At the dawn of the nuclear age a half century ago, the fledgling nuclear industry promised "energy too cheap to meter" from "our friend the atom." The 21st-century version of that promise offers not only freedom from dependence on foreign oil but also the antidote to global warming.
Is nuclear power the "alternative" energy of the future, the way out of our destructive reliance on fossil fuels?
Some environmentalists think so. Patrick Moore, one of the founders of Greenpeace in the early 1970s, argues that "Every responsible environmentalist should support a move" away from coal-generated electricity and toward nuclear plants. "This would go a long way," Moore maintains, "toward cleaning the air and reducing greenhouse gas emissions." That's a bit different than Moore's assessment in a 1976 Greenpeace report, in which he called nuclear power plants—next to nuclear warheads—"the most dangerous devices that man [sic] has ever created. Their construction and proliferation is the most irresponsible, in fact the most criminal, act ever to have taken place on this planet."
What has changed? Is it the technology, or is it Moore? Some of his former associates think it's the latter. Paul Watson, another co-founder of Greenpeace, charged Moore with being a "corporate whore ... an eco-Judas ... who has grown rich from sacrificing environmentalist principles for plain old money." Moore is currently paid by the nuclear industry to serve as co-chair of the "Clean and Safe Energy Coalition," an industry front that promotes increased use of nuclear energy, according to The Washington Post. He previously had stints as a hired spokesperson for the timber industry (for whom he proclaimed that "clear-cuts are temporary meadows") and for purveyors of PVC products (the "Vinyl Institute").
But apart from Moore's dubious impartiality, what about his basic argument? His main case revolves around this fact: "More than 600 coal-fired electric plants in the United States produce 36 percent of U.S. emissions—or nearly 10 percent of global emissions—of CO2, the primary greenhouse gas responsible for climate change," he wrote in the Post earlier this year. "Nuclear energy is the only large-scale, cost-effective energy source that can reduce these emissions while continuing to satisfy a growing demand for power. And these days it can do so safely."
LET'S TAKE MOORE'S arguments one at a time. First, there's no question that coal-fired plants are a problem. Even with state-of-the-art technology using low-sulfur coal, such plants are the single largest source of acid rain and one of the leading contributors to smog. In addition, coal-fired plants emit millions of tons of carbon dioxide, the most significant greenhouse gas, along with mercury, arsenic, beryllium, chromium, and nickel, and heavy metals and chlorine in cooling water discharges—all in all, very bad news. Plus, each plant uses up to a billion gallons of water each day for cooling.
So Moore and his ilk are correct in their indictment of coal's role in our energy future. And it is true that nuclear plants aren't major emitters of greenhouse gases (at least from the plants themselves), so if that were the only issue in power production, nuclear beats coal, hands down. But is nuclear power really the "cost-effective"—and safe—alternative for our energy needs?
Here are several major areas of concern about nuclear power:
COST. In its first four decades, nuclear power cost this country more than $492 billion, by conservative estimate—nearly twice the cost of the Vietnam War and the Apollo moon missions combined—according to a study titled "The Economic Failure of Nuclear Power." Even with those astronomical numbers, government and industry have deliberately underestimated many costs for nuclear power, such as those for the permanent disposal of nuclear wastes, the "decommissioning" (shutting-down and cleaning-up) of retired nuclear power plants (which can be more than $4 billion per reactor), and the consequences of nuclear accidents, all of which, according to the authors, could well total another $375 billion. (As they say, a hundred billion here, a hundred billion there, pretty soon you're talking about real money.)
In return for this massive investment, we have an energy source that contributes about 8 to 10 percent of our total energy consumption. According to the same study, nuclear power has received more than $97 billion in direct and indirect subsidies from the federal government, such as deferred taxes, fuel fabrication write-offs, and artificially low limits on liability in case of nuclear accidents (thanks to the Price-Anderson Act). No other industry has enjoyed such privilege.
Peter Grinspoon, director of Greenpeace's Nuclear Power Campaign at the time of the report, said that "without even counting liabilities such as accidents and waste, nuclear power has failed on economic grounds. Nuclear power is untenably expensive. ... It simply can't compete."
ACCIDENTS. All 103 nuclear power reactors in the United States, and most around the world, are light water reactors—the same type as Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island Unit 2, site of the worst commercial nuclear mishap in U.S. history in 1979. (Recent epidemiological studies found that, in the direct path of the TMI plumes, "lung cancer incidence went up by 300 to 400 percent, and leukemia rates were up by 600 to 700 percent.") The nuclear industry is currently touting "advanced-design" light water reactors as it seeks to build hundreds of new nuclear plants in the next two decades.
