Nuclear Power is Not Green or Clean
To: Wisconsin State Journal, Op-Ed Page
May 18, 2005
From: Al Gedicks
210 Avon Street # 4
La Crosse, WI 54603
The nuclear industry is now trying to change negative public perceptions of nuclear power by promoting itself as the solution to global climate change. A recent column by Theodore J. Iltis proclaimed “Keep America green: Go nuclear” (WSJ 3/20/05). Iltis says that environmentalists who are concerned about the increase in greenhouse-gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels should embrace nuclear power because it does not produce carbon dioxide and thus does not contribute to global climate change. This commonly held view, endlessly repeated by proponents of nuclear power ignores the fact that without uranium there is no nuclear power. The mining, milling and enrichment of uranium into nuclear fuel are extremely energy-intensive and result in the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels. The most intense mining and milling activity in the United States has been concentrated on the lands of Navajo and Pueblo Indians in the Grants Uranium Belt of northwest New Mexico.
Before uranium can be used in nuclear power plants it must undergo a process of enrichment. Uranium enrichment plants are the largest industrial plants in the world and consume enormous amounts of electricity. Far from being “clean”, each 1000 megawatt-electric nuclear plant requires the equivalent of a 45 megawatt-electric coal plant–which annually burns 135,000 tons of coal–to supply its enrichment needs alone. The enrichment plant at Paducah, Kentucky, requires the electrical output of two 1000-megawatt coal-fired plants, which emit large quantities of carbon dioxide, the gas responsible for fifty percent of global warming. During its operation the enrichment plant at Piketon, Ohio consumed 10 percent of Ohio’s electricity, more than the entire city of Cleveland.
Proponents of nuclear power likewise ignore the substantial emissions of radioactive radon gas and other radioactive elements from the mining and milling of uranium ore in underground and open pit mines. The Navajo and Pueblo Indians, along with several thousand white miners were never told of the dangers from exposure to radon gas when they first entered those underground mines in Arizona and New Mexico in the 1950s. At least 450 former uranium miners have already died of lung cancer, five times the national average.
For those communities living next to uranium mines there is the additional problem of exposures from radioactive tailings, the waste that remains after the uranium has been extracted from the ore and processed into yellowcake. The thorium in the tailings piles has a radioactive half-life of 80,000 years. In other words, while nuclear power plants will produce power for only about 40 years, the effects of mill tailings will remain for thousands of future generations. There are over 200 million tons of these tailings in large piles around uranium mines and mills and they are emitting radioactive elements into the air and water. Communities near these tailings piles report a high rate of miscarriages, cleft palates and other birth defects, bone, reproductive, and gastric cancers as related health effects of uranium mining and exposure to contaminated air and water.
And what about nuclear waste disposal? A typical nuclear reactor will generate 20 to 30 tons of high-level nuclear waste annually. There is no known way to safely dispose of this waste, which remains dangerously radioactive for a quarter of a million years. Iltis says the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada is an excellent choice for storage. The Western Shoshone Indians strongly disagree. They claim the land on which the federal government tested its atomic weapons and now plans to store 77,000 tons of military and power plant waste still belongs to them under the Ruby Valley Treaty of 1863 . The federal government has tried to force the Western Shoshone to accept payment for the land and thus forfeit their claim to it. The tribe sued the federal government in March 2005, alleging the Yucca Mountain project would violate the treaty. To date, no Western Shoshone members have accepted payment for their land.
The failure of nuclear proponents to address the disproportionate impact of nuclear activities on Native American populations has its origins in an environmental racism which justifies exposing certain groups to hazardous environmental conditions in the name of national security, economic progress or to avoid the perils of global climate change. Nuclear power is not green. It is not clean. And it is a continuation of the environmentally racist policies of the nuclear industry.
Al Gedicks is a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and the author of Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations.
The nuclear energy option is neither safe nor affordable
By Al Gedicks / La Crosse
Tom Bice claims that we can achieve energy independence by investing in nuclear power (“Nuclear power is the answer to energy independence,” July 1 Tribune). He also claims that nuclear power is “the safest power source ever developed.”
