Economics and nuclear safety
Economic vs physical perpective
The economic perspective on nuclear power regards a limited part of the nuclear energy system and has a short time horizon of only a couple of years. For a nuclear economist a nuclear power project ends with the final shutdown of a nuclear power plant. To assess nuclear safety the complete system should taken into account, particularly the processes following the final shutdown, which might easily take a century [more i12]. In this respect economics and nuclear power are incompatible.
Most countries with nuclear power have an insurance policy for nuclear power stations providing equal liability protection regardless of risk (for instance the Price-Anderson Act in the USA). This kind of liability protection may be seen as a disincentive for safety, preventing safety upgrades from being incorporated into new reactor designs. An example of an economically optimized reactor design is ArevaÕs EPR (Evolved Pressurized-water Reactor), nevertheless now confronted with massive delays and cost overruns.
If handling and management of radioactive debris and scrap are left to private companies, profit seeking may prevail over safety and health risks. Short-term 'solutions' may be backed by financial constructions which leave the liability for failures and mishaps at the customer, in case the taxpayer. Such financial constructions seem to be involved in the contracts for decommissioning and dismantling the Sellafield reprocessing plant under authority of the British Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA).
The final cost of the complete sequence of spent fuel handling – interim storage, packing through definitive storage in a geologic repository – are unknown. A preliminary estimate of the lifetime cost may come to billions of euros per reactor. The World Nuclear Association (WNA), presenting itself as representative of the nuclear industry, asserts:
"Nuclear power is the only large-scale energy-producing technology which takes full responsibility for all its wastes and fully costs this into the product."
This WNA statement is just short of a lie, in view of the facts and arguments presented in this series of Nuclear power insights, and is also in conflict with the following remarks.
• In the USA the federal administration is automatically responsible for the definitive storage of the spent fuel in a geological repository. Most likely the American taxpayer has also to pay for the decommissioning and dismantling of the nuclear power plants.
• In the UK the closed down nuclear power plants are sold for a symbolic amount to the government, who gets the responsibility of the cleanup, decommissioning and dismantling of the discarded radioactive facilities. Most likely the British taxpayer has also to pay for the construction of a geologic repository plus the packaging and definitive storage of the nuclear waste.
• In France a special situation is existing. All nuclear activities in France are managed by two state-owned companies: Areva and Electricitˇ de France (EdF). Who pays the bill?
How is the situation in other countries, for example Russia, China, India, South Korea, Japan?
De-regulation (liberalisation) of the electricity markets has pushed nuclear utilities to decrease safety-related investments and limit staff.
Relaxation of activity standards
The high and continually rising costs of radioactive waste management may easily provoke undesirable and hazardous situations. Regulations are relaxed for economic reasons to admit higher concentrations of radioactiviy in materials from nuclear installations for clearance into the public domain. The IAEA proposes to dilute radioactive materials, such as scrap originating from dismantling nuclear-related installations, with non-radioactive materials, to be used for 'special purposes' [more i27]. This is a hazardous proposal for it is inherently uncontrollable.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) intends to raise the permissible levels of routine radioiactive emissions dramatically. The new standards permit public exposure to radioactivity levels in drinking water vastly higher than EPA had previously deemed unacceptably dangerous.EPA made not clear on base of what physical and medical evidence the standards could be relaxed. Other aspects of the EPA proposal are lax cleanups and higher exposures to other sources, such as relaxed dirty bomb standards.
Relaxation of exposure standards
Higher permissable concentrations of radioactive substances in drinking water, and consequently in food, inevitably cause higher individual exposures to radioactivity, resulting in more adverse health effects. In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster the permissable dose for workers was at once raised fivefold for 'emergency reasons', without medical argumentation.
In view of the reliance on models within the nuclear industry and the ease to adapt models to changing needs of the nuclear industry, any relaxation of standards of permissable releases of and allowable exposure to radioactive materials should be based on solid verifiable physical and medical evidence.
Creeping relaxation of the permissable exposure to radioactivity. A permissable standard defined as x units above 'background level' is not unambiguous: the background level rises when radioactivity is being released over longer periods.
Relaxation of safety standards
A recent conflict between the chief of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the nuclear industry clearly demonstrates the tension between financial interests and nuclear safety. Efforts to tighten the safety standards for US reactors after the Fukushima disaster were blocked by the industry lobby. The safety upgrades are much-needed, as one quarter of the US reactors are the same model as the destroyed reactors at Fukushima. Some people are fearing that the next Fukushima disaster will happen in the USA.
The standard worker dose limit for Japanese workers is 50 mSv/year and 100 mSv over 5 years. Before the accident, the emergency dose limit was set at 100 mSv/year but was raised to 250 mSv/year ‘to allow workers to respond to this serious accident’.
Economics and nuclear safety are at odds.
Quality control and dependency of inspections
Economic arguments may also lead to reduced quality controls by official inspectors. In France an ex-CEO of the state-owned utility EdF officially advised the French government to reduce the role of an independent quality controlling institute, in this case the Autoritˇ de S˛retˇ Nuclˇaire (ASN), the French Safety Authority. Development at the US National Regulatory Commission (NRC) and incidents at nuclear power stations in the USA point to a similar trend. How is the situation in other countries?
In a number of countries the nuclear industry urges simplified and shortened license procedures to speed up construction of new nuclear power plants, with minimalisation or even eliminiation of the participation by the local authorities and the public. Evidently such a development does not enhance nuclear safety nor the democratic character of the energy policy.
Health risks of nuclear power are an economically defined notion.
For what reasons do we think to need absolutely nuclear power? Aren't there safer alternatives?
How much are we willing to pay for the health of ourselves, our childern, grandchildern and future generations?