Is Nuclear the Answer?
Has recent volatility in gasoline and natural gas prices gotten your attention? Doesn’t it appear now that securing oil and natural gas access into the distant future was a primary reason for the Iraqi invasion (and subsequent occupation)? Wars over resources as well as spikes in fuel costs have many people considering the viability of continuing to power the U.S. economy on imported oil. Given the very limited supplies of petroleum in the United States, nuclear energy and coal are considered appropriate replacements and both are getting the lion’s share of attention in the mainstream media. While coal fails to provide a real alternative because of health concerns, toxic emissions (i.e., mercury, sulfur) as well as its (lack of) efficiency in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear energy is offered as a panacea free of these problems. Will it save us?
According to powerful voices in the U.S., nuclear energy is safe, reliable, cheap, greatly underutilized, and greenhouse-neutral. They, including the current U.S. Administration and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, are not only promoting nuclear energy in rhetoric, they also appear to be encouraging (some might say cajoling) communities throughout the U.S. (including our neighbor to the south—Clinton, IL) to expand nuclear production in this country. Obviously, a decision of this magnitude must be carefully thought out. In this essay, I provide some of the concerns that must be addressed in order to justify such a shift in energy policy.
The first question that usually comes up in reference to nuclear reactors pertains to their safety. While an extremely simple question at first glance, it is one that has many dimensions. Many of us worry that a nuclear reactor will undergo a meltdown during operation resulting in huge radioactive release and consequently large increases in cancer, genetic mutations and other serious health problems within our population (images of Chernobyl come to mind). While a meltdown is considered unlikely, the human cost if one were to occur would be substantial, especially if one considers that our increasing population and spreading and sprawling metropolises will inevitably mean close proximity of large populations and any reactor run amok. The fact that the private sector seems unwilling to insure nuclear for the full potential costs of reactor accidents is very unsettling. More than fifty years after the birth of commercial nuclear power, the industry remains insulated from full liability for serious accidents by the Price-Anderson Act. At the very least no more reactors should be built until their sponsors accept full liability for all accidents.
Post 9/11, we are all frightfully aware of the real possibility of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Some have asked: What if the planes had flown into one of the eleven operating reactors in Illinois? How many more people may have been killed (immediately and in the long term) if this had happened? Are nuclear reactors also vulnerable to an explosive suicide truck or a suitcase- size nuclear bomb? From governmental agencies, we hear that nuclear reactors are impervious to jetliners but unfortunately this isn’t the whole story. Most of the radioactive material that one finds at a commercial reactor is not in the reactor itself but in a storage building nearby—in the form of spent fuel rods. Since most (or all) such buildings are not built to the same engineering standards as the reactors (obviously to do so would be prohibitively costly), communities near nuclear power plants like the one in Cordova, IL (just north of the Quad Cities) might be considered at high risk to contamination in the event of a terrorist attack.
Nuclear facilities are known to leak radiation on occasion. In 2003, a relatively new reactor near Houston was found to be leaking radioactive cooling water. Much more disturbingly, radiation releases at a Hanford, Washington nuclear weapons research facility appear to have been much more sizable and protracted (nearly 30 years; and even largely deliberate as well). These releases likely subjected many people living in vicinity of the facility to very unhealthy amounts of radiation. (Just this past week, plaintiffs are suing for damages.) The National Energy Information Service (www.neis.org) documents the numerous penalties and fines levied against some of the eleven nuclear reactors in Illinois. (Actually Illinois has the most nuclear reactors of all the states in United States. More surprisingly, only four countries in the world generate as much electricity using nuclear fuel as does Illinois.) The preponderance of fines hints at the inherent mismanagement of large power plants which should give us pause in terms of the safety and reliance of nuclear power. With an expansion in the number of reactors, we might expect “routine,” non-catastrophic radioactive exposure to become a more common occurrence.
