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While all eyes are turned toward Fukushima, the Monju Fast Breeder Reactor is in a state of not so suspended disaster waiting to happen. Its core packed with uranium and plutonium fuel rods and a 3.3 ton fuel loading device "stuck" in the inner vessel since august, an accident there might actually dwarf that of Fukushima, releasing highly radioactive plutonium into the atmosphere.
As the nuclear experiment seeks to justify its own existence with more and more dangerous tactics; in aging, failing reactors; utilizing increasingly risky ideas, where is the end? What will it take before we are willing to say the experiment is over. It's time to decomission, pack up the waste, and turn our scientific experts towards safe storage. In this case, for waste that will remain deadly- in human terms- forever.
TSURUGA, Japan — Three hundred miles southwest of Fukushima, at a nuclear reactor perched on the slopes of this rustic peninsula, engineers are engaged in another precarious struggle.
The Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor — a long-troubled national project — has been in a precarious state of shutdown since a 3.3-ton device crashed into the reactor’s inner vessel, cutting off access to the plutonium and uranium fuel rods at its core.
Engineers have tried repeatedly since the accident last August to recover the device, which appears to have gotten stuck. They will make another attempt as early as next week.
But critics warn that the recovery process is fraught with dangers because the plant uses large quantities of liquid sodium, a highly flammable substance, to cool the nuclear fuel.
In an amazing piece of in-depth journalism Der Spiegel takes a harsh look at French-owned nuclear power company Areva, and the devastating cost of their mining of uranium in Niger. In a country where 1000's die of preventible disease, and one third of the children suffer from malnutrition, there is no question that the workers are financially dependent on Areva. Does this mean, Der Spiegel asks, that "in a country like this, is it right to demand the same strict radiation protection measures as in Europe?"
Areva has said in the past that "it didn't view itself primarily as a charity. Niger is also helped, Areva officials said, if people get work and the government earns revenues from uranium production."
Alhacen, a Tuareg activist who still works for Areva, is outraged by this callous reasoning: "Who said anything about charity?" he asks. "It's our uranium! Areva's charity is pollution, some of which will always remain with us. Areva is committing a crime here. They take the water, and trees and plants disappear as a result. There is no life. And what for? For your energy." And he is right, the uranium, the money, and the energy all go elsewhere. Sickness, contamination, radioactive dust, and death remain in Niger.
There is talk in this article of a balance between morality and the market. Uranium is mined all over the world, almost always in poor, indigenous, and minority communities. Is it right to abuse workers because they are desperate? In this case it is clear that the market has won. Uranium mining is not only an ecological disaster, it has become a human rights issue as well.
French-owned nuclear power company Areva has left a trail of uranium mining related health hazards and deaths in Niger. The company claims to be environmentally conscious but in other interviews has stated quite directly that they are "not a charity," and that Niger is a poor country that needs the jobs.
Almoustapha Alhacen, President of the local Nigerian NGO Aghir in’ Man (which means “the shield of the soul” in the Touareg language) has said: “Radioactivity increases poverty because it creates more victims. With each day passes we are exposed to radiation and continue to be surrounded by poisoned air, polluted water and earth – while AREVA makes hundreds of millions from our natural resources.”
Click on the link in our video section to see Greenpeace's excellent short film about uranium mining in Niger. Without uranium mining there would be no nuclear fuel, and uranium mining is killing people. Does this part of the nuclear fuel cycle seem clean, and green?