Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer
The United States’ one hundred-plus nuclear reactors have created in excess of 50,000 tons of high-level radioactive trash. This material is so deadly it can deliver a lethal dose to a person standing three feet away in just seconds. Even after decades of radioactive decay, a few minutes of exposure is enough to kill.
No American utility has ordered a power reactor for over twenty-five years. Nonetheless, the nuclear industry is attempting a revival, and most astonishingly, by asserting that nuclear technology is good for the environment by saving the planet from global warming.
Helen Caldicot’s new book, “Nuclear Power is Not the Answer,” buries the notion that nuclear power is salvific in any way whatsoever. Relying on analysis provided by scientists, Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Smith, Caldicott takes the reader step by step through the nuclear fuel cycle and quantifies the carbon emissions generated in each step of the process.
The first step in producing nuclear power is mining uranium – a process requiring heavy machinery, and loads of energy, to dig, crush and mill the radioactive rock. The key uranium-mining areas in North America are on the Colorado Plateau, in central Wyoming and on the Athabasca Basin of Saskatchewan. It takes an average of 162 tons of uranium ore to fuel a standard power reactor for a year.
The next step in the fuel cycle, refining the uranium, similarly uses loads of energy. Then, enriching the uranium – increasing the proportion of U235 – entails the costly and energy-rich endeavor of converting uranium into a gas, uranium hexafluoride. Enrichment facilities also vent vast amounts of chlorofluorocarbons, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The next step, fabricating fuel elements and placing them in the rods, gobbles up still more energy.
The story does not stop here. The massive thick-walled containment vessel that houses the reactor entails years of work. And when the plant is finally open, reactors require an outside energy source to operate the cooling system. In California, the reactors at San Onofre and Diablo Canyon are subsidized by electricity made from coal, gas, and wind power. That’s right, we send renewable energy to operate nuclear plants.
Once nuclear power plants run their course, energy will be needed to decommission, dismantle, cleanup, store, transport and dispose of reactors and their deadly detritus. How much energy will be expended in shuttering a major power plant? Nobody knows for certain—as these cleanup activities have yet to performed.
Van Leeuwen and Smith estimate that per kilowatt nuclear energy emits about one-third as much carbon dioxide as a gas-fired plant.
Caldicott correctly argues that nuclear’s carbon emissions are higher still. Van Leeuwen and Smith fail to factor the energy used in cleaning-up uranium mill tailings. One massive cleanup project directly affects California. The Atlas mine in Moab, Utah is currently leaching thousands of pounds of radiation directly into the Colorado River—a source of drinking water for Southern California. The Metropolitan Water District recently convinced the federal government to haul ten million tons of uranium tailings away from the river and haul it thirty miles into the desert. When it comes to factoring nuclear power’s carbon footprint, we need to include the carbon output of Atlas’ diesel-belching bulldozers, trucks, and trains.
Another strong argument against nuclear power’s purported carbon-savings is economic. According to energy guru, Amory Lovins, “nuclear power buys less climate solution per dollar than renewable technologies.”
Smaller power plants in general out-perform large centralized plants which argues against large nuclear plants. Improving efficiency “generates” cheaper energy than any other source. For example, less than 1% of a car’s fuel actually moves the driver of the automobile. And only 3% of the electricity used by an incandescent-bulb is transformed into visible light.
Lovins sees that every dollar spent on nuclear power is a dollar not spent on renewables. If the U.S. were to build new nuclear plants, each plant would cost about $4 billion apiece. Energy efficiency improvements, for example, are seven times more effective at reducing greenhouse gases, per dollar spent, than nuclear power. Yearly costs per 1000 kg avoided CO2 emissions are $68.90 for wind but $132.50 for nuclear power.
Nuclear’s other deficits make this energy unappealing. For nuclear waste can be turned into the material to make a nuclear bomb and nuclear plants are vulnerable to attack and accident. A ruptured reactor or storage pool would be catastrophic to human health and the environment – a mistake that would be felt for millennia. Last, nuclear’s greatest defect is the waste problem. Just as physicians are hesitant to needlessly expose patients to a chest x-ray at 10 millirems, so too must physicians advise against technology where waste products release 240,000 rem per day.