Linking energy and democracy

 
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Saturday, June 18, 2011 ,
by

Carmel Cacopardo

 

Last weekend, Italian voters said no to nuclear energy for the second time since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster 25 years ago.

Italy is not alone in refusing to handle nuclear energy. The Fukushima incidents have driven home the point that, even in a country that is very strict on safety standards, nuclear energy is not safe. Fukushima has proven that no amount of safeguards can render nuclear energy 100 per cent safe. Though accidents are bound to happen irrespective of the technology used, the risks associated with nuclear technology are such that they can easily wipe out life from the affected area in a very short time.

Last weekend’s no has a particular significance for Malta as this means an end to plans for the construction of a nuclear power plant at Palma di Montechiaro on Sicily’s southern coast, less than 100 kilometres from the Maltese islands.

Germany’s Christian Democrat/Liberal coalition government, faced with the resounding victory of the Greens in the Länd of Baden-Württemberg, has made a policy U-turn. As a direct effect of the Greens-led opposition to Germany’s nuclear programme, Germany will be nuclear-energy free as from 2022, by which date all existing nuclear power installations will be phased out. In doing so, the Merkel government has, once and for all, accepted the Green-Red coalition agreement on a complete nuclear phaseout.

Even Switzerland is planning not to make use of its existing nuclear plants beyond their scheduled projected life. The Swiss government will be submitting to Parliament a proposal not to replace existing nuclear plants. The process is scheduled to commence in 2019 and will conclude with the closure of the last Swiss nuclear reactor in 2034.

After the Tunisian revolution, Abdelkader Zitouni, the leader of Tunisie Verte, the Tunisian Green party, has called on Tunisia’s transitional government to repudiate the Franco-Tunisian agreement for the provision of nuclear technology by France. Hopefully, the same will happen when the Administration of Libya is back to normal.

There are other Mediterranean neighbours that are interested in the construction of nuclear plants. Libya and Tunisia were joined by Algeria, Morocco and Egypt in reacting positively to Nicolas Sarkozy, the peripatetic nuclear salesman during the past four years.

Malta could do without nuclear energy installations on its doorstep. Italy’s decision and the policy being advocated by Mr Zitouni are a welcome start. It would be wishful thinking to imagine Foreign Minister Tonio Borg taking the initiative in campaigning for a Mediterranean free of nuclear energy even though this is in Malta’s interest.

It is a very healthy sign that Malta’s neighbours together with Germany and Switzerland are repudiating the use of nuclear energy. Their no to nuclear energy is simultaneously a yes to renewable energy. This will necessarily lead to more efforts, research and investment in renewable energy generation as it is the only reasonable way to make up for the shortfall between energy supply and demand.

A case in point is the Desertec project, which is still in its infancy. The Desertec initiative is based on the basic fact that six hours of solar energy incident on the world’s deserts exceeds the amount of energy used all over the globe in one whole year. Given that more than 90 per cent of the world’s population lives within 3,000 kilometres of a desert, the Desertec initiative considers that most of the world’s energy needs can be economically met through tapping the solar energy that can be captured from the surface of the deserts.

The technology is available and has been extensively tested in the Mojave Desert, California, in Alvarado (Badajoz), Spain and in the Negev Desert in Israel where new plants generating solar energy on a large scale have been in operation for some time. The Desertec project envisages that Europe’s energy needs can be met through tapping the solar energy incident on the Sahara desert. The problems that have to be surmounted are of a technical and of a geopolitical nature.

On the technical front, solutions are being developed to address more efficient storage and the efficient transmission of the electricity generated.

The Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt and, hopefully, the successful conclusion of the Libyan revolution will address the other major concern: that of energy security. The movement towards democracy in North Africa can contribute towards the early success of the Desertec project in tapping solar energy in the Sahara desert for use in both Northern Africa and in Europe.

While Malta stands to gain economically and environmentally through the realisation of such a project, I have yet to hear the government’s enthusiasm and commitment even if the project is still in its initial stages.

Malta is committed in favour of the pro-democracy movements in Egypt, Tunisia and Benghazi. Being surrounded by democratic neighbours is a definitely positive geopolitical development. If properly nurtured, this would enhance Malta’s economic development, energy security and environmental protection concerns.

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Danger …………….. on our doorstep

published in Environment Supplement

Sunday April 17, 2011

 

Less than 100 kilometres to Malta’s North West Silvio Berlusconi’s Government wants to construct a nuclear reactor. It is to be constructed on Sicily’s southern coast in the vicinity of the locality of Palma di Montechiaro. This nuclear reactor is one of  a number of reactors which Berlusconi’s government plans to be constructed on Italian territory: one in Sicily, one in Sardegna, five in the North, three in the Central area and two in Southern Italy.

This is a political decision that the Italian Government took in summer of 2008 as a result of which it reversed the decision taken at a 1987 referendum when on the morrow of the Chernobyl disaster Italians overwhelmingly rejected nuclear energy.

On the 11 and12 June 2011 Italians will be called to the polls once more in a second attempt to reject nuclear energy, this time on the morrow of another nuclear disaster : that at Fukushima. It is a referendum which seeks to reverse Berlusconi’s nuclear policy.

The Chernobyl disaster which affected 40% of European territory was way back in 1986 shrugged off as being the result of human error as well as outdated Soviet technology. The same cannot be said of the Japanese.

EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger is on record stating that Fukushima has caused him to start doubting nuclear energy. Oettinger, former Prim Minister of the German State of Baden-Württemberg, in an interview with Der Spiegel International which was published on April 4, 2011 stated “I have nothing but respect for Japan’s abilities when it comes to industry and technology. That’s why Fukushima has been such a turning point for me. It has made me start to doubt. If the Japanese cannot master this technology, then nuclear energy conceals risks that I didn’t see before.”

