At every stage--extraction, production, and storage--uranium poses a serious threat to human health. A major leak at a French reactor run by Areva raises serious doubts about the safety of current reactors and untested new designs. Candidate McCain presents nuclear power as a viable energy source--can we trust our politicians to tell us nuclear power is safe?
Nuclear power has come into the news, proposed by Republican candidate John McCain as an alternative to the importation of oil.
The industry has suffered from a poor public image. There was of course the movie China Syndrome, which starred Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon in a tale of an escalating drama unfolding as the reactor core of a nuclear power plant overheats.
Then there was the Karen Silkwood story. Silkwood died in a one-car accident after suffering plutonium contamination. See a Los Alamos National Lab (government-sponsored) report posted at PBS' "Nuclear Reaction; Why Do Americans Fear Nuclear Power," available here.
According to LANL's report, a team from Los Alamos Health Research Laboratory conducted Silkwood's post-mortem analysis "to determine her actual body burden." Samples were also sent to the Los Alamos Tissue Analysis Program and Los Alamos Health Research Laboratory. Both organizations are 100% government owned and operated (as is PBS.) I bring up the issue of government control because independent laboratory analysis is not readily available in the nuclear industry. The lack of transparency offers opportunities for abuse, as well as conflicts of interest in this age of cronyism in government.
Another reason to distrust government evaluations is high stakes litigation between nuclear power providers and nearby residents and workers who might be contaminated like Silkwood. Silkwood sued Kerr-McGee; a initial jury verdict in her favor was overturned on appeal. In 1986, Silkwood's estate settled out of court; the Kerr-Mcgee plant closed in 1975, according to the report.
The recent Exxon Valdez settlement demonstrated the Supreme Court's willingness to let victims wait, as well as reduce the damages awarded. Should a nuclear accident occur, it's unlikely the full damages would be paid--this doesn't mean however that insurers and the capital markets will ignore the potentially huge verdicts that could be rendered, should the Supreme Court not intervene.
Silkwood's case also spawned the 1983 movie Silkwood, starring Meryl Streep, who provides a memorable portrayal of Silwood. At its end, the movie points at the possibility that her death was no accident.
The impact of movies like Silkwood and China Syndrome reflect just how fearful people (and not just Americans) are about nuclear power. Clearly these fears stem from the use of nuclear weapons and their terrible aftereffects. The invisible and insidious penetration of radiation, combines with its persistence, make radioactive fuels and weapons especially odious.
Nuclear energy's close relationship with government sponsors and regulators encourages skepticism, as a healthy means to "keep them honest" in hopes of preventing another meltdown like Three Mile Island. Since that event, plans for nuclear power plants were scrapped all over the nation, including one for Public Service Indiana, which had spent in excess of a billion dollars on an aborted project in Southern Indiana. For politicians, and investors, nuclear power is potentially a real hot potato of an issue--just one meltdown could doom new construction nationwide and perhaps even worldwide.
On the surface, nuclear power does represent a viable energy source, but on closer analysis through the entire supply chain, production, and disposal processes, nuclear power remains remarkably dangerous and tremendously expensive. Obviously, with the consequences of radioactive contamination so severe, traditional nuclear power will be very costly, in no small part due to the costs of preventing and containing potential leaks and preventing catastrophic meltdowns.
Leaks and production mistakes
Cataloging the vast number of safety violations and leaks by the nuclear power industry is a challenging task, made so by the number of nuclear power plants, and the general lack of transparency on mistakes and failures. At least Americans and Europeans are made aware of safety issues caused by their reactors. Unfortunately it wasn't until radiation was detected in Sweden that millions of people became aware of Chernobyl, a massive leak in what is now Ukraine. The Soviet autocracy, to avoid a public relations disaster that the event became, kept the meltdown there a secret, worsening the crisis and gravely damaging nuclear power's reputation.
The government of France has embraced nuclear power, choosing Areva, a large consortium, to build numerous reactors. The company has violated safety standards, missed safety goals, and contaminated nearby localities. Researching "areva" provided ample evidence that reactor construction and production methods are unsafe.
French consortium Areva had been planning a newer, more efficient reactor model until its Tricastin site in Southern France leaked uranium. I've read in a post on commondreams.org that 75 kilograms of untreated uranium "seeped into the ground" and into a tributary of the Rhone river.
As cleanup for even "minor" leaks can easily run into the tens of millions, nuclear power providers will have a hard time competing with safer--and therefore cheaper--alternatives.
Areva has proposed a new reactor model that attempts to reduce waste, a worthy goal for any nuclear plant, if not for ecological considerations, than those of cost. If the nuclear power industry is going to be viable, it needs to be cost competitive. The "world's first next-generation pressurised water reactor" being built in Finland using the new blueprints required the company to set aside an additional billion dollars "in provisions to absorb the rise in costs" required by the Finnish regulators, according to the business daily Les Echos.
Whatever the grand plans of Areva to build new, low emission plants, the fact remains that it doesn't take a lot of leaked plutonium to ruin the company and industry's reputation.
