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Nuclear Power: Unsafe in any dose

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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.

Waste Issues

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.

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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.

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Security Issues

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.

Sourcing Issues

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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.

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The author lives in Colorado, photographing the natural beauty of the Rocky Mountains. Politically, John's an X generation independent with a blend of traditional American and progressive values. He is fiscally conservative and believes in (more...)

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