Nuclear power reactors use a rare isotope of uranium 235 as a power source. This isotope occurs naturally as a small quantity in rock formations. The first step in mining this uranium uses large loaders and trucks, the wheels on which are likely taller than you are and could no doubt pick up your car in one scoop. These vehicles use diesel fuel and because of their size and weight get a fraction of one mile per gallon. The broken rock is transported to a diesel slurping crusher. Next comes a series of milling and refining and enrichment activities that occur primarily in Tennessee and Kentucky. Entire mountain tops are removed to strip mine coal which is burned to produce electricity. This electricity runs the milling and enrichment process. A common error is the idea that nuclear power causes no green house emissions. In fact the diesel and coal burned to mine, refine, mill and enrich uranium to produce the pellets in fuel rod is actually substantial.
The nuclear power industry is the most heavily subsidized industry in the history of the United States. The nuclear industry was developed to produce atom bombs during World War Two. Following the war some in the industry promoted the idea of the "peaceful atom"- that atomic energy could and should be used to produce electricity. After extensive debate the U.S., which had spent billions of dollars to produce 2 atomic bombs and was the sole nuclear power in the world, made the mistake of subsidizing the development of civilian nuclear power. Other countries followed the lead. Unfortunately this rush had little to do with producing electricity and everything to do with producing nuclear weapons. Before long there were a half dozen countries with nuclear weapons - many of which were developed from enriched uranium siphoned off what were supposed to be civilian nuclear power generators.
The use of nuclear power to produce electricity is not particularly efficient or economical and so it requires vast governmental subsidies. So why did so many other countries invest in nuclear powered electrical generation? They used nuclear power as a guise to obtain enriched uranium or plutonium for weapons production. This trend continues today with countries like North Korea and Iran stating that they need to develop nuclear power for electricity when in fact the real unstated goal is probably obtaining fissionable material for weapons production. This proliferation of nuclear weapons to more and more countries will continue until the governments with nuclear arsenals ( and those seeking to build such arsenals in the future ) admit the fact that their commercial reactors exist for the purpose of providing weapons grade materials and end the facade that nuclear reactors can be an economical or benign source of electrical power. The proliferation of nuclear weapons is probably the single greatest danger facing the United States and someday if a terrorist succeeds in sneaking one of these devices into the country and detonating it in one of our major cities the terrorist will likely have the nuclear power industry to thank for providing the material.
Due to the inefficient, uneconomical nature of civilian nuclear power generation the entire industry has been subsidized by American taxpayers from the initial development, to the construction, monitoring and insuring of the reactors, to the disposal of the highly radioactive waste produced. In a country supposedly founded on the principal of free enterprise and free markets the nuclear industry stands out as a monument to government subsidy and interference. When it comes to the danger of these power reactors, consider the fact that no private insurance company would provide inclusive insurance to a single one of the 103 reactors in the U.S. and the government had to step in and pass the Price-Anderson Act making taxpayers liable for much of the damage from a nuclear power reactor accident.
The possible bill for irradiating hundreds of square miles of land runs into the hundreds of billions. As we have seen with the Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine, the results of a nuclear accident are devastating - huge territories rendered useless and uninhabitable due to radioactive contamination. While such an accident is unlikely with today’s safeguards it still could happen. Do we really want to take the risk when clean, renewable alternatives exist?
Another understated danger of nuclear power is the highly toxic, radioactive waste produced. This waste is currently stored in holding pools at the reactors. These pools are aged and deteriorating, many are leaking waste into soil and groundwater. The problem is there is no fool proof way to dispose of this radioactive waste safely. Just one component of this waste, plutonium, is an alpha emitter that causes cancer at a 100% rate when inhaled or ingested and remains toxic for thousands of years. No matter how many tax dollars the government throws at this problem, no solution has yet been found and when a design is even considered, such as the facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, the public outcry is that people do not want this danger in their state or community. Considering the serious danger of nuclear waste products who can blame them.
The nuclear industry produces the fewest jobs per tax dollar spent of any industry. Many of the people who have gotten jobs working with these materials, from Navaho miners in the Southwest to workers in the weapons industry, have payed with their lives and health. Industry officials proudly point out that the use of nuclear power is high in France. It is true that France produces almost all of its electrical power from nuclear reactors. France is an interesting country known for monumental blunders, almost always caused by putting all of their eggs in one basket - one can recall their idea of the impenetrable "Maginot Line" during WW II as an example. France cuts corners. For example they have "solved" the problem of what to do with some of their nuclear waste - they load it on ships and dump the waste into the ocean. This practice spreads radioactive substances into the earth’s environment endangering virtually every living thing on the planet. When confronted on the issue France basically replies that they will do whatever they want. They consider their small nation a superpower on par with the U.S. and attempt to achieve this status by maintaining a large arsenal of nuclear weapons and a string of reactors to provide electricity. Other countries in Europe are phasing out nuclear power plants. Many are investing heavily in wind power.
