Vicent Martínez Sancho (Simat de la Valldigna, 1943) has been teaching Physics at Universitat de València for more than forty years, attached to the Theoretical Physics department. Although he is well known for being the first one to write in Catalan a Physics text in Universitat de València, he has also published works related to relativity and nuclear physics. This time he surprises us with L’ús de l’energia nuclear (Homo sapiens?) (Using nuclear energy, Homo sapiens?) (Edited by Bullent, 2011), an essay in which the physicist makes a claim against the current way of using nuclear energy. With a clear and plain language, professor Martínez Sancho explains to Mètode the long journey that uranium makes from its extraction to the production of electricity in a nuclear power plant.
In his last book he analyses the current energy model and its consequences. As you state, the embezzlement of energetic resources makes us humans undeserving of the term Homo sapiens? It is not exactly like that. I am not taking an economic approach; I am not talking of energy embezzlement. I am talking of an attempt against life –which is drastically worse –because, even those making a profit are negatively affected, even if they don’t know it. Referring to the term Homo sapiens, I find it unfortunate since a wise person is someone who is intelligent, cautious and calm. Do you think Carl von Linné would have coined the term Homo sapiens had he known about Hiroshima and Nagasaki? I don’t think so.
While you were writing this book, the accident in Fukushima happened. Didn’t you come to think that it was all jinxed? In the book I talked about it exactly in those terms. I also mentioned the fear caused by the accident in Kashiwazaki- Kariwa, at the other extreme of Japan, practically at the same latitudes. That accident almost meant complete devastation. I finish the first chapter of the book asking myself what would have happened if the intensity of the earthquake would have been one level higher. On the next day the accident in Fukushima took place. I remember the first piece of news talking about the tsunami and the earthquake, but nothing of the nuclear power plant for hours.
Do you think that, in the long run, Fukushima will have the same effects as Chernobyl? It is still soon to say, but it will end up like Chernobyl and Mayak. I mean, there is no solution, regardless of what others may claim. The problem is that now a sarcophagus has to be built over the station because there will be a radioactivity leak for generations, however small. I think it will be even worse than Chernobyl. The radiation emitted in Chernobyl was 500 times stronger than that of the Hiroshima bomb in 1945. Back then, 350.000 people were evacuated in an area of 150.000 km2, which is 5,6 times the region of Valencia. If the plant in Cofrents (near Valencia) was to explode, we would have to emigrate.
If we can save ourselves. Exactly, if we can save ourselves.
«I think Fukushima will be even worse than Chernobyl»
«Some don’t notice and become richer taking advantage of Nature’s degradation. Human misery in this area is what motivated me to write this book»
How do you asses, then, the current situation of the nuclear power plants? Look, nowadays there are more than 434 stations functioning all around the world, according to the Spanish Ministry of Industry. Ever since the first one was opened, 122 have closed down. All of them have suffered accidents. What happens is that the industry uses a language full of euphemisms. They talk about incidents, anomalies and deviations. All of them are accidents, some of a catastrophic nature, others not so much. There have been three great catastrophes: Mayak, Chernobyl and Fukushima. The accident in Mayak (1957) has been kept secret for a long time. We came to know about it 40 years after it happened, when the USSR collapsed, although the USA intelligence services knew about it.
Which are the causes of the most frequent accidents? The causes are varied. Failures in the cooling system (what happened at Mayak); mechanical and electrical failures (what happened at Three Mile Island); design deficiencies (like Chernobyl); or an earthquake (like Fukushima). The most dangerous ones are those caused by natural disasters. The Fukushima case shows this clearly. Japan is the country with the safest building systems in the world, but when an earthquake or a tsunami comes along, there is no safety system that can protect us.
Speaking of accidents leads us directly to radioactivity. We normally associate them with something negative and we forget that it exists naturally in Nature, what is known as radioactive decay. What is the difference between this kind of radiation and the one induced by human beings?
Radioactivity has always been present in Nature. However, there is a difference between being there and being concentrated in large quantities. In Nature it is generally harmless. Man induced and in large quantities, radioactivity can cause organic alterations, like cancer. We have, therefore, a terrible future. This is what happened to all those who were under radiation in Chernobyl and the volunteers who went to Japan. After Fukushima all of them will die. Nuclear energy has been misused until today. It can be used to treat cancer. But, the way it is being used today, nuclear energy attempts against the preservation of all species on earth. And this is something that has to be said because radioactive waste is something from which there is no way back, no matter how many repositories are built so that we may live in them for fifty or sixty years. It sounds like a joke. After these years, the radioactive waste will still be there, and after thousands and millions of years. What states and industries don’t say is that this would mean transferring the problem; after sixty years, the problem will still be there because the repositories will have worn out.
