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Nuclear Power: Unsafe in any dose

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One potential source of nuclear fuel are stockpiles of nuclear weapons that were supposed to be regenerated into fuel for the industry. Recently, one such effort to convert plutonium from retired nuclear weapons to usable stock failed, see "Weapons Plutonium Fuel Test Fails", a 8/4/08 press release by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Downwinder/waterer threats up and down the supply chain make sourcing uranium dangerous.


Take out government subsidies for mining and producing nuclear energy, and I don't see how nuclear energy will become more competitive based on price. Nuclear power's main selling point appears to be the fact we have sources of nuclear power available here, domestically.

The nuclear power industry may not have the blessings of government subsidies as other potentially less expensive forms of energy production emerge, which will likely become darlings of those states, and compete for influence with other lobbies. Similarly, the loss of federal subsidies could make mining uranium less commercially attractive. Higher sourcing costs make profitability harder to achieve, so the nuclear power industry and its sponsors have a vested interest in keeping the subsidies rolling.

Critics of nuclear energy could argue that without gracious federal subsidies that traditional energy providers--like Big Oil and nuclear power producers--receive, solar, wind, and other energies under development would be more attractive. While in the past a block of Senators from Western states known for their sympathies to the mining and oil drilling blocked the reduction of subsidies, the pressure to move subsidies over to other more environmentally friendly means of energy production will increase.
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Lacking a national energy strategy, the private capital markets determine where investments in energy infrastructure end up going. As much as some conservatives like to believe that the economy in the US is shaped purely by free market forces, subsidies do make a huge difference in how the private sector evaluates alternative energy investments, largely through the impact tax credits have consumer buying patterns.

Most energy credits granted for the installation of high efficiency furnaces, solar power, water heaters, etc. are conditional on Congressional renewal every two years or so. The problem in marketing more efficient devices is that the costs of installation may take several decades to be recouped. Now if energy prices were to rise, as they have in general with coal, natural gas, and oil all enjoying substantial increases, using energy more efficiently would make more sense.

Bush's laissez faire approach to energy costs--that the higher prices will curtail demand and improve efficiency--has been a poor substitute for conservation, but at least the number of miles Americans drive has fallen. The slowdown in demand may be fleeting however, as prices recede to below the $100/barrel level, highlighting the impermanence of using market-driven pricing to achieve longer-term demand reduction goals.

Nuclear power's future

If our dependence on imported petroleum is really a bad thing, some argue it isn't, and we must drop tons of depleted uranium weapons to get what we need, to sustain our way of life, then perhaps nuclear energy would be comparatively safer. If however we can trade for oil peaceably, that may be a more viable alternative than spending hundreds of billions to occupy foreign nations.

I heard at the Republican National Convention that the US sends $700 billion a year abroad to pay for our imported energy--supposedly the greatest transfer of wealth in history. What troubled me most about this comment wasn't the amount but rather the fact that politicians want to do something, which means an agenda to sell nuclear power is afoot. Clearly the most vocal supporters of nuclear energy will be politicians with close ties to the nuclear power and uranium mining industries. Draping their support for nukes in the patriotic flag of energy dependence allows them to promote the cause of their corporate patrons without saying so.

Advocates of nuclear power talk about how nuclear power is a clean fuel, and these claims have been rebutted based on the industry's safety record. These people may have a bit of an edge when (and if) CO2 levels increase to the point they irrevokably alter the climate. The climate crisis offers proponents of nuclear power an opportunity to sell it to a public that seems eager for a quick fix for higher energy costs.

The costs associated with sea level rise could easily surpass any public expenditure ever made. Even a half meter of rise would bring huge tides up river estuaries and require massive public works which make the costs of preventing warming pale in comparison.

The CO2 generated by non-renewables like coal, oil, and gas does make nuclear more earth-friendly, but not if radioactive waste and extremely toxic compounds escape the storage, mining, or production processes. If nuclear power could be delivered safely, it might be a viable alternative to fossil fuel. On the positive side, Areva's new core reactor design attempts to reuse and recycle spent uranium fuels, to close the waste cycle. Unfortunately, politicians may be market nuclear power prematurely based on potential reductions in waste which have largely been unrealized, or are only feasible by taking additional contamination risks.

Expedited permitting must be a temptation for any politician who receives large donations from nuclear power providers. As a for-profit company, Areva is naturally trying to shrink the permit process, to improve ROI (Return on Investment). I don't think the US should try to hurry nuclear power plant construction. Until Areva can prove its new reactors are safe (public issue), the profitability issue (private issue) is secondary. In the meantime, overeager advocates may try to market Areva's ultralow- or zero-waste target, and hurry the design-to-production process, which can lead to failures that erase the potential of any positive design changes.

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The author lives in small-town Indiana and is a Web-based writer and analyst covering economics, politics, and international affairs.

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You are a bit disingenuous calling McCain on it bu... by nightgaunt on Monday, Sep 8, 2008 at 12:25:00 PM