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Confronting a False Myth of Nuclear Power:

By Mary Olson, NIRS  Posted by David Sirota (about the submitter)       (Page 1 of 2 pages)   No comments
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Nuclear power is being widely promoted as a "solution" to global climate change. Unfortunately nuclear power is not a solution and it is further counterproductive to any real remedy for human impacts on climate. Those selling the expansion of nuclear power are on a par with any salesman of counterfeit medicine; one must closely examine the motives of anyone associated with nuclear schemes of any kind.

In the service of this disinformation campaign U.S. Vice President Cheney has publicly stated a falsehood: he asserted that nuclear power is carbon-free. Nuclear power is not free from carbon emissions. A number of recent studies have found that when mining, processing, and extensive transportation of uranium in order to make nuclear fuel is considered, the release of carbon dioxide (CO2) as the result of making electricity from uranium is comparable to burning natural gas to make electric power. Additional energy required for decommissioning and disposition of the wastes generated increases this CO2 output substantially.

Nuclear power is not only dependent upon fossil fuels for the production of uranium fuel, decommissioning, and the disposition of wastes generated: it is also dependent upon a grid that is powered by other sources of energy, typically coal. This is due to the simple fact that nuclear reactors cannot "black start" - in other words, they depend on electric power from the external power grid to be able to come on-line. Transition away from the combustion of fossil fuels cannot be accomplished solely by the expansion of nuclear power since it depends on the grid being powered up before reactors can come on-line.

A second false facet of the promotion of nuclear power as a "solution" hinges on the claim that nuclear energy is clean. The implication: if you cannot see it, there is no pollution. In truth nuclear power can only operate because it enjoys some of the most lenient public "protection" standards in the world. The destructive activity of radioactivity is to disrupt the structures of living cells, especially DNA. The international regulatory regime for exposure to radiation results in an unfortunate level of human sacrifice. Considering only the exposure of "standard" adult males in the US civilian population to "permissible" levels of radiation, one official estimate of risk finds that of every 57 men exposed, one will suffer fatal cancer. Obviously this same level of radiation exposure will produce more cancers in children and others who are more vulnerable . US worker standards have recently been revealed to produce cancer in 1 in 4 workers. Recent revelations of massive tritium releases from US reactors, contaminating groundwater in residential neighborhoods, exposes the lie that nuclear power is "clean."

The vast majority of radioactivity in nuclear waste worldwide is from the production of electricity. Even in the United States, where for decades a robust nuclear weapons program operated, more than 95% of the total radioactivity is in waste from commercial nuclear power. Reactor waste contains materials with half-lives measured in tens of thousands, and some in millions of years. More than 12,000 human generations -- are required to reduce the hazard of these materials to acceptable levels. The most concentrated waste is irradiated fuel from electric power reactors, and the residual wastes from attempts to "recycle" or reprocess the fuel. Other wastes include the entire massive reactor structure itself when the facility is shut down.

In addition to radiological pollution, nuclear power also contributes massive thermal pollution to both our air and water. It has been estimated that every nuclear reactor daily releases thermal energy -heat-- that is in excess of the heat released by the detonation of a 15 kiloton nuclear bomb blast. In addition to horrendous direct impact of this heat on aquatic ecosystems, nuclear power contributes significantly to the thermal energy inside Earth's atmosphere, making it contraindicated at this time of rapid global warming.

A fundamental element in finding that nuclear power is a false solution to climate change is that the economics of nuclear power are not sound - in open markets nuclear cannot compete. Since splitting atoms is not a cost-effective source of electric power, it is even less cost-effective in preventing greenhouse gas emissions. Life cycle costs for nuclear power generation (in the USA) have been estimated at 12 cents a kilowatt hour, whereas life cycle costs for wind power in the same analysis is estimated at 4 cents a kilowatt hour. Others find that expanding nuclear generating capacity is about twice as expensive as expanding generating capacity through investment in wind power. Since the same money will buy 2 -- 3 times more electric power when used to purchase wind generated electric power, it is clear that prevention of greenhouse emissions will also be 2 - 3 times greater when buying wind generated electricity.

Wind energy is the fastest growing form of electric power generation in the world. This technology leads the portfolio of renewable energy options, and solar power is also making enormous strides with significant annual drops in cost of photovoltaic hardware.

