an intents, certainly by purchasing some equipment, maybe that was just to comply with the federal recovery act, in terms of the December deadline, but I do understand they did buy equipment for the Georgia plant.

Jim Green: Yeah, I’m not across that level of detail, but it certainly sounds right. The general pattern is, that there is quite a lot of companies applying for licences for nuclear power in the US, because circumstances are favourable for them to do so, but they’re not planning to build the reactors.

They’re doing it as a bit of a hedge in the hope that things will turn out more favourably for nuclear power. Won’t be for the next 10-20 years, but it might be in the 10-20 years after that.

Matthew Wright: I guess with the steady increase in capacity in solar photovoltaic, and solar-thermal and wind power, it’s really a case whether they get those plants under construction and to fruition, in order to crown out the alternatives. If you’re talking 20-30 years, it’s quite likely that there’s no hope, and that renewable energy future will be here purely on cost.

Jim Green: Yeah, I think that’s a good point. You know, that would be the sort of line of argument from the industry peak bodies, and the industry strategists.

But when it comes down to a particular company, you know they’ve got much more short term thinking. And it’s just about the short term bottom line, and it’s not a lot much sense for them to invest billions of dollars in new reactors, because there’s a likelihood that they will be economic white elephants and investors will lose their money.

And of course, they are so expensive you know, the capital cost for a reactor is roughly $5 Billion as a ball park figure, it varies a lot of course. But, you know that’s an enormous cost and you know, it’s enormous relatively to the scale of you know, just about every corporation including quite a few who are in the nuclear game. So they’re just not going to bet that amount of money unless they’re very confident that it’s going to be profitable for them.

Matthew Wright: And, the… well I guess, there are a number of designs, there’s a European design, there’s a US design. In Europe, there is a project under construction to try and prove the European design. The EPR at Finland and it’s considerably over budget.

Can you tell us a bit about that and its sister project in France? Which I understand it has huge protests out the front of it at the moment.

Jim Green: Yeah, they’re called EPR – European Pressurized Reactors, and you’d call it a generation 3 pressurized design reactors, but with a few new bells and whistles, but will probably improve the economics of these plants and maybe mildly, better in relation to safety.

But to make them more economical what they are doing, is building ever larger reactors. So, these reactors are about 1600MW capacity, which is about twice the average of all the existing reactors around the world.

And it is just a bit of a disaster for them really. At the moment it is about three years behind schedule, and it’s about $3 Billion over budget, and they still haven’t solved all the problems.

In Western Europe they’ve all passed their peak of nuclear power, it’s been on the slide over the past 20 years, and one or two new reactors in Finland, and France certainly isn’t really going to change that trajectory.

Matthew Wright: The exception does seem to be the thinking in Finland, despite the $3.9 Billion over budget and the three years behind schedule, and another 1-2 years to potentially get that plant online, the Finnish government approved a second reactor. Why would they do that? I mean, the French aren’t even that bullish by the sounds.

Jim Green: Yeah, well I am not really familiar with Finnish politics, but I guess part of the question might be the availability of other energy sources. You know, I am not sure how well placed in geothermal, wind and solar, but that’s obviously part of the debate, but yeah, I’m not really that familiar enough with Finnish politics.

Matthew Wright: Great. We are talking to Dr Jim Green. He’s the national anti-nuclear campaigner for Friends of the Earth, based in Melbourne, Australia.

And Jim, in terms of the uranium mining side of things, can you tell us a bit about why that life cycle element is so bad, and how it should be linked to the total costs, as in the negative environmental social costs of nuclear power.

Often people site nuclear power and they say it’s a small amount of refined, or, as uranium is in a relatively small sort of building in terms of an industrial scale, it’s all very compact kind of way of generating energy, but in fact the whole life cycle actually involves vast amounts of land, and in Australia, vast amounts of Australia. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Jim Green: Yeah well, you would have heard the argument that nuclear power produces a negligible amount of waste, but that’s only looking at what comes, is produced in the reactors every year so, to operate one reactor for one year, it generates about 30 tons of kind of nuclear waste.

