Statement by Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Board Chairman of Green Cross International
Delivered by Professor Dr Alexander Likhotal, President of Green Cross International, at the Remember Fukushima Public Parliamentary meeting at Portcullis House, London, 17 March 2016
Honourable members of the House, dear participants,
We live in urgent times. The sum of the concurrent crises that have been engulfing everything from climate to security, to politics and economy is creating a spiral of need for change. Therefore I welcome your effort to review the linkages between nuclear energy and world development and to examine broad lines of action to improve human wellbeing and security in the new conditions of the 21st Century. Unfortunately my health prevents me from joining you, which I regret, as the situation in the world makes this meeting extremely timely and important.
Nearly seventy years ago, a group of Manhattan Project scientists, having seen the power of nuclear destruction, created what they called the Doomsday Clock. It was a mechanism designed to warn the world about the threat of imminent global catastrophe. This year, the Doomsday Clock is 3 minutes to midnight, having ticked back down to its setting when the Cold War was at peak ice. Why? The global number of warheads has resumed climbing; up to 30 countries either have nukes or can get them quickly; North Korea is blowing smoke; ISIS stealing one is not beyond belief. Unquantifiable human delusion and game playing underlie our most serious threats.
In addition the Doomsday Clock began factoring in risks peripheral to nuclear detonations: the risks and impacts of a future Chernobyl or Fukushima; accidents within nuclear storage sites; processing and transporting nuclear materials; climate change affecting living organisms in addition to radioactive pollution.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe and the fifth of the Fukushima nuclear disaster: the worst disasters humankind has had to deal with. Both were the result of the inability of scientists and engineers to foresee how seemingly small problems can snowball into disasters of almost unimaginable scale. For me, personally, Chernobyl remains one of the most tragic incidents of our time. From the moment I was informed – by telephone, at five o’clock in the morning on that fateful 26 April 1986 – that fire had broken out in Block Four of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, my life has never been the same. Although the full magnitude of the disaster was not known at that time, it was immediately obvious that something horrific was happening.
The questions raised by Chernobyl and reiterated by Fukushima are more relevant today than ever before, and they are still unanswered. How can we be sure that nations using nuclear power for civil or military purposes will comply with the necessary protective measures and regulations? How can we reduce risk to the welfare of future generations? Are we hiding from the answers to these questions when we shut down debate by invoking “national security” or energy needs?
Contrary to the statements of nuclear energy advocates that there were only two major accidents, if one redefines an accident to include incidents that either resulted in the loss of human life or significant loss in property damage, a very different picture emerges.
At least 99 nuclear accidents meeting this definition, totaling more than $20.5 billion in damages, occurred worldwide from 1952 to 2009 – or more than one incident and $330 million in damage every year.
This recurrence rate, demonstrating that there are many risks that are not being properly managed or regulate, is worrying, to say the least, given the severity of harm that even a single serious accident can cause. The meltdown of a 500- megawatt reactor located 50 kilometers from a city would cause the immediate death of an estimated 45,000 people, injure roughly another 70,000, and cause $17 billion in property damage.
And moreover according to recent findings of Swiss and Danish experts the chances are 50:50 that a major nuclear disaster will occur somewhere in the world before 2050.
It is vital that any discussions about nuclear energy address the issue comprehensively and in all its complexity. Nuclear power systems are not just a security issue, an environmental issue, or an energy issue. They are all of those at once. And as Green Cross International has been arguing for years, these aspects of the issue must be addressed together.
Consider the question of cost. The information we can get from financial markets is not above suspicion, but it cannot be neglected either. In principle, private capital does not take the direction of non-profit activities. Therefore it does not take the direction of atomic energy but of renewable. According to a recent report in 2011 the United States, for example, invested over US$48 billion in renewable energy, up from US$34 billion in 2010, regaining first place in the global clean energy investment rankings.
This means that the money needed to build nuclear plants cannot be found in private capital. It is found in State tax coffers and bonds. Taxpayers or unconcerned buyers of such securities finance nuclear energy usually without any knowledge of this.
And we should not forget that when the alleged “cost-savings” of nuclear power are voiced, never does that cost include the price tag for direct and indirect governmental subsidies, the decommissioning of ageing facilities and – in light of the noted disasters –emergency clean-up, along with the remediation of the impacted communities, all again at the expense of the taxpayers . At Fukushima, the bill will include costs of the heroic efforts by hundreds of workers to cool down its reactors, the protracted loss of economic output in the 20km exclusion zone (estimated at $128.5bn), the decommissioning and clear- up costs, and the costs of replacing 4.7GW of generating capacity. On top of that, there is the possibility of healthcare costs resulting from radioactivity.
All these hidden costs make the price of nuclear energy higher than the cost of shifting to renewable energies while raising energy efficiency. It is not incidental that private capital has started opting for renewables. Thus 2015 was characterised by stunning progress in clean power delivery. In the U.K., just as the government was announcing its new dash for gas, Department of Energy published figures showing renewables had delivered 24 percent of the country’s electricity in the first two quarters, up from just 4 percent in 2004, and all for the price of half a cup of cappuccino per household per week on family bills. Germany is now at 35 percent renewable electricity. In the US, more coal plants closed in 2015 than in any previous year, more solar capacity was installed, and power sector emissions fell to their lowest levels since 1993.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to think that we can abandon nuclear power overnight. With 15 countries relying on nuclear power for 25 per cent or more of their electricity, we have to come to grips with the continued presence of nuclear plants for years to come. And shutting down nuclear plants precipitously, without a sensible long-term plan to replace them with renewables, may not be beneficial. The expansion of coal-fired electricity to fill the gap left by abandoning nuclear, for example, does not amount to progress.
So what can we do? The most important solution is possibly the simplest: conserve energy. Dollar-for-dollar, there is no better way to invest in energy than by improving efficiency. In fact it generally produces savings. Supporting new, more efficient technologies has a huge role in reducing waste, but massive improvements can be achieved just by changing behaviours and choices – which cost nothing to do.
Reducing consumption is also the most sensible way to reduce our ecological footprint. People living in rich countries use an unsustainable and unnecessary amount of energy. Another lesson from the Fukushima experience is that in the aftermath, with nuclear plants temporarily shut down, Japanese consumers managed to quickly reduce their energy consumption by a quarter. Coupled with a well-founded mix of renewable power sources, smarter energy use will
be a key part of moving away from highly-polluting traditional energy generation.
The world needs to create a new global energy policy that matches demand and supply within the limits of sustainable development. This does not need to bring about a decline in quality of life. In the medium-term, it will make it possible to extend decent living standards to all the world’s population. It is imperative that members of the international community work together to develop and distribute clean and renewable sources of energy.
Last but not least, let me express my firm belief that transparent government, combined with open and clear information policies and a commitment to the best possible educational standard for all people, are of utmost importance to solving the complex challenges ahead. In the case of Chernobyl, the only reason the world was able to find out the truth about the disaster and learn from it was that the process of Perestroika and the policy of Glasnost were already being instituted in the Soviet Union. Otherwise the facts and effects would have been withheld, concealed or distorted. Today, people want to have a say in what direction their countries’ economies take. They want to know how it affects the air they breathe, the water they drink, the food they eat, and the future they leave to their children. Governments have a responsibility to respond to those concerns.