the seeming swell of interest in nuclear energy is a well-funded
lobbying effort that has funneled millions into Congress and
the Bush administration, earning billions in subsidies for
itself—as well as a preferential treatment during Vice President
Dick Cheney’s secret energy talks. While the Bush administration
promotes the benefits of nuclear energy as part of its Global
Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), which would essentially
put the United States at the head of a cartel that exports
nuclear energy, some energy experts caution that nuclear is
not the power panacea it’s being made out to be.
Moore, one of the founders of Boulder, Colo.’s Rocky Mountain
Peace and Justice Center and a lay expert on nuclear issues,
says there are many reasons why the United States shouldn’t
shift its effort toward nuclear energy, starting with cost.
at least 15 years and $10 to $16 billion—conservative estimates—to
build a single two-reactor nuclear power plant. The United
States currently has 104 nuclear power plants that generate
about 20 percent of the nation’s electrical power. At the
moment, there are plans by the nuclear-power industry to build
at least 28 additional reactors in the United States at 19
sites around the country. But for the United States to replace
coal-burning power plants with nuclear power would require
the construction of not dozens, but hundreds more nuclear
have to have a new reactor opening every few months for 30
years,” Moore says. “If you calculate the cost of that, it
would be a trillion dollars to construct the things. If this
could actually be accomplished in 30 to 40 years—and I think
it’s totally unrealistic—you’d have to start over, because
most of the reactors would be ending their period of useful
of nuclear power say that most nuclear reactors are still
operational after 40 years, and some have gotten licenses
to operate for another 20 years, bringing their potential
life spans up to 60 years. Even so, a 60-year lifespan means
a continuous building effort at a high cost.
just the economic side of it,” Moore says. “It’s for these
kinds of reasons, plus questions of safety, that Wall Street
really doesn’t support this industry. The only way they can
go is if they get continued government subsidies. I don’t
think the subsidies are going to come in at the levels I’ve
just referred to.”
year, Congress funneled $18.5 billion into the nuclear-power
industry in the form of government subsidies, including research
subsidies, loan guarantees, tax credits and construction subsidies.
More subsidies are expected to make it out of Congress this
year as part of the congressional effort to address global
a lot of money, but it’s a drop in the bucket to what it would
take to have a ‘nuclear renaissance’ in the United States,”
states allow the energy industry to pass costs onto consumers,
which means some portion of the high cost of these facilities
would come from the pockets of people heating their homes.
The subsidies themselves come, of course, from the wallets
of the main problems with nuclear is that it is pretty expensive,”
says Arjun Makhijani, and engineer specializing in nuclear
fusion and president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental
Research (IEER). “It’s been that way for some time. And the
costs of nuclear are escalating pretty rapidly, even as the
cost of solar is going down.”
value of the dollar makes everything more expensive in a globalized
market, driving up the costs of construction. The United States
now competes with the rapidly escalating demand from India
and China for steel and other raw materials, further driving
up costs. Skilled labor has become more expensive, as well.
energy is cheaper today than nuclear, and solar energy is
going to be cheaper than nuclear within just a few years,”
Makhijani says. “It’s very clear that one of the things that
makes solar somewhat more expensive is essentially the small
scale of manufacturing. As soon as the manufacturing facilities
are in place and the scale is right, solar will become cheaper
United States were to invest in a “nuclear renaissance,” it
would be using scarce resources for expensive power, a solution
that makes no sense to Makhijani.
can actually reduce CO2 much better by going for efficiency
with renewable sources,” he says.
that nuclear energy is clean energy is misleading. Although
nuclear power plants don’t spew greenhouse gases into the
atmosphere, they generate toxic, radioactive waste—waste that
is deadly for thousands of centuries.
waste begins when uranium ore is mined. Not only does the
mining process devastate the landscape like coal mining, it
also leaves behind tons of radioactive uranium tailings that
present a real health hazard to anyone living nearby.
of the Navajo reservation where uranium mining once provided
scarce jobs, cancer rates are 17 times higher among Navajo
teenagers than the American population at large. Miners, too,
suffer from radiation-related cancers and illnesses.
isn’t sympathy for Navajo miners and children that soured
America’s brief flirtation with nuclear energy. The plug was
pulled after a series of events—a reactor fire at Browns Ferry,
Ala., in 1975, the meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island
in 1979, and the catastrophic meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986,
which demonstrated vividly how dangerous nuclear power could
of Chernobyl, the world’s worst nuclear accident, is still
being felt around the world, particularly in Belarus, which
received 70 percent of the fallout from the disaster and saw
a sharp increase in childhood cancers, thyroid cancer, leukemia
and other radiation-related illnesses as a result. Swedish
scientists blame an estimated 849 cases of cancer on radioactive
fallout from the disaster. An estimated 6.7 million people
were exposed to radiation as a result of the accident, in
which human error led to an explosion. Some estimates claim
that 4,000 people worldwide will eventually die as a result
of Chernobyl, while other estimates go as high as 93,000.
hasn’t only proved to be deadly; it’s also been very expensive.