But, to produce the uranium that goes into that, produces about 700,000 tons of low level tailings waste. And that tailings waste is nasty stuff, because they don’t really know how to deal with it. At Olympic Dam they just pump it above ground into tailings dams and, they’re producing that at a rate of about 10million tons every year.And, its toxic stuff. The birds drink it and drop dead, the kangaroos jump in it and have to be shot.

But probably most importantly of all from the long term perspective is that, its emitting radiation, in particular its emitting radon gas. And that’s probably the most hazardous aspect of the entire nuclear fuel cycle, is that very long term release of low level radiation from uranium mines, and tailings dams. And also the nuclear process thing of spent fuel is another significant source of global radioactive emissions as well.

So, over the summer, we did a bit of an analysis of the hazards of nuclear power and it was quite unsatisfactory in a sense that we can’t accurately quantify some of those risks. We can’t quantify the WMD weapons proliferation risks and some of these other issues in terms of long term hazards from tailings, well, we have used figures based on research over the decades, but it’s highly uncertain.

And we were comparing it to coal, and again there’s a great deal of uncertainty. We know that particular emissions from coal plants are very dangerous, but in terms of quantifying that, you know, the best you could say it’s a guestimate.

The fact that there are things like the use of coal ash as a construction material, and the radiation exposures rising from that. But I guess the bottom line from that analysis, was that the most important risks for coal are global warming obviously, for nuclear power its weapons proliferation. And they are the reasons why these two technologies need to be phased out.

Matthew Wright: And, just a hypothetical, there are predictions that solar photovoltaic could halve in price to $4000 per Kw, and it obviously doesn’t have the capacity factor of nuclear, but certainly has a deployment rate that is unmatched in the energy industry in it’s ramp-up.

Wind capital costs down 25-30% due to the entrance of the Chinese developers whose pretty much cloned the best European turbines and they just do them cheaper.

If we’re…, a hypothetical for you. If its 10 years down the track, and the cost of PV has gone down below even that 2015 prediction of halving in price from today and there is just a massive deployment of those technologies, and nuclear is completely crowded out, and say we start a phase out, what would you do if the world’s 436 reactors were phased out?

And in terms of those containment vessels, all the contaminated equipment, and the nuclear waste, because it’s still something hasn’t been solved. What would be your suggestion what would we do with all of that waste?

Jim Green: Well, if there was a clear commitment to phase out the 430 reactors, I think the first thing that I would do is throw a party and, the second thing I would do is look for a new job.

In terms of that long term mess with the industry, they don’t really have much experience with de-commissioning nuclear plants. It takes a long time and costs a lot of money. A ball-park figure might be half a billion dollars to de-commission one nuclear rector.

And then they’ve got to find somewhere for the waste, and there’s still not a single country on the planet that’s got a repository behind them for nuclear waste so, if they’re going to phase out the industry they’re going to have to build those repositories and we will be asking future generations for centuries, and millennia to come to manage and deal with that problem.

So, you know, the broad outline is one which, it would take decades, it would take centuries to just to do the management of the problem, and the monitoring would go on for a millennia.

Matthew Wright: So really it’s quite a legacy that’s being imparted on future generations…

Jim Green: Oh yeah, absolutely. If the Romans had nuclear power we would still be looking after their high level nuclear waste.

Matthew Wright: Well they did give us plumbing but that’s a whole lot more useful to us.

Jim Green: Yeah.

Matthew Wright:Ah, look, we’re going to have to leave it there Jim. It’s been great speaking with you today on the Beyond Zero Show.

Jim Green: Thanks Matt.

Matthew Wright: And we’d love to get you back again in the future.

Jim Green: Sure.

Matthew Wright: We’ve been speaking with Dr Jim Green. He’s the anti-nuclear campaigner at Friends of the Earth, he’s based in Melbourne.

Their anti-nuclear campaign looks at nuclear proliferation, looks at the costs of nuclear power plants, and the alternatives, and how the industry is tracking around the world, and certainly how to counter the propaganda there is a nuclear renaissance, and that there’s any sort of significant build out anywhere around the world, because the answer is, there’s not. And he has covered that pretty well today.

If you want any more info about Friends of the Earth, you can go to www.foe.org.au. And if you want to find out any more information on Beyond Zero Emissions, the presenters of this program, www.beyondzeroemissions.org, Thank you.

Transcript by Matthew