India’s nuclear industry is currently celebrating its discovery of what might be one of the world’s largest uranium deposits. Will this find help the nation’s poorest people? If history is anything to go by, the nuclear industry is reluctant to share its radioactive riches.
Have you ever noticed that the nuclear industry can be rather shy about the source of the electricity it generates? We know about the sources of dirty coal and oil power and clean solar and wind power – it’s in their names. You never hear about ‘uranium power’, do you?
In fact, uranium and where it comes from is the nuclear industry’s dirty secret. They’d rather you didn’t think or talk about it. The industry and its supporters argue that it is nuclear power that keeps the lights on but they never want to talk about the costs involved.
They claim nuclear is clean, safe, and CO2 emissions-free while ignoring the dirty, dangerous and CO2-emitting manufacture of nuclear fuel. Where does the uranium needed to generate nuclear electricity come from?
Uranium, before it is manufactured into fuel for nuclear reactors, is an ore that has to be mined and milled in complicated processes that are highly damaging to the environment and produce greenhouse gases. Unfortunately, in the scramble to feed nuclear reactors with uranium, certain rather important things like human rights, safety standards and respect for the environment get overlooked.
Look at Niger in Western Africa, one of Africa’s leading uranium suppliers, which has supplied uranium for French nuclear reactors for the last 40 years. Have the people of Niger benefited from this nuclear wealth? They certainly have not. The country languishes at the bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index which measures quality of life. For their generosity, the people of Niger have been rewarded with poverty, contaminated villages and terrifying environmental damage.
Radioactive sludge leaking from waste pools at the AREVA-owned SOMAIR uranium mine in Niger (© Aghir in'Man)
And Niger isn’t alone. Look at the damage done to the lives and homes of the indigenous peoples of the US, Canada and Australia by uranium mining. Look at the deals done with countries with extremely poor human rights records like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan for their uranium. Look at the contaminated drinking water near the Caetité uranium mine in Brazil. Do these people look like they’re benefiting from ‘clean’ and ‘safe’ nuclear power?
Last week we heard that India has lucked into a uranium deposit which may turn out to be one of the largest in the world. According to the Times of India, the mine holds enough uranium to power one nuclear reactor for 40 years.
Just one. It really doesn’t sound worth the bother, does it? All that damage and danger to power just one reactor. India wants to build 30 new reactors in 30 years. Where is the rest of the uranium to power them going to come from? (Before you say ‘they’ll use more readily available thorium’, remember commercially viable thorium reactors are decades away at best and the nuclear industry’s ‘leaders’ just aren’t interested.)
This is a fact we love and will repeat again: enough solar energy hits the Earth in one hour to power the entire planet for a whole year. Uranium mining really does look pointless in comparison.
The Indian government itself in the past has used the plight of the country’s poor as a reason for its push for more nuclear reactors. But guess what? Those living people in rural areas don’t need nuclear power, as Greenpeace proved in 2009 when it brought clean and reliable solar energy to the village of Jalka.
India should look at the many, many examples of the harm caused by uranium mining and abandon its plans. Those plans come with a price and it’s the poorest that pay it. It’s time for India to turn its back on uranium power.