Uranium doesn't get completely used up, nor can plutonium simply burn up or lose its radioactivity as it's used to produce energy. Apparently the government can't get rid of depleted uranium fast enough. Nuclear waste is used to make depleted uranium bombs, which are shipped to any country in the world free of charge by the US government.
Nuclear waste also requires a lot of expense, as preventing leaks during long-term storage is difficult. One site where the US has attempted to transfer the huge backlog in radioactive waste disposal is at Yucca Mountain, a mountain sacred to the Shoshone, Paulte, and other First Nations peoples.
Yucca is apparently too small to house the current store of nuclear waste, so we'll need another site and all the associated costs will be borne by the Feds, socializing costs associated with the expensive back end of the nuclear power industry production cycle. See "Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Dump Cost Soars" from Reuters.
Nuclear waste is a big environmental risk, so much so that nuclear power companies makes reduction of spent fuel a key functional goal in designing and running theirreactors. By aiming to reduce spent fuel, Areva's new reactor model addresses the expenses and challenges posed by that end of the nuclear energy production cycle.
The expenses associated with waste storage treatment and storage are large and rising, if Yucca Mountain is any example of what is to come. Baring any reduction in nuclear waste, new reactor models and plans aren't likely to be much more productive, and thus the costs associated with processing and storing the the waste will be little different from that currently paid by the industry.
Probably the biggest fear associated with nuclear power are indirectly associated with nuclear warfare, but there are other vulnerabilities as well up and down the supply chain. Nuclear fuel is transported in trucks and trains over vast distances. While exhaustive effort goes into protecting these shipments, uranium and other sources of nuclear fuel are thought to be greatly desired by terrorists and rogue states. While I doubt any despot or terror group could gain any sympathy or help their cause from using nuclear weapons or a dirty bomb, nukes and their derivatives do carry a considerable intimidation value capable of altering the strategic balance in a number of global hot spots.
9-11, and the post facto obsession on trying to prevent another mass casualty event, no matter how challenging, if even such a task is possible, has increased fears of nuclear terrorism, either with an illicitly acquired weapon or through a dirty bomb, which is a ground-based or aerial dispersion of a radioactive substance over a fixed area.
In the public imagination, nuclear power stacks would make ideal terrorist targets, an issue which appears in the Areva literature as a major design goal, in that case to prevent an airborne assault. In reality, chemical plants would be easier targets. They tend to be located nearer large urban areas, and less well guarded.
Avera claims contamination from a "planes flying into buildings" scenario is not very likely under new building plans. Accounting for the possibility of an airborne terrorist strike is nice, but a far more persistent dangers arise in processing, storing, and transporting radioactive substances. The more power plants there are, the more likely problems are to occur, especially if new plants are brought online too quickly, or use new and unproven technologies.
In the American west, writers like Chip Ward have written about an unfolding tragedy that now spans generations since the first atomic tests began and uranium mining began in earnest. Since then, piles of uranium tailings have been found and a new uranium mining boom began, with taxpayers to subsidize any cleanup according to arcane federal mining rules originally designed to encourage economic development in the West. See Chip Ward's "Uranium frenzy in the west."
The radioactivity present in waste products and effluents is not the sole source of problems from nuclear power. All over the West, where these mines are located, mine waste, or tailings, are often left in piles by nearby rivers and streams. These present a far greater radioactive threat as they could contaminate drinking sources for centuries. Western water supplies are already stretched thin by over-population and agricultural use.
As uranium makes its way into the ground water, it will force those nearby to avoid any contact with local water, including wells and agricultural uses. Like the people downwind of atomic test sites are called downwinders, the "downwaterers" face the same risks of contamination, higher rates of cancer and birth defects from in-process leaks.
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.
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.
Of course, it'd be nice if energy producers could make more money with non-greenhouse gas-producing energies, but at this point I don't think nuclear can qualify on the basis of safety, considering Areva's leak in France and the numerous challenges that company faces in bringing its new reactor models on-line.
Looking at corn-based ethanol, and the way government subsidies have created that industry, I don't think nuclear (or ethanol) will succeed without government help.
Solar and wind should be the primary focus of a sadly missed national energy policy. The expense and risks of nuclear power generation should make it a secondary technology, unless/until safer versions can be devised, ideally ones that don't produce radioactive waste or can safely recycle almost all of it.
Nukes, nukes, nukes
Supporters of nuclear power have been slow to grasp at any knee-jerk response to the rise in the cost of energy, as people like CNBC's Larry Kudlow have on the oil drilling front. Calls to "drill, drill, drill" are rising as the conservative echo chamber attempts to sway mass opinion.
Contrary to the Republican position, increasing energy production is possible without making concessions to Big Oil, or allowing rigs to be set up on every beach in the nation. Still, the mediascape is framed purely in black and white, as if bestowing drilling permits will lead to a substantive and almost immediate reduction in prices at the pump. This stagecraft is performed by lobbyists for Big Oil, oil contractors (like Susan Palin's husband) and their political representatives.
