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Why I am against nuclear power

Ross McCluney, Ph.D., Chattanooga, TN, 21 July 2008 rmccluney [ AT ] comcast net

Periodically I’m asked why I oppose new nuclear power plants. I have B.A., M.S., and Ph.D. degrees in physics, so have had some exposure to nuclear physics in my training. I also studied the subject during the first wave of nuclear power plant applications. So I guess I’m not surprised that some people expect me to be in favor of nuclear power.

I am surprised by the question, however, because the nuclear industry in the U.S. has been all but shut down for over 30 years. I thought everyone understood the multiple dangers and threats inherent in nuclear power. I guess I didn’t count on all the youngsters who have come along during the hiatus period and who haven’t learned much about the history of nuclear. Newcomers to the nuclear controversy seem to think of nuclear as clean, safe, and a great antidote to global warming. This is reinforced by that cute pro-nuclear animated commercial by Areva, with its catchy tune, that you might have seen on TV and by several pro-nuclear politicians. So let me state the primary reasons I’m against this resurgence of nuclear power.

1. Radioactive waste and other radioactive releases. The waste products from nuclear power, including the wastes from manufacturing the fuel, the wastes spewed into the air and water by every nuclear power plant (admittedly modest in quantity under normal operating conditions, but dangerous nevertheless), and the “spent” fuel left over from operating the reactor, has half-lives ranging from short to tens of thousands of years. The half-life is the time it takes for half of any quantity of a radioactive material to decay to another substance – in some cases this may be a stable element, in others it may be one or more other radioactive elements. The types of radioactive materials and emissions produced are also varied in type, including alpha, beta, gamma, and neutron radiation. For more on these see http://www.factmonster.com/ce6/sci/A0860620.html http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/sci/A0860620.html and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ionizing_radiation

Radioactive waste, either routinely emitted or accidentally released in high quantities or concentration, is very damaging to living things. Ionizing radiation from radioactive substances receives this label because the radiation is so energetic on the microscopic scale that it can strip electrons from atoms, ionizing them, leaving them positively charged and therefore very chemically reactive, meaning that the charged atoms and the molecules to which they are attached, easily undergo chemical reactions with other atoms and molecules in their vicinity, producing new chemical species in the process. It doesn’t take a lot of this inside biological cells to cause a lot of disruption, leading to failure of the cells to operate properly, usually making the organism ill. High energy radioactive radiation can also produce genetic mutations, disrupting genes in the human body. We naturally have this happen within us regularly, due to the presence of cosmic rays and solar storms from outer space and a low level of background radiation from the soil, rocks, and other sources. Plus there is still some residual radiation from atmospheric weapons tests in times past and a little from nuclear accidents at power plants, weapons labs, and industrial plants. All of this is dangerous and is thought to cause at least some of the cancers from which humans increasingly suffer.

The problem with nuclear power is that it causes an increase in the background radiation, increasing our risks of disease from the radiation directly and from the genetic mutations. Radiation also contributes problems with human reproduction (infertility and sterility) and is thought by some to be a contributor to some miscarriages. Though it is a controversial subject, I believe that there is no “safe” level of radioactivity on or in the human body. The National Academy of Science, in its 7th report from the panel on Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation, 2005, seems to agree. Though many of us have very short-lived radioactive tracers for medical diagnostic tests, and these are generally considered safe, because they are very low level and leave the body quickly, every exposure is potentially risky, and is tolerated for the greater benefit such exposure hopefully provides. Unreported, involuntary routine exposure, day in and day out, however, is another issue entirely. The risk for cellular mutations resulting in cancers are increased in the vicinity of nuclear reactors. Children are more susceptible to radiation induced cancers than adults. References: http://www.bfs.de/en/kerntechnik/kinderkrebs/kikk.html http://www.nirs.org/factsheets/sepam.pdf
http://www.nirs.org/factsheets/nosafedose.pdf

2. In the event of an accidental release or a terrorist intentional release, substantially higher levels of radioactivity can be experienced by the populace. Radioactivity is particularly dangerous because it cannot be seen, heard, smelled, or felt. You can be exposed to unsafe levels and not find out about it for years (unless the exposure is very high or acute), making it very difficult to identify the cause of the illness that results or even when or where you were exposed. A particularly unfortunate factor is that cancer can never be “proven” to be the result of a specific event months or years before; however, we know that every radiation exposure increases the risk that the affected individual will suffer from it. Some radiation impacts are heritable – can be passed on to the next generation – so the nuclear industry is gambling with the genetic treasury of life. Human-caused radioactive pollution impacts all species exposed, so all are vulnerable.

