I am a bit of a wonk and follow politics and this election cycle pretty closely. It was remarkable that both presidential candidates went out of their way to espouse the building of more nuclear reactors as a key element of their energy policy. On the face of it, nuclear energy has the benefits of low or no CO2 emissions and the ability to generate large amounts of power. In the ’50s and ’60s, nuclear energy was promoted because the power provided was “too cheap to meter.” The realities of nuclear energy are far different.
Nuclear energy is not clean. While there are no CO2 emissions from a nuclear reactor, the process of mining and refining uranium is in and of itself, inherently polluting. Twelve million tons of tailings, for example, are piled along the banks of the Colorado River near Moab, Utah. Uranium enrichment produces toxic hydrogen fluoride gas and large amounts of depleted uranium. Depleted uranium poses a threat to public health.
The spent nuclear fuel is a problem with no current solution. On-site storage of nuclear waste creates an attractive target for terrorists. There are currently 54,000 tons of irradiated fuel being stored at the sites of nuclear plants, often located on the banks of the nation’s waterways. The proposed solutions for dealing with this nuclear waste are all problematic:
1) Shipping them all to Yucca mountain was a proposed solution, but SHIPPING nuclear waste in an era of terrorism—how smart is that?
2) Reprocessing the waste into uranium and plutonium just creates an even more dangerous nuclear material. These nuclear elements and waste have half-lives measured in tens of thousands of years! We can’t even manage to balance our budget for a single year, so how are we going to protect nuclear waste for tens of thousands of years?
It seems that people dismiss the serious concerns surrounding nuclear waste without consideration of the potential danger they pose from terrorist attack or natural disaster. Did you know that the plans of the perpetuators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks originally were to crash at least two planes into nuclear reactors?
A September 2004 study by Dr. Ed Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, using the NRC’s own analysis method, found that a worst-case accident or attack at the Indian Point nuclear plant 35 miles north of New York City could cause up to 43,700 immediate fatalities and up to 518,000 long-term cancer deaths. Such a release could cost up to $2.1 trillion, and would force the permanent relocation of 11.1 million people.
Spent fuel, i.e. nuclear waste, is also a vulnerability. An NRC report issued in 2000 stated that “Mark I and Mark II secondary containments generally do not appear to have any significant structures that might reduce the likelihood of aircraft penetration,” and that a fuel pool fire could cause casualties up to 500 miles away.
There haven’t been any new nuclear plants built in the last 15 years or so and the plants that are operating are reaching the end of their planned life. Instead of de-commissioning these plants and building new state-of-the-art plants, the NRC is granting license extensions and power upgrades to these aging reactors. This poses a significant threat to safety and security. In our thirst for energy, we seem willing to take extraordinary risks of both a pollutive and financial nature.
Despite the promise of energy “too cheap to meter,” nuclear power continues to be dependent on taxpayer handouts to survive. These subsidies make the support of renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and biomass pale in comparison. From 1947 through 1999, the nuclear industry was given over $115 billion in direct taxpayer subsidies. Including Price-Anderson limitations on nuclear liability, the federal subsidies reach $145.4 billion. To put this in perspective, federal government subsidies for wind and solar totaled $5.7 billion over the same period.
The management of radioactive waste and the requirements for reactor decommissioning also require additional funds. Other aspects of nuclear power are further hidden costs, such as the pollution from uranium mining, risks from nuclear weapons proliferation, dangers of reactor accidents, and the legacy of radioactive waste.
The real reason that new nuclear plants are not being built—despite all these tax-supported subsidies—is that EVEN WITH THE SUBSIDIES, nuclear power is not competitive with other sources of energy. Energy policy that relies upon nuclear energy is an energy policy that substitutes higher taxes for lower energy costs and still has all of the problems of safety, waste and security. A more intelligent plan would be to spend these tax dollars on a massive conservation and efficiency effort.
The energy we do not use is the least expensive energy of all. Investing in renewable energy sources such as wind, hydro, solar and biomass provide a much safer, much more reliable and saner solution to the energy crisis we face. If we want to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, if we want to create a new “green” economy of thousands of new jobs, and if we want to have a secure energy future, we should stop looking at the red herring that is nuclear power and start investing in the long-term health of our economy by embarking on the path of natural renewable energy—which is in abundant supply.