For nuclear power, the risks to any public figure are quite high. Unlike "drill, drill, drill"--a mantra as quick to roll off the tongue as the ubiquitos "USA, USA, USA"--nuclear energy could become highly unpopular literally overnight. As bad as a major oil spill off one of our nations most pristine beaches might be, another Three Mile Island could be far worse, and contaminate a much larger region for a far longer period of time.
The road to nowhere
Most Americans, ignorant of how gas prices are determined, are vulnerable to whatever spin the Republicans and their cronies in the oil and coal industries can generate. Prices at the pump are not set in a vacuum; supply is not a function of American supply but rather that of the world. Demand is also not limited to American shores--even if we drive less, Americans cannot reduce increasing demand for oil in places like India and China. As soothing as the concept of more drilling now might seem, even the US Department of Energy admits that new drilling won't lower costs at the pump by very much, or any time soon.
None of these economic facts can be boiled down into a snippet like "Drill, Drill, Drill!" Explaining supply and demand are beyond the grasp of the Americans, especially when believing that the problem of higher prices can be magically alleviated by simply producing more. The US already produces a huge amount of oil domestically, every day, more than 10 million barrels. Conservation could give Americans far more relief, with zero risk, if conservation were more than a personal virtue, as Cheney calls it. Barack Obama has said--and was instantly ridiculed by McCain supporters--that simply inflating automobile tire pressures we can save more gas than new drilling would provide. He was right--simply monitoring tire pressure could save up to 3% of all gasoline consumption, which is more than current estimates of new production from domestic drilling.
In his acceptance speech at the GOP convention, John McCain extolled the US to lead the world. We are by far the world's greatest energy user, consuming 25% of the world's supply, which is hardly an example of conservation considering how we make up only 5% of its population. Unless the world can reduce its consumption, we will see the demand for energy rise. If the world can't reduce CO2 output, we'll see more warming. Can't the US curtail its wasteful energy habits? To lead the world, the US will have to change its usage patterns or the world will look elsewhere, to places like Iceland, which is already almost energy independent.
Petroleum will likely be the energy of choice simply because we know there's a lot of it around, and where it is. For now, the cost of extracting oil is lower than implementing new energy technologies, so we will keep doing as we have. In the future though, higher demand will reduce supply and put further pressure on the costs not only of oil, but of all its alternatives. In this respect, a small increase in supply will matter little, as we--or someone else in the world--will simply use it up. This is why the opportunity presented by American leadership in the field of conservation is so immense, and the consequence of a failure to conserve so drastic.
Now as the amounts of easily extracted oil decrease, new sources of oil will be more remote and more costly to extract. Already we're seeing this in the depth of drilling--up to 5 miles!--that will be necessary to develop large oil fields. There's also a political risk premium--a specific level of military or economic aid necessary to maintain the ongoing supply of oil from the world's more volatile regions, which through perhaps no coincidence end up being right above the choicest reserves.
Compared to the problems of nuclear waste, and the Mountaintop Removal associated with sourcing coal, petroleum may be less environmentally destructive. Burning coals also produces huge amounts of mercury, contrary to the Clean Coal fantasy. Many Middle Eastern deposits only require the investment of one or two barrels of oil to get 100 barrels out of the ground (although reserves this easily extracted are dwindling.)
To grow and process ethanol requires expending 1 barrel of oil (and its derivates, fertilizers, transport, etc.) for every 3 barrrels of equivalent energy it provides. In other words, the amount of energy required to grow corn, spray it with fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, harvest it, transport it, dry and/or store it, and transport it again to the ethanol plant (which in turn must be run on energy) makes it an inefficient source. Brazilian sugar-based ethanol is a better bet, but only delivers 7-9 barrels for each one invested.
Ironically the higher price of oil--the cost people are seeking to avoid through ethanol--makes the production of oil alternatives more expensive. Even if corn growers could somehow avoid using any petroleum-based fertilizers, or fuels, they'd still face higher energy costs, as the price of substitutes for petroleum products will rise as oil prices go up. There's no way, therefore, to shelter the American consumer from rising gas prices, short of reducing consumption, a task so mammoth that it can't be achieved through natural market forces alone, as they tend to lift alternative energy prices in proportion to oil.
In a Catch-22, if oil prices come down, politicians are put under less stress to bring them lower, and thus alternative sources of energy become less attractive. Keeping oil prices higher therefore becomes a necessity in developing and marketing new energy technologies.
The Bush White House has from day one underplayed environmental risks associated with the use of fossil fuels. Global warming might be the catalyst, but if we wait too long, we will be unable to stave off its worst effects. To wean the US off petroleum, energy alternatives which don't require much energy to grow or process are needed, alongside a good (but not suffocating) amount of government subsidies, with the near-term goal to be commercially viable.
Note: This article contains amended comments I've made at commondreams.org regarding Areva's leaks in France. You can examine articles posted on this topic there by searching their archive.
"French Government’s Deception on Deadly Tricastin Spill," by Bob Nichols
"New Uranium Leak Discovered at French Nuclear Site," Agence France Presse
The author lives in Colorado, photographing the natural beauty of the Rocky Mountains.
He has a pair of blogs currently active. Topics covered include social, political, and economic issues.