The electric utility industry is a highly centralized industry. Centralization allows the industry to control production. Because of the scale of investment it is a natural monopoly. In other words it does not make economic sense to have numerous companies all stringing electrical wires in the same area and competing with one another. So we have interstate commissions and governmental regulation. The problem with this system is that it eliminates competition, entrepreneurship, free market incentives and concentrates control into the hands of a few executives and away from consumers. The greatest fear of these well paid electric industry executives is the creation of a single, nationalized grid. In other words a grid that anyone can sell energy to or buy from. This would encourage free enterprise, smaller scale producers and entrepreneurs. It would lead to the eventual elimination of huge, subsidized, monopolies which now run the electric industry and profit excessively from consumers vulnerabilities and limited choice of providers.
The large electrical monopolies love nuclear power, coal and oil fired plants. These plants are far too technical and require far too much investment for the average citizen or small business to undertake. The large monopolies do not favor the wide spread use of solar photovoltaic cells, wind generators or other de-centralized production because it would undermine their monopoly.
If one considers the U.S. Dept. of Energy budget one could really call it the Dept. of Oil, Coal and Nuclear Subsidies. Beyond a few demonstration projects to make it look like the Dept. has funded solar, wind and other alternatives there has been no effort to promote alternatives. Oil, coal and nuclear receive an ocean of funding, while alternatives receive a drip. That is because the huge energy monopolies control the energy debate in Congress through their campaign contribution largess. Any representative who promotes nuclear as a solution simply has not heard both sides of the story. I think there is a problem in that the nuclear industry provides one-sided shows and information for governmental representatives and if these representatives are not careful to study the issue and hear all sides they will likely make decisions which are not in the best interest of the citizens they represent.
Another issue is the decommissioning of nuclear plants. Many people do not realize that these plants have a life span of 30-60 years. Basically the plant itself - reactor, containment vessel, buildings, etc. become contaminated with radioactivity and must be disposed of. The NRC estimates this cost at $325 million for each nuclear power plant. Of course the power companies could never afford all of this so again taxpayers will pick up much of the tab. It is interesting how they do this decommissioning. There are two plans. The first plan is to have people in protective suits dismantle everything - buildings, equipment, etc. and then load it onto trucks and haul it all away to a radioactive waste disposal facility. They still haven't come up with a long term disposal facility even after pumping millions of tax dollars into the Yucca Mountain trail. But they have a second contingency plan. They would bury the entire nuclear power plant in asphalt and "entomb" it in place.
Government representatives need to make a distinction between "renewable" energy, such as solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, etc., and terminal sources such as nuclear. In other words the supply of uranium 235 will run out in about 70 years at the current rate of use. So nuclear power is a stop-gap source. In comparison the sun will always shine, wind will always blow, and the grass will always grow. It makes sense to invest in clean, renewable resources we have right here in the USA in stead of importing so much oil. Eventually oil, coal, natural gas and uranium will all run out. I think it makes sense for humanity to start investing in clean, renewable sources. I prefer that the free market is finally allowed to run its course in the energy field. The billions and billions of federal pork barrel tax dollars poured into nuclear have made it difficult for other energy sources to compete. Also the energy monopolies that have been established favor massive, centralized production at the expense of smaller scale facilities and free market competition. We need to either subsidize energy sources equally or we need to end the massive pork barrel trough the nuclear companies feed from.
The centralization of the energy monopolies makes the energy supply less redundant and subject to large scale back outs during storms, etc. This centralization would be a disaster if this country is ever involved in a shooting war. It would make it easy for an enemy to knock out electrical supplies here ( just hit a few big plants ). Also if there is ever an actual shooting war in the future strategically I can guess where the first 103 conventional bombs will land on U.S. soil. An enemy could just drop a conventional bomb on the 103 nuclear power plants here and have the effect of a nuclear attack in that radioactivity would be spread across the nation making much of our land uninhabitable.
These nuclear power plants are potentially extremely dangerous and that is why they have extensive security measures to prevent a terrorist or accident from occurring. Still the danger will always be there and on 9-11 it was demonstrated that terrorists can slip by security. We could find ourselves fleeing the radiation in our cars with a few hastily packed suitcases abandoning our homes, property and belongings essentially forever as people did in the Ukraine after Chernobyl. Then there will be no use second guessing. We need to think this through now.
In conclusion there are many problems associated with nuclear power. There is the security danger of a melt-down type incident or terrorist stealing nuclear material for a dirty bomb. Fossil fuels are currently being consumed in the mining, milling, processing and enrichment process to make nuclear fuel rods. The waste produced is extremely toxic and difficult to dispose of. The use of nuclear power to produce electricity around the world has lead to the proliferation and spread of nuclear weapons to many countries, including unstable dictatorships like Pakistan. Nuclear power creates the fewest jobs of any energy source.