The United Nations estimates the damage to Belarus’ economy
at $235 billion. The cleanup effort, which is ongoing—the
sarcophagus that houses the still-deadly reactor is in the
midst of being replaced at a cost of $800 million—continues
to require global financial involvement. The “exclusion zone”
around the plant remains one of the most radioactive places
in the world.
proponents of a “nuclear renaissance” say nuclear power is
safer than before, pointing to France’s success at generating
about 70 percent of its energy from nuclear reactors, there
are still unresolved problems relating to the radioactive
waste that nuclear power plants generate.
the safest nuclear power plant produces spent fuel rods that
are so toxic they must be stored in water for some 10 years
before they can be placed into concrete containers for dry
storage. Even brief exposure is deadly.
spent fuel rods are stored on-site at the nuclear power plants
that generate them. However, the federal government has been
trying to create a long-term plan for the safe storage of
nuclear waste that would require these containers of spent
fuel rods to be transported to a central location.
Congress chose Yucca Mountain to be that site. Located in
Nevada about 100 miles from the nearest population center,
the facility was supposed to house up to 77,000 tons of nuclear
waste in tunnels bored into the volcanic rock 1,000 feet below
the mountain’s summit. At the time, some officials even engaged
in a discussion about how best to warn future inhabitants
of the region—whoever happens to be living in Nevada 100,000
years from now—that the site contained deadly radioactive
material. But that was the government getting ahead of itself.
of this particular site had more to do with politics than
science, critics say. In the end, concerns over the safety
of transporting nuclear waste long distances through urban
centers, along highways and railways, together with possible
seismic activity at the site and lack of scientific agreement
over the impact of groundwater on the containment of the radioactive
waste, brought any plans to use Yucca Mountain to a standstill.
government has spent a huge sum of money to get this one facility
open as the site where fuel can be taken, and they haven’t
succeeded in doing that,” says Moore. “The problem of transporting
and storing nuclear waste is far from solved, and so people
who talk of a nuclear renaissance prefer not to mention that
part of it.”
the byproducts of nuclear power is plutonium. Contained in
spent fuel rods, it can be removed from the other radioactive
byproducts and, once removed, it can be used to create nuclear
simply, nuclear power means continued nuclear proliferation,
industry continues, it’s easier for nuclear materials to be
in wide circulation globally, and if we’re worried about their
falling into the hands of terrorists or enemies of the United
States—and that’s certainly a concern for many people—nuclear
energy is not the way to deal with our [global warming] problem,”
not just the plutonium itself that presents a danger, but
the mere existence of radioactive nuclear waste.
to the nuclear cooling pond at the Indian Point nuclear power
plant in Buchanan, some 35 miles north of Manhattan. On Sept.
11, 2001, terrorists could just as easily have flown their
hijacked planes into the cooling pond as into the World Trade
of those planes had run into the cooling pond near the reactor,
it would have been a disaster the dimensions of which are
hard to imagine,” Moore says. “People talked about it after
9/11. There were lots of calls in the New York state government
to shut down the power station at Indian Point because they
thought that if there were a terrorist attack of the sort
of what I just described that millions of people would have
had to evacuate throughout not only New York, but into Connecticut
and Massachusetts, too.”
danger exists everywhere there’s a nuclear power plant, Moore
the government does open a national waste site, the risk of
catastrophic accidents or terrorist attacks extends to our
highways, railways and urban centers. Plans for Yucca Mountain
originally included transporting high-level nuclear waste
through Denver, with discussions at the time including various
disaster scenarios should a truck wreck or explode in the
city’s infamous Mouse Trap, the intersection of I-25 and I-70.
power presents such a host of unresolved dangers, why is it
on the table again?
is money to be made in this industry, like there’s money to
be made in war,” Moore says.
the real solution?
believes he has proven that the United States can both give
up fossil fuels and avoid using nuclear energy if a concerted
effort is made to invest in other forms of energy. His book,
Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy
Policy, which is available free for download from the
IEER’s Web site, outlines a plan to eliminate the use of both
fossil fuels and nuclear power over the next five decades.
surprised to conclude as I did that we could get rid of fossil
fuels and nuclear power in 30 to 50 years with the right policies,”
he says. “It isn’t going to be easy. The technologies are
here. Most of them are economical. Some of them are not 100
percent there yet, but they will be in 10 years with the right
policies. But we need to put a price on carbon. We cannot
allow carbon pollution to go on unchecked.”
than favoring a carbon tax, which he says would be a “bureaucratic
nightmare,” Makhijani thinks the nation should set up a fixed
carbon allowance that decreases year by year and require all
large users to compete against one another for their share
think large users should have fixed allowances—not allowances
according to what they use, but one national cap for all large
users,” he says. “And then that cap should be reduced to zero
over 40 years. That should be announced as public policy,
that we’re going to get rid of fossil fuels and that if you
don’t get with the program you’re out of business.”
users, he favors introducing efficiency standards for buildings,
appliances, automobiles and says that government policies
can shape a market that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels or nuclear
of the things I advocate is for plug-in hybrids or electric
cars to become the standard government vehicle by 2015,” he
says. “That way you shape the marketplace. You bring more
advanced technologies to the marketplace faster. You reduce
oil use. Governments—state, local and federal—buy about 300,000
cars a year. That’s a pretty big market.”
investment in renewable energy sources would enable the research
and development necessary to produce the technological advances
still needed for renewable sources of energy to power our
take a lot of change,” he says. “It will take a lot of guts.
It will take new ways of approaching the electricity sector—you
build small, medium and large instead of building all large-scale
power plants. It’s more complicated. But I think it will be
actually cheaper to do it that way.”
toxic and safer, too.
White is a staff writer at Boulder Weekly, where this
article first appeared.