3. Nuclear power plants use a lot of water, as do fossil fuel-fired ones. They suck water from a lake, river, stream or wherever they can get it, heat it up in order to cool the steam coming out of the power plant’s generator turbines so that it will condense into water again. The water making the steam is clean and recycled over and over. The water from the environment, after being heated, needs to be cooled before it can be released back into nature again. This can be done with natural evaporation by putting the heated water back into a closed off pool where it evaporates and cools as it goes to the other side, where it can be released again back into the ocean, bay, lake, estuary, river, or stream from whence it came. The evaporated water is carried away by air currents, eventually being condensed into rain again, so the power plant operators may say that the water is not lost. However, the evaporated water can travel many miles or thousands of miles before it condenses into rain again, and this can cause the net removal of copious quantities of fresh water from the region. Many regions are suffering from prolonged droughts, so power plants that make matters worse by taking billions of gallons of this water away are not helpful. This applies equally to nuclear and fossil-fuel-fired plants.

4. There are much better, safer, much less expensive alternatives based on a combination of reducing the need for electricity through conservation and improved efficiency in energy-using-equipment and making the electricity we need from clean renewable sources such as direct solar conversion to electricity, wind power, and hydroelectric power. The large sums to be spent on new nuclear power plants around the world could be much better used to improve energy conservation, efficiency, and use of renewable energy. The jobs created by an expanded conservation, efficiency, and renewable energy industry will be more numerous and less dangerous than those which might be created by a dramatic expansion of nuclear power.

5. The costs of nuclear power are huge. In addition to the 18 billion U.S. dollars, and more, likely to be spent in building a typical nuclear power plant in my country, the U.S. government, using our taxpayer dollars, spends fortunes:
a. Insuring power plant operators from excessive costs in the event of a disastrous nuclear accident (no private insurance company will insure a nuclear reactor for the full costs of a terrible accident)
b. Providing security and protection against possible terrorist attacks
c. Historically pouring more than 65% of all research funds on energy into the development and protection of nuclear reactors
d. Researching and making nuclear fuel for power plants and guarding the processes
e. Researching and otherwise trying to figure out what to do with radioactive wastes and spent fuel, which can remain radioactive for tens of thousands of years
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is supposed to evaluate and approve or disapprove nuclear power plants and monitor their operations. This is a very expensive operation. Though the nuclear industry pays for NRC operations – NRC sends a budget to Congress and then Congress invoices the industry – not all federal government (taxpayer) costs are covered by the industry. This might explain why the NRC works more for the industry than for the people of the United States.

If this were not enough, there are the high costs to operate the plants, transport the fuel to many power plants around the country and abroad, transport the wastes and spent fuel to processing or storage sites, also sprinkled around the country.

6. There are high costs to secure all this radioactive material, in storage and in transport between sites, as well as to guard the power plants themselves, and the radioactive storage areas not usually inside the thick walls of the containment buildings built to keep the nuclear reactors themselves isolated from the outside environment.

7. Operations of the nuclear industry and all the nuclear power plants around the world use copious quantities of fossil fuel for a variety of purposes, and the combustion of fossil fuels releases global warming gases into the atmosphere, so nuclear power is not free of global warming contributions. Repetition by nuclear proponents of the false claim that nuclear energy could be a solution to the climate crisis and the assertion that nuclear is emissions-free are troubling indicators that propaganda is still driving nuclear waste policy in the US. Using nuclear power is even counterproductive at reducing carbon emissions. As Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute points out, "every dollar invested in nuclear expansion will worsen climate change by buying less solution per dollar..." It makes little sense to support construction of new nuclear reactors as a means of addressing the climate crisis. Available renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies are faster, cheaper, safer and cleaner strategies for reducing greenhouse emissions.

The list above is reinforced by the sampling of current news items as of June 2008 which you can find at http://www.futureofhumanity.org/Nuclear/. If you scan through this list and search for additional items on the web, you will discover the large number of accidents, accidental releases, and other problems nuclear reactors are facing all over the world. None of this gives me any comfort that nuclear energy is safe. There are several sources of relatively unbiased factual reporting on the problems of nuclear energy in the world today. See for example, The Nuclear Monitor, back issues at http://www.nirs.org/mononline/mononl.htm, published by the World Information Service on Energy (WISE) and NIRS. Read carefully, however, the web publications of the many nuclear industry proponents. You can also subscribe to a weekly service that sends out summaries of nuclear news articles and links to them at http://groups.diigo.com/groups/nukenews

Thanks to Mary Olson for her assistance with this article. Mary is Southeast Regional Coordinator for the Nuclear Information and Resource Service and is based in Asheville, North Carolina, USA. She can be contacted at nirs [ AT ] main nc us.