Japanese reactor incident knells death toll for nuclear industry (General Debate)

It is heart-breaking to see people in northeast Japan, reeling from the devastation of the earthquake and tsunami, now living in fear of nuclear radiation.

Japan, the only country to be attacked with nuclear bombs, with huge loss of life, is now in the midst of another nuclear disaster which puts in question the whole future of the nuclear industry. It may sound the death knell of nuclear power, not only in Japan, but world-wide.

For Greens this latest tragic accident reinforces what we have long said: that nuclear power is inherently dangerous.

Nuclear technology is outside the limits of human safeguards.

In any nuclear power plant there is no guarantee that radiation won’t be released, as a result of a natural disaster or through human error. The danger of radiation release, or a meltdown can be minimised, but it cannot be eliminated. And when an accident occurs the consequences can be monumental.

There have been a series of nuclear accidents, leakages or near misses in several countries since the big accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. In 1999 in Japan two workers at the Taokaimura plant died from high radiation doses when a nuclear chain reaction began after safety regulations were violated. In 2004 five workers were killed in a steam explosion at Japan’s Mihama reactor. There has long been controversy over nuclear safety issues at Britain’s Sellafield plant.

Safety problems exist not only in nuclear power plants, but also in the transport and storage of nuclear wastes, which amount to about ¼ million tonnes a year. There is simply no way to store such wastes safely so that they will not affect future generations – as they leach into waterways, the sea or the atmosphere as a result of earth movement or earthquakes. There is no guarantee future generations will even know where the wastes are stored.

And then we have the danger of the products of the nuclear power industry, enriched uranium and plutonium, being used to make nuclear weapons, or the radioactive materials themselves being used to make what are known as ‘dirty bombs’. The end of the nuclear power industry would enhance the possibilities for nuclear disarmament.

In some countries politicians argue they need nuclear power plants to produce enough electricity. However, the truth is that nuclear power is an expensive and short-term alternative to renewable sources of energy.

There is nowhere in the world where nuclear power plants are not subsidised by governments – collectively to the tune of billions of dollars.

Nuclear power is a short-term energy solution. As the International Energy Agency said in 2008, if all the planned new reactors come on stream the known reserves of uranium, 5.5 million tonnes, will be gone by 2050 – less than 40 years.

Instead of subsidising nuclear power plants, governments should be investing in research on renewables, and allowing for subsidies of renewable energy – as well as encouraging energy saving. That would be cost-effective, sustainable, and safe – for people and for the environment.

The latest nuclear disaster in Japanese makes me so glad our country is nuclear free, and I pay tribute to the many thousands of New Zealanders whose active campaigning from 1960 to 1985 made us so. I pay particular tribute to the Campaign Half Million petitioners in the 1970s, who knocked on the head plans to have a nuclear power plant in New Zealand.

However, we shouldn’t sit back. Our government should be taking our nuclear-free message to the world – campaigning at the UN and elsewhere for a phase-out of nuclear power plants, and the promotion of renewable forms of energy.

We should join hands with the anti-nuclear campaigners in Japan who are using this opportunity – not only to help those who are currently in danger – but to push for a transition away from nuclear power.

The Japanese Greens have inspired an Asia-Pacific Green Network statement calling for all countries in our region to “suspend all operations, construction and plans for nuclear plants” pending a regional hearing on the safety, social, environmental and economic issues involved.

We owe it to those now suffering from nuclear radiation in Japan to take such protective steps.


House of Representatives