Global warming, nuclear power and China, Part 1

In a surprise move, China and Britain’s Conservative Party government have signed an agreement in which China will participate in the building of nuclear reactors in England. Criticism of the deal comes from those, including members of the British Labor Party, who claim that China’s participation could compromise the “national security” of this NATO member-state.

China General Nuclear Power Corp., a state-controlled corporation, will provide $6 billion toward the completion of the Hinkley Point C power station, giving China a 33.5 percent interest in the plant.

Until now, the plant has been primarily a project of the French company EDF. It has been over-budget and long-delayed in its construction, prompting criticism from anti-nuclear groups over money they say could have been spent on developing other renewable energy sources. However, China’s entry into a consortium with EDF, with Britain’s approval, has revived the project.

In the contract just signed, China will only be supplying technology to EDF to build Hinkley Point C, but the deal opens the way “for China to invest in future British nuclear projects and possibly to play a larger role in building the plants, giving more credibility to the Chinese nuclear industry and perhaps helping it to sell more nuclear plants abroad.” (New York Times, Oct. 21)

Britain has not built a new nuclear power plant since 1995. However, its aging nuclear infrastructure contributes almost 20 percent of the country’s electric power. When completed in 10 years, Hinkley C “is intended to meet around 7 percent of Britain’s current electricity needs and run relatively cheaply for at least 60 years.”

Adds the Times: “China has by far the most ambitious nuclear building program in the world, with 68 commercial reactors under construction or in the planning stages, according to the World Nuclear Association, an industry group. China has received help from the French and the big Japanese company Toshiba but has gradually developed its own local designs and built up a large chain of domestic suppliers.

“Industry executives say this building boom means that Chinese nuclear contractors have gained considerable knowledge and experience, which they hope to apply outside China.”

Nuclear vs. burning of fossil fuels

Today, the burning of fossil fuels is the main source of electric power around the world.

Just days after the announcement of the China-British nuclear deal, a hurricane with the strongest winds ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere hit the Pacific coast of Mexico. Amazingly, no lives were reported lost, but it was a chilling reminder of the growing frequency of superstorms as global warming continues.

With the stronger storms, prolonged droughts, and melting of glaciers and polar ice caps that have accompanied record-high world temperatures, there is no longer any doubt that the burning of fossil fuels, which has created a warming blanket of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, must give way to other forms of energy if even greater disasters are to be avoided.

Nuclear plants produce no carbon dioxide (CO2). While many today are looking to nuclear energy as one of the alternatives to fossil fuels, that is not how it got started. The successful splitting of the atom came on the scene long before anyone was aware of the CO2 problem.

Rather than being developed as a source of energy for peaceful purposes, the first nuclear programs were rushed into production for political and military reasons: to build atomic bombs. The first use of the bomb — to incinerate hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians at the very end of World War II — allowed the U.S. capitalist ruling class to claim the role of leading power in the postwar world.

It soon became clear, however, that the energy in the atom could be a virtually unlimited source of electric power. The first nuclear reactor to generate electricity was built by the U.S. government in 1951. However, the focus of U.S. research continued to be military, aimed at providing nuclear power for Navy submarines and aircraft carriers.

While Washington was mainly funding research for war purposes, the Soviet Union in June 1954 put into operation the world’s first nuclear plant to generate electricity for the civilian power grid at Obninsk, 160 miles south of Moscow.

It was followed by England, which started up its first commercial nuclear power station in 1956, named Calder Hall.  Not until December 1957 was the first U.S. commercial nuclear plant opened in Pennsylvania, called the Shippingport Reactor.

It soon became clear that there were many inherent problems in the first two generations of nuclear plants. Some were immediate, including the possibility of a disastrous failure in the cooling systems.

The accident at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in 1979 caused no deaths, but there was great apprehension over the release of radioactive elements and the possibility that the accident could have led to a complete meltdown of the plant. Since then, two other major accidents have occurred — at Chernobyl, in the Ukraine area of the then-Soviet Union, and at Fukushima in Japan, after damage to the nuclear plant there from a major tsunami. The total number of immediate deaths from these two accidents came to less than 50.  Estimates of the long-term mortality due to radiation exposure vary widely.

The other major issue involved in nuclear energy is long-term: what to do with the radioactive waste products.

Problem of radioactive waste

As both military and commercial reactors began to proliferate, investigators found that the storage of nuclear wastes — which could continue to be radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years —  was being done so poorly that there could be serious effects on people and the environment.

The problem of what to do with radioactive waste continues to be a huge barrier to the use of nuclear energy. It is the main stated reason why the German government under Chancellor Angela Merkel has abandoned its nuclear power plants and is spending hundreds of billions of dollars to decommission them. Germany now gets about half its electricity from coal, which is the worst polluter in terms of CO2 emissions.

As of 2014, the U.S. got about 19 percent of its electric power from nuclear energy. But the vast majority of it, 68 percent, came from fossil fuels: coal, gas and oil. Only 13 percent came from hydroelectric and other renewables.

China gets most of its electric power from coal and has a very serious air-pollution problem. At present, it has 28 nuclear power reactors in operation, 23 under construction, and more about to start construction. Additional reactors are planned, including some of the world’s most advanced, to give China more than a threefold increase in nuclear capacity to at least 58 GWe by 2020-2021, then some 150 GWe by 2030, and much more by 2050, according to the World Nuclear Association.

What has transformed China, which was a war-torn, impoverished country at the time the U.S. dropped the first atomic bombs, into such a powerhouse for nuclear energy? And are there reasons to believe that its reactors will be safer than those of the past?

Personal disclosure: The author lives five miles from two of the U.S.’s aging and dangerous commercial nuclear reactors.