In the USA, the ongoing waste of electric power makes investment in energy efficiency protocols and hardware an even more cost-effective way to reduce carbon emissions. Amory Lovins finds that a combination of assertive efficiency programs combined with decentralized industrial cogeneration of electric power from waste heat results in 7 times more reduction of CO2 emissions than a comparable investment in expanding nuclear power. A comprehensive strategy for the USA - a real remedy for reducing greenhouse gases - is contained in the "Sustainable Energy Blueprint: A Plausible Strategy for Achieving a No-Nuclear, Low-Carbon, Highly Efficient and Sustainable Energy Future."

The finding that nuclear energy is not profitable, that it is not compatible with public health, and that it releases massive heat directly contradicting climate goals, calls into question the basis upon which individuals, governments and corporations are seeking to invest public funds in nuclear expansion. Inquiring minds will ask if there is an additional agenda underlying this gambit to "revive" nuclear power. Before offering some conjecture about such motives, there remain several points about why nuclear power is not qualified to remedy our climate fever.

An extensive 2003 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology investigated the future of nuclear power, including its potential to combat climate change. MIT's nuclear boosters project that 25 - 35 Gigawatts of new nuclear generating capacity would be required to address the climate problem to any degree. This would roughly mean adding one new reactor every two weeks until 2050. In the USA, some of the last reactors to be built (Vogtle 1 & 2) cost more than $4 billion each! The industry has recently asserted that it will be possible to build reactors for $ 2 billion -- the previous actual figure; this however, is speculative. Even taking the $2 billion industry "guestimate," it would require trillions of dollars to implement this supposed "fix." It is plain that a similar investment in efficiency in the USA and other energy-hog nations, and investment in wind energy worldwide would be a far more cost-effective use of capital. One can only imagine the results if a fraction of the residual funds were invested in technology development in solar, appropriate hydro, appropriate biomass and other sustainable power innovations!

The economic factors outlined above do not consider the considerable risk associated with operating facilities that are effectively pre-deployed nuclear weapons. In the USA the prospective costs associated with such risks are effectively relegated to future victims.

The financial analyses, as unfavorable as they are already, assume that splitting uranium is a bona-fide source of energy. There is the assumption that one does, in fact, achieve the production of new energy over and above the investment of energy required to create, fuel, and run the reactor. An in-depth analysis by Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Smith challenges this assumption. These authors find that operating a nuclear power reactor does not always result in new power production. When all of the energy used to produce uranium fuel, build the reactor and decommission it (not including long term waste disposition) are considered, some of the scenarios show that no new energy is achieved - in some cases no matter how long the reactor is run! Outcome of the calculations is directly tied to the quality of the uranium ore used. Clearly it does not make sense to spend trillions of dollars on a technology that does not reliably produce the desired product - energy. Given the steep curve on technology costs associated with implementing hydrogen as a transportation fuel, using uranium as the base for producing hydrogen production may simply amplify this black-hole effect.

Storm and Smith show that uranium, similar to oil, is subject to a "peak" in the availability of high-grade uranium ores, and that these premium ores are already being exhausted. "Peak uranium" is a driver in the push to "close the fuel cycle" and move to plutonium as the fuel in atomic reactors. Plutonium may be used either in combination with uranium - as MOX (mixed oxide) fuel, or alone in high-temperature breeder reactors, both of which are vulnerable to diversion of plutonium for nuclear weapons proliferation.

2005 marked a deeply disturbing turn in US nuclear policy toward a plutonium economy. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 awarded billions of dollars in direct tax subsidy, tax credits, guaranteed loans and other inducements to spawn a new generation of (partially) publicly funded commercially owned nuclear power reactors in the US. Nonetheless a major Wall Street credit analyst, Standard and Poors responded to the legislation stating that nuclear power is still "a risky business practice" and suggested that it would require "progress" in traditional problem areas, such as long-term nuclear waste disposition for Wall Street to jump into new reactor investments. High-level nuclear waste is currently stored on corporate reactor sites.

For the past two decades the nuclear waste program in the US has been based on the goal of deep geologic burial. Reprocessing was tried (and abandoned) 40 years ago - to disastrous environmental and economic consequences in West Valley, New York. The industry found reprocessing to be unprofitable, and US Presidents Ford and Carter banned it thanks to the demonstration by India that this technology results in the separation of nuclear weapons-usable plutonium-239 from the waste.

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David Sirota is a full-time political journalist, best-selling author and nationally syndicated newspaper columnist living in Denver, Colorado. He blogs for Working Assets and the Denver Post's PoliticsWest website. He is a Senior Editor at In These Times magazine, which in 2006 received the Utne Independent Press Award for political coverage. His 2006 book, Hostile Takeover, was a New York Times bestseller, and is now out in paperback. He has been a guest on, among others, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC and NPR. His writing, which draws on his (more...)

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