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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rejecting Atomic Power

Are we about to witness the beginning of the end of nuclear power in Russia? When communities in Western Europe have been asked about nuclear power, they have said "no" to new reactors. National referendums have stopped nuclear power programs in Sweden, Austria, Switzerland and Italy. Meanwhile in Asia, residents of Taiwan and Japan have also voted overwhelmingly against new reactors in regional referendums.

Finally, on Dec. 8, 1996, a Russian community was given the opportunity to decide on its future in the country's first ever regional referendum on nuclear power. The people of the Kostroma region, situated 400 kilometers northeast of Moscow, cast their votes, and the result was a clear and decisive rejection of nuclear power. Fifty-eight percent of the community voted in the local elections and the referendum, and a massive 87 percent of those voters said "no" to a nuclear reactor on their doorstep. This result shows clearly that when communities are consulted about nuclear power, they say they don't want it. The Kostroma referendum could be the start of a series of similar referendums around Russia, which would destroy any future plans for this dangerous, polluting technology.

Historically, the nuclear industry in Russia, and throughout the rest of the world, has been shrouded in secrecy. But as the true environmental, health and economic costs of nuclear power have come to light, there has been a steady decline in the fortunes of the world's nuclear industries. This decline started in the United States in the 1970s and has resulted in the cancellation of over 120 nuclear power plants. It was followed by moratoriums on the expansion of nuclear programs and the cancellation of new reactor orders throughout Western Europe. Today, France is the only West European country with any reactors under construction.

The risk of accidents at nuclear power plants has played a significant role in the industry's demise by proving that nuclear energy is one of the most dangerous and potentially lethal of human creations. The worst-ever civil nuclear disaster to date happened 10 years ago in Ukraine, when the No. 4 reactor at Chernobyl exploded, impacting the lives of millions of people and contaminating vast areas of land. We are still living under the threat of such an accident occuring today.

In fact, since Chernobyl Western governments have expressed many strong statements of concern about nuclear reactors in Central and Eastern Europe, and various emergency "assistance" programs have been established by the European Union and G-7 countries. Yet there has still been no significant improvement in the region's nuclear safety. And reactors labeled as "posing serious safety risks because of inherent design deficiencies" by the U.S. Department of Energy are still in operation. Of particular concern have been the RBMKs -- Chernobyl-type reactors -- and the first generation VVER reactors -- the 440-230 design. And yet there are 11 RBMK and four VVER 440-230 reactors still operating in Russia today.

In addition to safety problems, the nuclear industry is also facing a global nuclear-waste crisis. Radioactive waste is removed from operating reactors and, at most sites, this "spent" fuel is being stored temporarily in water-filled cooling pools. As the cooling pools are rapidly filling up, many reactors may soon have to shut down due to a lack of storage space for the deadly waste.

According to estimates by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, globally there were 125,000 tons of spent fuel in 1992. This figure will rise to 200,000 tons by the year 2000, and to 450,000 tons by the middle of the next century. Yet, although a variety of disposal methods have been under discussion for decades -- including disposal in space -- there is still no solution to the problem of nuclear waste disposal. To pretend, as the nuclear industry often does, that a few experiments or geological surveys is all that is needed is simply disingenuous or scientifically illiterate, or possibly both.

This is in addition to the fact that there is no means for disposing of them when reactors come to the end of their operational lives. For the moment, Russia has simply left nuclear reactors from submarines to rot away off its coastline, and will face the same problems when it comes to decommissioning its nuclear power plants.

The nuclear industry has had almost 50 years to show that nuclear technology is safe, clean and cheap, but has failed to do so. Instead it has shown that this technology is dirty, dangerous and expensive, and poses a very real threat to human life.

Energy efficiency and renewable energy sources are the keys to future sustainable development. Renewable energy technology is already in existence and available for use. This technology is powered by natural resources that will not "run out," such as wind, sunlight, ocean waves and organic gas. It does not pollute the environment and will not pass a legacy of radioactive contamination, nuclear waste and climate change on to future generations.

In Russia, there is a huge potential for energy conservation. According to the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Energy Research, conservation potential ranges as high as 45 percent of the country's present energy consumption rates. In addition, the "Innovation Investment Program for Energy Conservation in Russia" has highlighted the fact that by implementing energy-efficiency measures, as much as three times the current nuclear power output could be saved.

The people of Kostroma have shown that they don't want to live in a nuclear power plant's shadow. They have chosen not to live under the threat of a potential nuclear accident and to keep their environment free from radioactive contamination. Nuclear power has no place in any community. It is a technology of the past. Energy efficiency and renewable energy sources are the future.

Karen Richardson is a member of Greenpeace International. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.