Nuclear Energy is Not Green
By James Robert Deal
The Seattle Times has published another one-sided propaganda piece in praise of nuclear power, written by a career nuclear supporter. (See “Nuclear energy, version 3.0 – time to revisit this low-carbon energy source,” Seattle Times, July 4, 2010.
Nuclear power is not “low-carbon.” Although nuclear plants do not emit carbon dioxide, the mining and enriching of nuclear fuel is highly energy intensive. When this is factored in, nuclear power has a carbon equivalent approaching that of natural gas. Further, around five percent of energy production from a nuclear plant is expended containing and cooling nuclear reactions.
There is no mention in the pro-nuclear article of how filthy the mining of uranium is. Uranium mining in Canada has left behind 200 million tons of radioactive tailings, fine as flour, which blow in the wind and flow downstream for hundreds of miles. The article says that nuclear fuel is cheap, but that is true only if you ignore the huge environmental cost of mining it. Radioactive and heavy metals should be left in the ground as much as possible.
No state wants nuclear waste. Nevada opposition to Yucca Mountain has resulted in its rejection. Every site seems to be geologically unstable, which is not surprising on a planet where continents are slowly but constantly moving. So waste is being stored on site, at plants where it is produced. No permanent technology for storage of spent fuel has been developed.
The presumption underlying the pro-nuclear article is that without nuclear power it will be impossible to meet our energy needs. However, Dr. Arjun Makhijani, Ph.D., consultant to corporations and governments, says
Wind energy resources in 12 Midwestern and Rocky Mountain states equal about 2.5 times the entire electricity production of the United States… Solar energy resources on just one percent of the area of the United States are about three times as large as wind energy.”
See www.ProCon.org, which presents both sides of the nuclear power debate.
A study commissioned by the state of California found that in terms of both capital construction cost and ongoing cost per kwh, wind beats nuclear hands down, while solar is competitive. Google for “Levelized Cost Of Energy Analysis – Version 2.0.”
A new reactor typically costs $5 to $7 billion, and cost overruns are common. It has taken from eight to 24 years to complete nuclear power plants in the US. The same billions spent to build solar arrays, windmills, geothermal heat pumps, microbial fermenters, tidal and wave farms, and many other alternative technologies can yield results more quickly and supply all the power we need.
Proliferation is a concern. A country with nuclear power plants is a step away from nuclear weapons. If the US had not encouraged the Shah to build nuclear power plants in the 1950s, perhaps Iran would not now be building nuclear weapons. If the United States builds hundreds of nuclear plants, other countries, including unstable countries, will build thousands. Promoting nuclear energy as a worldwide solution to energy needs is like giving children loaded guns to play with.
Security is a concern: Each nuclear power plant is a terrorist target. If the US builds hundreds of nuclear plants, other countries will build thousands. With a few pounds of plutonium a sophisticated terrorist can make a nuclear bomb; an unsophisticated terrorist can make a dirty bomb. Perfect security is impossible to achieve with such toxic material.
Nuclear energy proponents claim that nuclear fuel is cheap. To the contrary, each nuclear power plant is bankrupt from the day it is built. The energy produced over its 40-to-60-year life span can never cover the cost of storing and guarding its nuclear waste for thousands of centuries.
Nuclear power is so risky that lenders will not lend to utility companies for construction of nuclear plants without federal loan guarantees. Nor are insurers willing to insure against liability, so under the Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act, the US government covers the majority of any loss. Like the coal and oil industries, the nuclear industry receives large tax credits. Like the others it is a “protected polluter.”
Time continues indefinitely into the future. Ice covered much of the northern hemisphere 10,000 years ago, including the Hanford Reach, and it will return someday. Glaciers will crush nuclear plants and waste dumps and spread radioactivity. Wars will come. Countries will collapse. Reactors will be neglected or sabotaged and burn like Chernobyl. Suitcase nuclear bombs will be detonated. Our descendants will curse us if we continue down the nuclear road.