There are two types of repositories, temporary centralized storage facilities and deep geological repositories. What effect do they have on Nature?
When nuclear fission is taking place, fuel rods become useless, because the uranium 235 combustion has already happened, and there remains a sample of U-235 and 238, plus all of their decay series. This is taken to a pool so that they rest for six months so that radioactivity decreases. After some time, waste is placed, depending on the radioactivity level, in underground facilities at shallow depth, or in a temporary centralized storage facility, or in a deep geological repository. But all of this is very dangerous. The problem is that nobody seems to notice that the Earth is an organism. There are continuous changes in its surface, there are movements, waters rising, changing temperatures… Human life, being so short, does not perceive it. Nuclear waste, in the long run, modifies these safety and regulation systems of the Earth. Some don’t notice and become richer taking advantage of Nature’s degradation. Human misery in this area is what motivated me to write this book.
«The term Homo sapiens is unfortunate. Do you think Carl von Linné would have coined the term had he known about Hiroshima and Nagasaki?»
Taking into account the welfare systems we live in, if we do not want to do without our luxuries, what other choice do we have? Renewable energies.
Do you think there is enough for everyone?
There is more than enough. Here’s an example. At this moment, the urban design of the cities, including building construction, are in service of the electricity companies. The Spanish state requires those who generate electricity, like photovoltaic panels, to inject it into the grid by law. The system doesn’t allow you to provide energy for yourself independently. You were talking about welfare. What welfare? That of the powerful. I am proposing a growth that not only benefits the rich and powerful. What they want is for you to pay the bill. If you don’t pay an electricity bill, your power will be cut off. If we take energy from the wind, the sun, sea waters, there is no way that can be cut off. Our being independent would make them weak.
Does the construction of these alternative sources for electricity production generate CO2?
Yes, the construction does generate it. Just as a nuclear power plant construction. When man becomes a farmer, the emission of CO2 starts, although in a way Nature can assimilate. There are transformations compatible with life, and other which are not. This is the case of nuclear energy.
At what level do nuclear power plants emit CO2 in the generation of electricity?
First of all, when we talk of nuclear fission, we have to say that this is only a part of a play in three acts. The first act is uranium enrichment, the second is the nuclear power plant, and the third, and most dramatic of all, is radioactive waste. The function of the nuclear energy plant is only to boil water, so that steam moves the generator that produces electricity. Therefore, in the plants, uranium plays the same role as petroleum or coal in another thermoelectric plant –boils water and produces steam. Defenders of nuclear energy plants argue that they do not produce CO2, and that is partially true. But they forget about the first and third acts of the play. The defenders say nuclear energy plants do not emit CO2, one of the gases causing climate change, in the process of electricity production. But there is in the process of the extraction of uranium from pitchblende and uranium enrichment. It has been emitted using regular energy to find pitchblende mines, to extract it and to transport it. This means a massive use of energy coming from fossil fuels. After this, comes the process of separation of uranium which also implies the use of energy to produce more energy. It is a fraud to say that nuclear energy does not emit CO2 into the atmosphere. I am the first person to openly denounce this in my book.
But what kind of electricity production would generate more CO2? Fossil fuel production or nuclear energy production?
I would say the second kind. But I am still waiting for someone attached to nuclear energy to calculate it and say it.
It seems that the mass media only open the debate when there is a catastrophe like that of Fukushima. How could we open a discussion without a catastrophe?
I don’t see the solution in a debate, but in an educational process. I find there is a huge gap in primary education in the science field. In fact, there is a saying I am tired of –culture people and science people. This is outrageous. Science is culture. What this saying shows is the lacking in the education of the people. A cultivated person in the western European culture was one who had read The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy and the Holy Scriptures. While ignoring, for example, that Euclid’s Elements (arithmetic, geometry and number theory) has been taught for more than 2000 years in European forums. What I miss is a more integrated education, a more humanistic one. For me, debates are not good enough if there are gaps in education. I would recommend everyone to think thoroughly why have we stopped studying such important fields that would avoid all the drama, like the nuclear energy problem. This is so dangerous that there is no insurance company in the world that would insure a nuclear power plant because the risk of a catastrophe would lead them to ruin.
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