Nuclear reactors produce significant amounts of radioactive waste. Now, while this might be reduced somewhat by more advanced ways of reprocessing this waste (via breeder reactors, which reuse radioactive waste products of standard reactors as fuel), any increased reliance on nuclear energy will undoubtedly only increase the amount of nuclear waste that will be present and in need of disposal. Also, breeder reactors, which require the nuclear waste to be “reprocessed” first, raise even more serious risks that normal waste disposal because of the added production of weapons grade nuclear materials (that very likely will be transported via our rail system—i.e., through all of our backyards) as well as serious problems inherent with reprocessing technology itself. Something long term must be done to protect us from this waste. All the way back in 1982 the U.S. Congress called for the construction of a large facility of high-level nuclear waste. Yet, more than twenty years later, we still don’t have such a facility. Sadly, but revealingly, no country in the world has “a permanent storage solution for the disposal of high-level radioactive waste” (Enger & Smith). Yucca Mountain (in Nevada) seemed like a final solution but, over the past few years, numerous problems have been identified with using this location as a storehouse for the bulk of U.S.-produced nuclear reactor waste—including over thirty faults nearby. The likelihood that Yucca will ever come to fruition is now quite dim. Continued delays in finding a suitable location for high-level waste storage suggests that we’ll have even greater difficulty finding “suitable” and “safe” storage for our nuclear waste in the future.
Perhaps the most important issue, but the aspect of nuclear energy that gets the least attention, surrounds the type of society that will be created as nuclear energy proliferates. Landon Winner, a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, wrote a very thoughtful book in the mid-1980s entitled, The Whale in the Reactor, which thoroughly examines this very important dimension of nuclear energy. As he describes in the book, nuclear reactors are mega-projects requiring very centralized control. In addition, the use of nuclear energy demands secrecy, largely because of the danger that the fuel and the technological know-how carry with them. These characteristics are by their very nature non-democratic and make nuclear facilities more vulnerable to costly and dangerous calamities. Consider how easily power went out in the entire Northeast in 2003. Centralization only makes it easier for major blackouts to occur whether due to terrorist activities or not. Unfortunately, a country that depends on nuclear energy must invest huge resources to ensure that neither radioactive materials nor nuclear technology get into the “wrong” hands. Any expansion of nuclear reactors will further commodify nuclear fuel as well as nuclear waste disposal. In order to keep track of these materials, tremendous bureaucracies are necessary. Such bureaucracies are problematic in their own right, but things are much worse when one considers how secretive they will have to be. These additional bureaucratic and security costs will only make the true price of nuclear energy go up. This brings into question the purported “cheapness” of nuclear energy. (Worse yet, citizens will not see these costs on their electricity bill but rather in the form of higher taxes—to support a larger, and likely more unwieldy, Homeland Security Department, for instance.) When one puts such a high price on nuclear fuel, nuclear waste, the end product, also becomes highly sought after as well; hence the current black market on nuclear materials—such as depleted uranium.
If we choose to expand in the direction of nuclear, the nuclear technologies of today will become obsolete in due time. When this happens, instructions to build nuclear bombs and the nuclear fuels necessary to make them will only become more easily obtained. In this context it is important to note that fuel used in nuclear weapons must undergo many of the same processing steps that nuclear reactor fuel must undergo. Thus, the radioactive material that we pull out of the ground and process has the ability to be used for “good” (i.e., electricity) or “bad” (i.e., bombs) depending on the owner’s or organization’s objectives. Our leaders might recognize how dangerous nuclear weapons are but do they have the ability to prevent all nations (particularly volatile ones like North Korea) or all arms dealers from obtaining the fuels or technologies necessary to wreak havoc on human civilization? I suspect not. The destructive character of the “good” bombs and the “bad” bombs will only continue their race to our mutual annihilation. Will we do what we can to slow down this trend? Let’s hope so.
Nuclear power plants require huge investments in upfront capital. Thus, heavy investments in these plants now may lock us on a path that we cannot waver from later. Since there are path dependencies in energy competition (i.e., the path one takes changes the conditions for future change), we should be very careful not to foreclose development of very promising alternative energy technologies (see below). Also, the necessary safe disposal of nuclear waste greatly increases the long-term financial commitment necessary to expanded nuclear plants. Additionally, the widespread decommissioning of nuclear reactors (which is required when a nuclear plant has lived its natural life) alerts us to the fact that there are large costs associated with these facilities well into the future. Are the true costs being considered?