All over the world countries are having second thoughts on whether to keep making use of nuclear energy. German voters in the states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland Palatinate took the lead by flocking in their thousands in support of the Greens earlier this month, as a result delivering a clear message to Angela Merkel’s CDU. The CDU lost control of the state of Baden-Württemberg for the first time. Moreover the Greens being the leading party in the state coalition will now provide the first ever Green Prime Minister of the state of Baden-Württemberg. The Green-Red coalition in Rhineland Palatinate has been reinforced by the Green gains at the polls.

The nuclear power station which Berlusconi’s government is projecting in Palma di Montechiaro is to be sited in an area which has a seismic history. The earthquake of 1693 not only completely destroyed South Eastern Sicily but also caused considerable damage in the Maltese islands. One could say that this was a long time ago but then can anyone guarantee that there would not be a repeat ?  The opposite seems to be quite probable.

On Monday Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore carried a report on Japanese geologist Dr Masanobu Shishikura who way back in August 2010 had concluded that the Fukushima area had already experienced a number of earthquakes and tsunamis in the past. He identified a possible cycle and concluded  last August that it was not to be excluded that in the near future a repetition was due.    

A nuclear accident just 100 km North of the Maltese islands is certainly not something anyone would wish for. Hopefully it would never happen. But if a nuclear power station were to be sited at Palma di Montechiaro it would be a possibility depending on the movement of the geological plates. No one will give us the date when this will happen. Hence it stands to reason that constructing a nuclear power station on such a site is a very risky business. Italian planners consider that it is a reasonable risk as providing electricity is in their view more important than the risk which the whole of the central Mediterranean would be subjected to.  

In view of what happened at Fukushima no one can say that he is not aware of the consequences. A consideration which, I do not doubt will weigh heavily on the minds of Italian voters when they cast their ballot next June rejecting nuclear energy one more time.

Risk and use of nuclear energy

 

published Saturday April 16, 2011

 

The Fukushima nuc­lear disaster occur­red as a result of the tsunami. The earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale did not cause any direct damage to the nuclear installation.

The Fukushima nuclear reactor was (according to various reports) designed after taking into consideration the frequency and strength of earthquakes and tsunamis in the region. The strength of the earthquake and the impacts of the tsunami were substantially more than what was taken into consideration at the drawing board. The point at issue is whether, in view of the possible (and eventual) impacts resulting from a failure of the reactor’s cooling systems, the risk taken as a result of the design assumptions was justified.

After the Fukushima happenings, German Chancellor Angela Merkel changed her opinion on nuclear energy turning around 180 degrees in the space of a few months.

The European Commissioner for Energy, Günther Oettinger, former CDU Minister President of the German land of Baden-Württemberg, stated in an interview with Der Spiegel International that “Fukushima has made me start to doubt”.  He added: “when Chernobyl happened, we in the west were comforted by the fact that it was the result of outdated Soviet technology and human error. But I have nothing but respect for Japan’s abilities when it comes to industry and technology. That’s why Fukushima has been such a turning point for me. It has made me start to doubt. If the Japanese cannot master this technology, then nuclear energy conceals risks I didn’t see before.”

That says it all. The Fukushima nuclear incident is the direct result of the “risk society”, which acts on the basis of the probability of a particular event happening.

Notwithstanding advances in technology and human knowledge, there will always be an unresolved element of risk when adopting technological solutions to cater for human needs. The risk can be reduced but it will never be eliminated. As Dr Oettinger himself states, at the end of the day, in the case of a nuclear power plant, faced with the residual risk, “either you accept this residual risk or you shut down”.

To date, various governments took the risk. After Fukushima, a number are coming to their senses and are adopting the option to shut down. After the recent thrashing at the polls, Chancellor Merkel’s CDU too has changed course and has reluctantly started moving towards adopting a “green” nuclear policy!

There have been four major nuclear disasters since the late 1950s. The first took place in Windscale UK in 1957; the second at Harrisburg US (Three Mile Island) in 1979; the third occurred at Chernobyl, Ukraine in 1986 and Fukushima was the fourth.

In addition to the above, there have been a countless number of other “small” incidents and a number of near misses. In France alone there are about 700 minor incidents every year, most of which go unreported.

Kenzaburo Oe is a Japanese Nobel Laureate having received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. In an essay published in the New Yorker on March 28, entitled Tokyo Postcard. History Repeats, he states that the use of nuclear energy in Japan is a betrayal of the Hiroshima victims.

He says: “Like earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural calamities, the experience of Hiroshima should be etched into human memory: it was even more dramatic a catastrophe than those natural disasters precisely because it was man-made. To repeat the error by exhibiting, through the construction of nuclear reactors, the same disrespect for human life is the worst possible betrayal of the memory of Hiroshima’s victims.”

Nuclear technology disrespects life as it has been shown time and again not only to be unsafe to use but also that it places whole regions and eco-systems at risk.

While, later this month, the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster will be commemorated it is pertinent to ask whether any lessons have been learnt. Chernobyl was considered as being an exception easily explained by the then Soviet Union’s state of technological development. Fuku­shima is a different kettle of fish: Japanese precision and technological knowledge is second to none.

The question, however, remains that, at the end of the day, some event that has not been given sufficient weight in design considerations happens. Be it the earthquake’s strength, a tsunami’s force or the frequency of adverse weather conditions. Engineering ethics permit this as it is accepted practice that one cannot design for all eventualities.

This is the risk society that plays games with our lives. The risk society does not consider life as being sufficiently worthy of protection. It only weighs probabilities and projects these into costs.

In this scheme of things life is worthless, hence, the validity of the observation of Kenzaburo Oe that the use of nuclear energy disrespects human life and is possibly its worst betrayal.

Nuclear energy? No thanks!