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Nuclear Power's Dirty Secrets

by Doug Brugge
Boston, Massachusetts

The collapse of part of the Wilkins Ice Sheet in Antarctica in March of this year is the latest warning that global warming is a pressing issue. The seriousness of the problem has prompted some to take a new look at nuclear power. Some powerful interests, including the Bush Administration and presidential candidate John McCain, think nuclear should be promoted to help head off global warming. To me this is as foolhardy and dangerous as continuing to rely extensively on coal and petroleum. Nuclear energy poses multiple problems and threats to people and the environment, most of which have not been discussed sufficiently in the public discourse.
At the top of any list of concerns about expanding nuclear power should be the threat this poses to nuclear non-proliferation. Nuclear power capability is a necessary step on the path to developing nuclear weapons as can be seen by the on-going attempts to restrict the development of nuclear technology in Iran and Syria. Thus, we need to see the spread of nuclear technology as contributing to weapons development around the world. Do we really want a world with even more states facing off against each other with nuclear weapons?
According to the National Academy of Science in 2003, there were about 50,000 metric tons of spent fuel in the U.S. from commercial reactors. Yucca Mountain in Nevada is the designated depository, but it has yet to open and faces both technical concerns with storing the waste safely for millennia and substantial political opposition. In the meantime, the US and other nuclear countries are storing large quantities of highly radioactive waste at existing reactors or reprocessing facilities. This will suffice for a while, but it does not constitute a long-term solution. Until we have a way to deal with this high-level nuclear waste, expanding the nuclear energy sector is irresponsible.
While risks of catastrophic nuclear releases are low, indeed the record of nuclear safety in the US is good, we must never forget Chernobyl. The hundreds of millions of curies of radiation released during the melt down of the Chernobyl reactor contaminated a large geographic area and caused significant illness and death. We do not know how likely or unlikely another event like that one is, but we should be particularly concerned when countries with little or no experience with nuclear power begin to build a nuclear industry. These may be the circumstances in which risk is greatest.
Uranium mining, like most mining, including coal, has had devastating effects on miners, nearby communities and the environment. The toll, both financial and in human loss, from uranium mining and processing is largely invisible to the American public, but it is with these communities that I have worked for almost 15 years. The Navajo Nation has suffered deaths and illness of hundreds of miners and as yet undetermined harm from over a thousand abandoned mines. As the uranium market begins to make mining profitable again, we need to remember their suffering as well as the environmental damage that has yet to be fully addressed (at hundreds of millions of dollars). Similar stories are repeated all around the world.
Another devastating blow to the revival of uranium mining as a response to global warming is that it is not without a carbon footprint of its own. Mining, milling and processing uranium, building reactors, decommissioning them and disposing of high level waste all release greenhouse gasses. As depletion of uranium ore bodies proceeds, we will have to mine lower and lower grade ore at greater and greater cost in terms of carbon dioxide produced and energy return. Further, starting up a large-scale revival of nuclear power will take decades that we do not have to respond to global warming.
For all of these reasons, nuclear power is not a strong answer to the worrisome global warming threat that we face. Instead we should be aiming to scale back nuclear power over the coming decades while developing and deploying a range of other alternatives, including solar, wind and geothermal, which pose lesser risks than fossil fuels or nuclear. More importantly, we should be doing everything we can to increase energy efficiency and to reduce the use of energy (conservation). The effort to revive nuclear power seems to me to be an opportunistic proposal by the industry and its allies with little potential to fend off global warming and little thought to adverse consequences, other than to their own bottom line.
About the author: Doug Brugge is Associate Professor at Tufts University School of Medicine and co-editor (with Timothy Benally and Esther Yazzie-Lewis) of The Navajo People and Uranium Mining (UNM Press, 2006).

Published in In Motion Magazine July 21, 2008

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