In addition to safety and societal concerns, there is also the issue of whether nuclear energy will be a long-term solution to our energy crisis. According to the Nuclear Energy Agency of France (a country that gets a substantial percentage of its electricity from its 59 operating nuclear reactors), nuclear fuel is sufficient to last several centuries even with the anticipated increases in energy consumption during this time. Yet, while nuclear fuel may be abundant, the associated production of nuclear waste concomitant with expanding nuclear fuel consumption will result in massive quantities of highly radioactive material that will be in need of disposal. Also, as with fossil fuels, the majority of the nuclear fuel reserves are not located in the more-developed countries, so the rich nations of the world will still be heavily reliant upon poorer, perhaps more unstable, nations to supply them with the uranium and plutonium necessary to run nuclear power plants. Additionally, many long-term scenarios that include shifting to nuclear power as a primary source of energy require the expansion of breeder reactors. However, since breeder reactors come with serious safety considerations, there are valid reasons to believe that a nuclear energy future will only become more and more unsafe with time. Also, if we become dependent upon nukes for energy and an attack does happen, what will we do? Will we have sufficient decentralized energy backup to maintain a functional society? These concerns consistently argue for considering nuclear power a last resort, not a first option.
On a related note, can nuclear energy be considered ‘green,” as some advocates would have us think? In terms of nuclear energy’s contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the answer, as presented by nuclear power representatives, is, confidently, “Yes.” However, this answer fails to consider that the enrichment of the uranium (a necessary step to make it usable in weapons or reactors) currently emits nearly all of the chloroflurocarbons (CFCs) released into the atmosphere each year. CFCs, molecule for molecule, are several thousand times more effective than carbon dioxide as greenhouse gasses. Also, enrichment plants, like the facility in Paducah, Kentucky, require a tremendous amount of energy as well. Ironically, currently this energy is coming from coal-fired plants which emit significant amounts of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Thus, we shouldn’t be so ready to believe that nuclear power is going to solve the “global warming” problem. Further, many nuclear reactors require huge volumes of water (for cooling purposes). When this “heated” water is released back into neighboring streams and rivers, ecosystems are negatively impacted. Additionally, chlorine, used by nuclear power plants as a biocide, is one of the chief toxic releases into aquatic environments. Thus, when one considers these issues as well as all of the other problems spawned by the radioactive activity associated with depleted uranium and nuclear waste, nuclear energy appears even less “green” than fossil fuels.
Lastly, and the clinching question, “Do there exist alternatives to nuclear power that are safer, more democratic, more peaceful, and greener?” Absolutely, yes. First and foremost, we are currently the most wasteful country on the planet. We use twice as much energy per unit of production as Japan and Germany! Thus, we could cut back our energy needs by close to 50% present levels with more responsible uses alone. Average fuel efficiency of cars on U.S. roads has been going down since the mid-1980s. This is a staggering statistic. Just think if our current computers (or Internet connections) were slower than the models available in the mid-1980s. Consumers would be up it arms. Why aren’t we up in arms about the ridiculous gas mileage that the majority of vehicles on the road now get? So until we make a serious effort to conserve, there should be no discussion of expanding nuclear energy usage. Next, wind power and solar energy prospects are great especially given how little funding (and subsidies) they have received in the past. If wind, solar, biomass, and fuel cells were to receive a fraction of the financial backing and support that the oil, coal and nuclear energy companies have over the past 30+ years, there is every reason to believe that we wouldn’t be in such an energy fix in the first place (nor a bloody war).
In 1953, President Eisenhower said, during his “Atoms for Peace” speech, “Nuclear reactors will produce electricity so cheaply that it will not be necessary to meter it. . . . Atoms will provide a safe, clean, and dependable source of electricity” (in Enger & Smith). Obviously, more than 50 years later, we are nowhere near this point—certainly not in terms of safety or cost. Thus, when our current President says, “A secure energy future for America must include more nuclear power,” during a speech less than a month ago (given at Small Business Administration conference), isn’t it right to be skeptical and wonder if most (or any) of the issues presented here have been properly considered.
For those that want to look further into the matter of nuclear energy and the structure of our future energy policy, please contact or visit the websites of the following organizations: Nuclear Energy Information Service (www.neis.org), the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (www.nirs.org), and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (www.nrc.gov). Once you get informed, please speak up regularly and with passion. It will take an active citizenry to force our politicians to do something that is in the best interest of the people (and not the nuclear power industry).
E. Enger & B. Smith. (2006). Environmental Science: A Study of Interrelationships. McGraw Hill.