Undoubtedly, the newly designed plants will be safer than those constructed in the 1960s and '70s, and, according to the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), the odds of a major nuclear accident are on the order of 1 in 10,000 reactor-years—which sounds good until you consider the implications named in the NIRS report: "Operation of some 2,000 reactors (1,500 new plus 440 existing) could result in a Chernobyl-scale nuclear accident as frequently as every five years." While it would take 1,500 new reactors worldwide to reduce C02 emissions by 20 percent, it's unlikely that many will be built in the foreseeable future, which reduces but doesn't eliminate the threat of such accidents.
Given that, it's important to ask: What is a "Chernobyl-scale" accident? The 1986 disaster in the then-Soviet-controlled Ukraine, according to a review of literature by the German affiliate of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, resulted in enormous casualties. The International Physicians' report noted, "According to figures given by the Russian authorities, more than 90 percent of the liquidators [the 800,000 or so people involved in firefighting and clean-up operations] have become invalids (sick and unable to work)." In addition, the report continues, studies estimate "the number of fatalities amongst infants as a result of Chernobyl to be about 5,000" and the authors write about birth deformities since Chernobyl: "We fear that in Europe more than 10,000 severe abnormalities could have been radiation induced."
Another independent scientific evaluation of the health and environmental effects of Chernobyl, commissioned by Green Party members of the European Parliament, reported that "about 30,000 to 60,000 excess cancer deaths are predicted" from the accident, as well as 18,000 to 66,000 cases of thyroid cancer in Belarus alone, depending on the risk projection model.
Nuclear plants in the United States are much safer than Chernobyl, which was a graphite reactor with no containment dome, and so the odds of a Chernobyl-scale catastrophe in this country are low. But the potential consequences are enormous.
TERRORIST ATTACK. The vulnerability of nuclear power plants as potential targets of terrorist attack was recognized long before 9/11, and concerns have only heightened since then. After Sept. 11, Dr. Edwin Lyman, a physicist and scientific director for the Washington-based Nuclear Control Institute, said that a similar strike on a nuclear plant by a commercial airliner "would in fact have a high likelihood of penetrating a containment building" and that as a result "the possibility of an unmitigated loss of coolant accident and significant release of radiation into the environment is a very real one." In other words, nuclear power plants contain the potential to turn a conventional terrorist attack into, in effect, a massive "dirty bomb," with the resultant spread of radioactive material. A report from the Government Accountability Office criticized efforts by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to implement new security plans, concluding that the "NRC cannot yet provide assurances that its efforts will protect nuclear power plants against terrorist attacks."
Other aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle are even more vulnerable to attack than the reactors themselves. Every nuclear power plant, for example, has radioactive material in spent fuel ponds, which are often in buildings that are much more exposed than are the reactors in their concrete or steel containment structures. And a terrorist group wouldn't have to steal a large amount of plutonium, a deadly byproduct of nuclear energy production, to have enough to make nuclear weapons.
A related issue is nuclear weapons proliferation. The Bush administration has strongly condemned the development of nuclear power reactors by Iran, North Korea, and other nations on the grounds that the countries can use the materials from the energy production to build nuclear weapons. The connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons is a real one, and the more power reactors that are built, the more difficult it is to curtail weapons proliferation.
OTHER HEALTH AND SAFETY ISSUES. No reactor in the world is, of course, completely safe. Design-based threats will never be completely eliminated, and human error is always a possibility in any endeavor. Along with the most-cataclysmic accidents involving the reactor core, other potential large-scale mishaps include a failure of the cooling system required for the highly radioactive spent fuel stored on reactor sites, which could lead to a massive release of radiation. Even apart from major, catastrophic accidents, smaller radiation exposures are a fact of life for those working in or living near nuclear plants.
But it's possible that the reactor site itself is the least-dangerous part of the nuclear fuel cycle. The peril begins with the mining of uranium. Jim Harding, an energy and environment consultant, said, "We easily forget the awful legacy on the front end of the fuel cycle—uranium mill tailings contain 85 percent of the radioactivity of the original ore body ... quite dangerous, and sad for members of the Navajo tribe" who were the people primarily affected by the mining. A four-part series in the Los Angeles Times in November 2006 examined the effects of uranium mining on Navajos in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, where 3.9 million tons of uranium ore were extracted from tribal homelands from 1944 to 1986.
The results, as the Times put it, were deadly: "The cancer death rate on the reservation—historically much lower than that of the general U.S. population—doubled from the early 1970s to the late 1990s, according to Indian Health Service data." And according to the Times exposé, the Navajos' exposure was known to the government: "Early on, federal scientists knew that mine workers were at heightened risk for developing lung cancer and other serious respiratory diseases in 15 or 20 years. ... In 1990, Congress offered the former miners an apology and compensation of up to $150,000 each."