Both claims are misleading. The most recent cost projections for new nuclear reactors are three and four times as high as the projections in 2005. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission estimates that building a new 1,000-megawatt reactor would cost up to $7.5 billion. In Missouri, the first of the next generation reactors was put on hold because of the $6 billion price tag. According to Thomas Voss, the president of the electric utility that is proposing the plant, Ameren UE, “A large plant would be difficult under the best of conditions, but in today’s credit-constrained markets, without supporting state energy policies, we believe getting financial backing for these projects is impossible.”
Bice says that consumers are spending too much money on energy but then he suggests that we build 200 nuclear plants in the next decade. According to Wall Street and independent analysts, the cost of building 200 new reactors would be in the range of $4 trillion to $8 trillion over the life of the reactors.
And who is going to pay these costs? Some states have already changed the law so that consumers begin footing the bill, even before construction begins. In 2005, Congress passed an energy bill containing numerous taxpayer-financed subsidies for new nuclear reactors, including loan guarantees, extended liability insurance and tax credits. The most recent Senate energy bill gives a nine-member unelected board the power to give unlimited taxpayer loan guarantees for construction of new nuclear reactors. If the private capital markets are unwilling to invest in nuclear energy because it is too risky, then why should ratepayers and taxpayers be forced to bear this cost?
The diversion of trillions of dollars on nuclear power makes no economic sense. Wind energy is already more economical than nuclear energy. Independent energy analysts estimate efficiency and renewable energy costs at an average of 6 cents per kilowatt hour, compared with 12 to 20 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity from nuclear reactors. This comparison does not include the additional costs for nuclear of disposing of waste, insuring plants against an accident and decommissioning the plants at the end of their lives.
Energy analyst Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute have documented that on a worldwide basis the decentralized, low- or no-carbon sources of electricity are already bigger than nuclear power and will continue to leave nuclear power in the dust. In 2004 alone, co-generation (producing electricity and useful heat together) and renewable sources (wind, biomass power, geothermal, small hydro, and solar) added 5.9 times as much net generating capacity and 2.9 times as much electricity as nuclear power did. These decentralized sources of energy can also deliver electricity at one-third the cost of a new nuclear power plant and thus buy three times as much climate solution per dollar as spending the same dollar on the nuclear plant. Nuclear plants take too long to build and investors are unwilling to put up the necessary capital. We only have about 10 years to mount a global effort against climate change; we cannot possibly build all the nuclear plants that would be necessary to reduce global carbon emissions in this time.
The most serious challenge to the myth of “safe nuclear power” came from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission in June 2008, when it said that all cost estimates for new nuclear reactors, and all licensing and construction schedules were uncertain because hundreds of key design components have not been officially approved. Westinghouse has already been forced to withdraw key designs, including such major components as the reactor building, control room, cooling system and engineering designs.
Despite all the hype about a nuclear revival, there is no approved design for such plants and with no firm design there is no firm price tag. After four years of construction, the first “new generation” French reactor being built in Finland is already two years behind schedule and more than $2.5 billion over budget. Areva, the French company building the plant, has refused to say when it will go online.
Finally, the waste from nuclear power plants will be toxic for humans for more than 100,000 years. Yet Bice says the problem of storing nuclear waste is “mostly political,” thus ignoring dozens of scientific studies of the proposed Yucca Mountain radioactive waste dump in Nevada, including a National Research Council report noting the “scientific impossibility” of making a container last 10,000 years. The Department of Energy’s own studies show that once the containers begin to leak, the Yucca Mountain rock is practically useless in holding back the radioactive materials. President Barack Obama has wisely called for an end to the Yucca Mountain project and cut off all the project’s funding.
Nuclear power is neither safe nor economical. There is no safe method of storing the nuclear waste that we already have; why would anyone want to produce more waste that will be stored in temporary facilities, leaking and corroding, and presenting vulnerable targets and security risks? We already have renewable energy technologies that are safer, cheaper, faster, more secure and less wasteful than nuclear power. Let’s not put our faith and scarce capital in an industry that Forbes magazine described in 1985 as “the largest managerial disaster in history .”
Al Gedicks is a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and the author of “Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations.”