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. A special diesel generator must be built to provide backup electrical power to cool the reactor and spent fuel - especially when the reactor is not operating.
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. To say nuclear power is cheap, you must ignore the environmental cost of mining uranium as well as the cost of storing spent fuel for a hundred thousand years.Each nuclear power plant is bankrupt from the day it is built.
No state wants nuclear waste. Nevada opposition to Yucca Mountain has resulted in its rejection. Military nuclear waste is stored in deep mines in southeast New Mexico near Carlsbad. 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. Radioactive and heavy metals should be left in the ground.
The presumption underlying the pro-nuclear position 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.”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 or more, 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. A nuclear power plant converts uranium into plutonium, the most poisonous substance on earth. A millionth of a gram of plutonium inhaled will cause cancer. With a around 15 pounds of plutonium a sophisticated terrorist can make a nuclear bomb. With even less an unsophisticated terrorist can make a dirty bomb and give lung cancer to a million New Yorkers. Perfect security is impossible to achieve with such toxic material.
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 in spite of current global warming, it will return someday. Glaciers will crush nuclear plants and waste dumps and spread radioactivity. Wars will come. Suitcase nuclear bombs will be detonated. Countries will collapse. Reactors will be neglected or sabotaged and burn like Chernobyl. If we continue down the nuclear road, our descendants will curse us.