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Goin’ Fission

With news of global climate change growing more alarming day by day, some are stepping forward to suggest that nuclear energy—a form of energy that Americans had largely rejected by the 1980s—is the best and fastest way to reduce the United State’s enormous carbon footprint. The term “nuclear renaissance,” promoted by the nuclear-energy industry, is finding its way into news articles featuring interviews with well-known environmentalists like Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, who hold up low-carbon nuclear power as the answer to global warming.

But behind 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.

LeRoy 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.

It takes 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 reactors.

“We would 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 life.”

Proponents 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.

“That’s 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.”

Last 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 warming.

“That’s 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,” Moore says.

Some 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 taxpayers.

“One 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.”

The decreasing 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.

“Wind 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 than nuclear.”

If the 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.

“You can actually reduce CO2 much better by going for efficiency with renewable sources,” he says.

The notion 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.

That 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.

On parts 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.

But it 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 be.

The impact 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.

The explosion 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.

Although 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.

Even 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.

Currently, 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.

In 1987, 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.

The selection 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.

“The 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.”

One of 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 weapons.

Quite simply, nuclear power means continued nuclear proliferation, Moore says.

“If this 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,” he says.

It’s not just the plutonium itself that presents a danger, but the mere existence of radioactive nuclear waste.

He points 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 Center.

“If either 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.”

This danger exists everywhere there’s a nuclear power plant, Moore says.

And if 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.

If nuclear power presents such a host of unresolved dangers, why is it on the table again?

“There is money to be made in this industry, like there’s money to be made in war,” Moore says.

So what’s the real solution?

Makhijani 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.

“I was 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.”

Rather 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 of it.

“I do 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.”

For small 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 power.

“One 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.”

Government 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 society.

“It will 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.”

And less toxic and safer, too.

Pamela White is a staff writer at Boulder Weekly, where this article first appeared.

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