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Syria Should Not Pursue Nuclear Electricity Generation

The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) reported on February 16, 2011 that Syria has informed the International Atomic Energy Agency it is weighing the possible construction of an initial atomic energy facility by 2020.

Such a development is disconcerting. It disregards the lessons from the disasters at Three Mile Island in the United States in 1979 and at Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986, as well as the scores of radiation incidents since the 1940s, let alone the challenge of safe disposal of spent reactor fuel.


The Three Mile Island accident

On March 28, 1979, a partial reactor core meltdown at the Three Mile Island power plant in Pennsylvania severely damaged a brand new reactor--online for only three months. The experts, who had argued that an accident like this could not happen, initially described it as a “minor malfunction.” Within days, 140,000 people had left the area. Radiation releases from the accident were contained, so that no perceptible effect on cancer incidence was observed, though one team of researchers contested these findings.


Cleanup of the accident took 14 years (from August 1979 to December 1993) and cost around $975 million. Initially, efforts focused on the cleanup and decontamination of the site. Starting in 1985, radioactive fuel was removed. The defueling process was completed in 1990. The damaged fuel was removed and disposed of in 1993. The contaminated cooling water that leaked into the containment building had seeped into the building’s concrete, leaving the radioactive residue impossible to remove. The accident dented the popularity of nuclear energy--from 1980 to 1984, 51 American nuclear reactors were cancelled.


The Chernobyl disaster

On April 26, 1986, a reactor at the Chernobyl plant in the Ukraine had a fatal meltdown. A plume was released into the atmosphere containing four hundred times more radioactive fallout than had been by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Rain contaminated with radioactive material fell as far away as Ireland. 600,000 people were exposed to high levels of radiation. Over 336,000 people were evacuated and resettled. Farming and other types of agricultural industry would be dangerous for at least 200 years in a large area, and it would be at least 20,000 years before the site of the meltdown were safe. 


The Fukushima Daiichi Disaster 

The devastating 9.0 magnitude earthquake that hit Japan on March 11, 2011, with the ensuing deadly Tsunami, disabled this six-nuclear-reactor power plant northeast of Tokyo and caused fires, equipment breakdown, and radioactive releases into the sea and the atmosphere. The accident was rated 7, the highest rating on the International Nuclear Event Scale, which indicates widespread contamination with serious health and environmental effects. The severity of the damage was such that all six reactors must be scrapped, a process that will require years and monumental expense to complete. Already, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), the plant's operator, incurred a net loss of $15 billion for the business year ending March 31, 2011, the largest loss by a non-financial company in Japan.


In reaction, Germany announced on May 30, 2011 that it would shut down all 17 nuclear reactors by 2022. A week earlier, Switzerland, where 40% of electricity is nuclear generated had announced that it would shut down its reactors by 2034.


The case for abandoning nuclear power generation

The development in recent years of safe and environmentally friendly renewable resources of energy to generate electricity from the sun and wind, among other means, have raised the standards of safety and environmental protection for the nuclear power industry. Given the catastrophic consequences on the lives and well-being of millions of people in the event of a major reactor accident, nuclear power plants must be 100 percent safe, not only 99.99 percent safe.


There cannot be disagreement among proponents and opponents of nuclear energy regarding the catastrophic loss to life and property resulting from a major reactor accident. The disagreement between the two camps surrounds the probability that such an accident might materialize. Evaluating such probability is a subjective matter.


The nuclear power industry claims that reactor design since the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents has improved and that nuclear energy is now safe and environmentally friendly. The industry’s lobbyists are diligently at work trying to convince world leaders that nuclear energy should be part of the solution to the world’s future energy requirements. Opponents of nuclear power, on the other hand, believe that all things mechanical are likely to break down at some point due to design defect or human error. They believe that regardless of how infinitesimal the probability might be of a major reactor accident materializing, discounting the monumental losses that would result from such an accident by the infinitesimally tiny probability of the accident occurring would still leave a prohibitively high potential loss. In the case of a major nuclear accident, Syria and its neighbors would suffer horribly. They do not possess--indeed, no country possesses--enough hospitals, surgeons, or scientists to cope with a sudden and unexpected flood of tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of casualties. Opponents of nuclear energy contend also that such the nuclear lobby ignores the carbon footprint created by the processes that turn uranium ore to nuclear fuel and the millennia-long damage to the environment resulting from the toxic waste left by the operations of nuclear reactors.


The Challenge of Nuclear Waste

Even if the reactor were to operate without any problem, there would still be the grim task of safely disposing of toxic waste. Reactor waste is radioactive and must be isolated from the biosphere until the radioactivity has diminished to a safe level. Special physical, chemical, and thermal characteristics must be met before a burial site is deemed suitable for the decaying radioactive waste, which may require even a million years until it becomes safe.


Meanwhile, during the long sweep of the millennia, an earthquake, a volcano, or some other natural disaster might force the decaying waste to the Earth’s surface. Disturbing nuclear waste accidents have already occurred. For example, in the former Soviet Union, waste stored in Lake Karachay was blown over the area in the spring of 1968 as the lake began to dry up, and the wind carried away a substantial volume of radioactive dust, irradiating half a million people. At Maxey Flat, a low-level radioactive waste facility located in Kentucky, containment trenches collapsed under heavy rainfall and became radioactive. In France, at the Areva plant in Tricastin, liquid containing untreated uranium overflowed out of a faulty tank and about 75 kg of the radioactive material seeped into the ground and, from there, into two nearby rivers.


