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Nuclear Power Is Not Clean, Green or Cheap

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Message Randolph Holhut
DUMMERSTON, Vt. - Entergy, the energy conglomerate that owns of Vermont Yankee, the nuclear power plant that sits about a dozen miles from my doorstep, has launched an advertising blitz touting nuclear power as being "green."

The ad campaign was timed to coincide with the start of the Vermont Legislature's 2007-08 session. Lawmakers are currently discussing the effects of climate change on Vermont and what can be done to reduce the production of carbon dioxide and other gases that contribute to global warming.

The nuclear power industry has jumped into the climate change debate and is touting nuclear power as an environmentally friendly energy source. Entergy has even called upon Patrick Moore, a founder of Greenpeace who now touts nuclear power as a green energy source, to help sell their vision.

Certainly, in the search for alternatives to the carbon-based fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas that produce much of our nation's electricity, nuclear power appears to a clean and safe alternative.

Nuclear power is clean, if you overlook the fact that radioactivity is released in every phase of the nuclear production cycle from the mining of the uranium through the spent fuel that no one has figured out what to do with. Factor in the amount of carbon-based fuel used for uranium mining, fuel fabrication, reactor construction and waste storage, and nuclear power is closer to natural gas in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

And nuclear power is safe, if you overlook the potential for meltdowns, malfunctions and terrorist attacks, as well as the potential for more nuclear weapons from the increased production of fissile materials from reactors.

Leaving aside those two obvious flaws in the nuclear industry's sales pitch, what nuclear power is not is cheap.

Despite more than $150 billion in federal subsidies over the past 60 years - about 30 times more than renewable energy sources such as wind or solar - electricity generated by nuclear energy is substantially more expensive.

Without government subsidies, building a nuclear reactor is prohibitively expensive. That's why companies like Entergy are trying to squeeze every last bit out of aging facilities such as Vermont Yankee.

Entergy bought the 35-year-old Vermont Yankee and several other aged nuclear reactors around the country over the last five years or so. They can make a profit running these old reactors, because others have paid the upfront costs of building them years ago.

In the case of Vermont Yankee, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission last year granted Entergy the right to run the reactor at 120 percent of its original power generation capacity. The NRC appears set to also give Entergy a 20-year license extension when Vermont Yankee's original 40-year license expires in 2012. For a minimal upfront investment, Entergy gets a maximum return.

The other strike against nuclear power is that is addresses a small part of the energy problem. Driving our cars and heating and cooling our homes are the two biggest sources of greenhouse gases. Nuclear reactors produce only electricity, and, electricity production, according to the International Energy Agency, amounts to about 39 percent of the world's total greenhouse gas emissions.

The Rocky Mountain Institute estimates that the cost of building a new nuclear reactor in the United States would be between $2 billion and $5 billion. If that same amount of money was devoted to insulating drafty buildings, installing energy-efficient lighting and appliances in homes and offices or buying low-emission cars and trucks, it would reduce carbon fuel consumption seven times more than the nuclear reactor.

Or, to multiply the cost-benefit ratio further, according to a recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it would take 300 new nuclear reactors in the United States and at least 1,500 worldwide (there are only 440 worldwide now) to make any kind of significant impact on greenhouse emissions. That would mean building a new nuclear plant every six months for the next 60 years.

In short, not only is nuclear power not clean and green, it is economically impractical - even with the massive government subsidies the industry receives. It's ridiculous for the industry and its apologists to say otherwise.

A truly clean and green solution to global warming will mean greater investment in energy conservation and alternative energy sources such as wind, hydro and solar. That is the energy policy this country desperately needs now.
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Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 25 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at
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