Similar dangers attend to the processing and transportation of nuclear materials, and, most notably and permanently, to nuclear waste.
WHAT TO DO WITH THE WASTE. "Electricity is but the fleeting byproduct from nuclear power," wrote Michael Keegan of the Coalition for a Nuclear-Free Great Lakes. "The actual product is forever deadly radioactive waste."
Radioactive waste, produced at all stages of the nuclear fuel cycle, has been called the "unsolvable problem" of nuclear energy. High-level waste remains radioactive, and therefore deadly, for hundreds of thousands of years—essentially forever in human terms.
The nuclear industry has no answer to the waste problem. Some nuclear backers propose the "reprocessing" of spent fuel to extract plutonium and uranium, which can be used in nuclear weapons or as new fuel for nuclear power plants. The Natural Resources Defense Council warns that such projects threaten to "compromise efforts to keep dangerous nuclear technology out of unsafe hands and substantially increase the flow of nuclear waste for which there is no established means of disposal."
Hopes to bury high-level waste in formations of granite or basalt—such as at Yucca Mountain on Shoshone land in Nevada—have foundered for both geologic and political reasons. Simply put, there's no guarantee that the storage site would remain stable, even for the immediate geologic future—and the people of Nevada don't want hundreds of thousands of tons of radioactive material shipped into their state. The Los Alamos National Lab reported that so much material could leak out of waste containers at Yucca that a "critical mass, inadvertent nuclear chain reaction, and even an atomic explosion" could result, causing "catastrophic" radiation releases into the environment.
Today, decades worth of nuclear waste, including millions of gallons of reprocessing waste, is stockpiled at reactor sites or dumped at short-term Department of Energy facilities in Washington, Idaho, and South Carolina, while a "permanent" answer remains elusive.
To keep creating such deadly materials in the absence of a way to deal with them is the height of irresponsibility.
WHAT NEXT? Weighing the grave risks and harmful effects of nuclear power against the benefits bestowed, it's clear that we're called to a very different path in our response to the dangers of global warming. "Nuclear power is not a solution for climate change," argues Irene Kock of the Nuclear Awareness Project. "It is a cynical gambit on the part of the global nuclear power industry to save itself from being phased out."
No new reactors have been ordered since the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979. If we choose to spend billions on a new generation of nuclear power plants, we not only risk the health and well-being of the American people now and in the future, but we derail the opportunity to jump-start a genuinely green economy that brings healthy and productive manufacturing jobs back into the U.S.
The choice before us is not between continuing reliance on fossil fuel or turning back to nuclear power. There is a way forward, a way that promises not only to cut greenhouse gases and provide enough energy for an expanding world economy, but does so in a manner that encourages democratization, local empowerment, and sustainability.
The way forward is through energy efficiency and renewables, both in local applications and in mass production. A study by Bill Keepin and Gregory Kats, energy analysts at Rocky Mountain Institute in Old Snowmass, Colo., demonstrated that every dollar invested in energy efficiency displaces seven times as much CO2 emissions as the same dollar invested in nuclear power. Most efficiency improvements are fast and cheap compared to nuclear power, and unlike nuclear, they apply to every kind of energy use, including transportation. And sustainable technologies such as wind power, biomass, geothermal, and especially solar are on the verge of breaking through—despite decades of opposition from the very forces that benefit from large-scale nuclear, coal, and oil energy sources—to the mass production levels needed to meet worldwide energy needs, at an affordable price.
In the final analysis, perhaps Greenpeace founder Patrick Moore was correct. Not in his recent industry-spokesperson persona touting nuclear power as the "environmentally benign" energy source, but rather when he decried the creation of these "dangerous devices" as irresponsible and criminal.
Given how rapidly the symptoms of climate change are becoming manifest in our warming world, and given the fact that our energy choices over the next decade promise to affect our descendents for generations—and the world perhaps even longer than that— it is no exaggeration to say that the human family confronts an epochal fork in the road.
"The future is not a result of choices among alternative paths offered by the present," wrote political theorist John Schaar, "but a place that is created—created first in the mind and will, created next in activity." Such activity, Schaar concludes, "changes both the maker and the destination."
The issue before us is not merely political, or economic, or even scientific. Finally, as the U.S. Catholic bishops put it in their statement on climate change, "It is about our human stewardship of God's creation and our responsibility to those who come after us."
Jim Rice, editor of Sojourners magazine, was born and raised in Richland, Wash., the bedroom community for the Hanford nuclear reservation.