The cost factor

Even if the cost of nuclear electricity is a fraction of the cost of alternative technologies, and it is not, non-nuclear technologies are preferable because the safety of people and environmental protection are superior to economics or finance.


It is doubtful whether nuclear energy is truly cost effective when taking into account the costs beyond the construction and operation of the nuclear power plant. First, there is the cost of decommissioning the reactor at the end of its useful life as well as the costs of disposal of the toxic nuclear waste. Decommissioning costs are enormous. The cleanup costs of decommissioning in the United Kingdom, for example, stood at $110 billion in 2008. In the United States, even if no new reactors are built, getting rid of the country’s nuclear waste will cost $96.2 billion, according to the Department of Energy. Second, there is the capital investment and maintenance of the emergency preparedness assets required to deal with the tens of thousands, possibly the hundreds of thousands of casualties from a sudden major reactor accident. Last and above all, the loss of life alone should dissuade decision-makers from pursuing the nuclear option altogether.


The case for solar and wind power

A number of alternative renewable power resources to generate electricity are available today on a commercial scale; such as, geothermal, sea waves, solar, and wind, among others. Following is a brief description of two renewable resources: solar power and wind power, both resources in abundance in Syria. 


Solar Power

Solar power is the generation of electricity from sunlight. The solar power industry is growing rapidly with almost 14,000 MW to be added globally through 2014. Using a technology known as Concentrated Solar Power (CSP), Solar Energy Generating Systems (SEGS) built the world’s largest commercially successful solar power generating network in California’s Mojave Desert. SEGS is composed of nine plants built between 1984 and 1990 covering more than 900,000 mirrors over 1,500 acres. It generates 310 MW, sufficient to meet the electricity demand of more than 230,000 homes at peak production during the day. CSP relies on mirrors or lenses to heat water to drive steam generators.


In 2008, photovoltaic (PV) technology was introduced on a commercial scale. Photovoltaics is the direct conversion of light into electricity. Some materials exhibit a property that causes them to absorb photons of light and release electrons. When these free electrons are captured, this creates an electric current. PV cells are constructed of two thin layers of semi-conducting materials (usually silicon) that have been treated chemically. When sunlight hits the PV cells, it creates an electric field across the two layers.


As of October 2009, the largest PV power plant was the Olmedilla Photovoltaic Park in Spain, a 60 MW facility (meeting the electricity needs of some 40,000 homes). Larger PV power plants are currently under construction. These include the 550 MW Topaz Solar Farm in California, expected to begin power delivery in 2011 and be fully operational by 2013, as well as the 600 MW Ranch Cielo Solar Farm in New Mexico.


Wind Power

Wind power is the conversion of wind energy using wind turbines to make electricity. A 2005 study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research found that wind power could satisfy up to seven times the world’s electricity needs. World wind generation capacity has been growing rapidly in recent years. Existing wind power capacity grew by 29 percent in 2008 to reach 121 GW, or more than double the 59 GW of capacity in place at the end of 2005. Wind power accounted for 42 percent of new capacity additions in the United States and for 36 percent of new installations in Europe. As of May 2009, 80 countries around the world were using wind power on a commercial basis.


The EU climate and energy strategy released on January 23, 2008, commits the community as a whole to source 20 per cent of its total energy demand from renewable sources by 2020. In the United Kingdom, over 40,000 MW of offshore wind projects are at various stages of development. When completed, by around 2020, a third of the UK’s electricity will be generated by wind power.


In 2008, China installed approximately 6,300 megawatts, doubling the nation’s cumulative wind capacity for the fourth year in a row. The Chinese Renewable Energy Industry Association projects wind capacity to reach 50,000 MW by 2015.


How might the decision to pursue nuclear electricity generation have been made?

That Syria plans to meet its growing demand for electricity is admirable. However, its interest in a nuclear power at a time when safe alternatives are readily available is inexplicable. How and what kind of a process produces such a potentially disastrous decision? In response to this question, Syria’s style of national governance should be considered.


Syria’s president is an absolute ruler. Syria’s governance is autocratic, non-representative, and non-participatory. The interest in importing a nuclear plant to generate electricity is a politically driven energy policy with the negative consequences of a poorly informed ruling elite.


In pursuit of billions of dollars in export revenues, nuclear power plant manufacturers associate themselves with the political and business elites around the world. In Damascus, at the top of the business elite is the relatives of the presidential family. The manufacturer sponsored by the president's family is typically awarded the contract. The choice of manufacturer is a function of which manufacturer pays the bigger commission. In the absence of political parties, a free press, environmental groups, or non-partisan non-governmental organizations, it is impossible to introduce a sound balancing economic or environmental perspective into energy policy. Like Syria’s other white elephant projects, unsafe and potentially disastrous schemes such as, in this case, nuclear reactors are attractively packaged and propagated with nationalist slogans.
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