Environment

Getting Off Our Nuclear Power Fixation

The vice president would have you believe nuclear power is clean and safe. Here's everything you need to know about just how unclean and dangerous it really is.
My favorite internet date site posits a question: "What is the best/worst lie you've told?"
  • "I've never seen that man before in my life."
  • "I've had a vasectomy."
  • "I know what I'm doing."
  • "I'm not married."
  • "Nuclear power is clean and safe."


I made that last one up. But if the power industry and the federal government had their profiles up on that website, that would be their answer.

Despite Vice President Dick Cheney's contention that nuclear power is "carbon-free," nukes contribute to the greenhouse effect. The government is betting billions of dollars of our money, and could simply give it away to developers to build new nuclear plants. And, our country's aging nuke fleet is getting plastic surgery while its innards decay and get ever closer to fatal accidents.

Let's start with the greenhouse lie. Instead of coal or natural gas, nukes run on uranium. Like coal, uranium has to be mined. It also has to be converted, enriched and transported. Add that up and you get more greenhouse gas emissions than a natural gas-fired power plant, according to one of the few studies done on the complicated issue by the scientists at the German Oko-Institut. Meanwhile, the nuclear industry would have you believe that solar and wind power create more greenhouse gases than nuclear.

Not only does nuclear power contribute to the greenhouse effect, and so, indirectly affecting the planet's health and your well-being, it very well could affect your health and the planet's health directly -- by killing everything in sight in an accident.

This is how nuclear energy works on a basic physics level. When atom of a special type of element, uranium 235, is bombarded by neutrons, the uranium releases more neutrons that split more uranium atoms in a chain reaction. This is fission. Nuclear power plants use the heat given off from that process to boil water. The steam from that water turns the same basic turbines that you find in other power plants fueled by natural gas or coal to make the heat. It's a huge, scary engineering problem just meant to boil water. As antinuclear guru Amory Lovins quipped, it's like using a chainsaw to cut butter.

The difference is the radioactivity is contained -- at least we hope it remains contained -- within the reactor where the fission is constantly exploding at a molecular level. If that radioactivity escapes the reactor (that happens on occasion) or is released through contaminated water spills (that happens with great regularity), then it's a health and safety problem.

The thing about deadly radioactivity is that you can't see it coming. You can't smell it. You can't feel it until it's too late.

On a basic physiology level, when radioactivity is absorbed by a body, it wreaks havoc on DNA molecules. Studies show ingested and inhaled uranium emissions may affect babies in the womb and increase risk of cancers such as leukemia. It may damage chromosomes. In high concentrations, it kills immediately.

That's not a problem, according to the government, because no matter how complicated it gets to boil water to make electricity, there won't be any accidents. The chief federal nuclear regulator, Nils Diaz, chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said in April that the agency is "ensuring safety in the civilian uses of nuclear materials."

The government/industry's plan is to contain all that nasty, deadly fission by building a huge box around it. The boxes, the reactor vessels, are made of thick carbon steel, lined with stainless steel. "That oughta keep 'er," some engineer figured. After decades of operation, though, it doesn't. The lesson happened in 2002 when the Davis-Besse nuclear plant's reactor head was found to have been worn away -- from a two-feet-thick exterior to a 3/8-inch layer of stainless steel. Even that last bit had bubbled outwards from the pressure of keeping radioactive action on the inside. The plant, near Toledo, Ohio, had a hole in its reactor head wide enough and deep enough to put a fist into, according to former Nuclear Regulatory Commission member Victor Gilinsky. Corrosion on that part reduced the head by 70 pounds of steel. Workers found the problem inadvertantly, leaving the reactor perilously close to unleashing a jet of radioactive steam from the pressurized vessel.

Then there's the continuing safety and health risks of old nukes -- the kind, like Nine Mile Point in New York, or Hatch, in Georgia, that might be in your own backyard. You don't hear much about them, but on any given day there are two or three "incidents" at reactors across the country serious enough to report to the government, and often serious enough to cause the reactor to shut down.

Like humans, the older the plants get, the more things go wrong. A steam generator replacement, like grandma's hip replacement, only buys so much time. The reactor's steel, like human bones, gets more brittle with age. For a price, plant owners can give their nuclear facilities the equivalent of bone replacements, organ transplants, face lifts and tummy tucks, but what they will still have in the end is an old nuclear plant.

In engineering parlance, this is called the "bathtub" curve. When new nuclear plants start out expensively fussy, their kinks aren't worked out and they are prone to accidents. As they mature, they tend to run with fewer problems. In middle age, they are at the bottom of the bathtub, running relatively inexpensively along with little input other than maintenance and fuel. When they age, though, they begin to climb the curve of the bathtub -- with risks and costs increasing.

When the industry and regulators refer to their safety records for the last 25 years, they are pointing to the low water line at the bottom of the bathtub.

We can only hope the industry is correct when it claims that it can keep these aging plants from accidents that cause radioactive release. And yet, as they approach the end of their original 40-year licensed lives, nuclear power plant owners across the nation have applied for 20-year license extensions. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved 42 extensions -- nearly half the nation's nuclear power plants.

There's health problems. There's safety problems. Then, there's money.

Even though relatively warm, fuzzy and uncomplicated renewable energy developers are pounding at the government's door, the feds are so set on building new nuclear reactors that they're simply giving away money to the industry.

Lawmakers who crafted the 2005 Energy Policy Act (EPAct) are on a mission to get new nukes built. They've devised a plan so the financial risk -- and perhaps the entire cost -- of new nuclear plants may be completely borne by taxpayers.

The incredible deal under EPAct the nuclear industry got for new nukes includes giving the Department of Energy broad authority to underwrite loans to build nuclear plants with no limit on the number of projects or total principal that could be guaranteed, according to a Congressional Budget Office. It also allows the government to take over a loan and make payments on behalf of borrowers prior to a default. "Such payments could result in DOE effectively providing a direct loan with as much as a 100 percent subsidy rate -- essentially a grant -- that could be used by the borrower to pay off its debts," according to the budget office. DOE's money is, however, our money.

These days, most of us have a personal choice in our economic behavior. We can spend a few more cents on recycled toilet paper or organic food, knowing that, in the long run, we are doing something to help prolong our environment.

When it comes to energy, few of us have any personal choice unless we can afford to install solar power for our homes and businesses. None of us can sort out which electrons come from nuclear power when we plug our computers or toaster. If we want to get rid of this dangerous technology; if we don't want to be responsible for more deaths, not to mention the danger to life and habitat in the event of an accident; if we don't want to bankrupt our own pockets as well as our state's funds by pursuing the massive expense of continuing nuclear power, then we have to influence policymakers.

Getting rid of nuclear power cannot be accomplished on a personal, everyday consumption level. Yet on a personal level, we can make it clear to politicians that this is an issue that can't be ignored. Nuclear waste remains lethal for about a quarter of a million years. It is not going to go away for a very, very long time. It could bankrupt us all. Policymakers must prevent license extensions on a legal level. States must fight to regain their rights over environmental and economic decisions when it comes to nuclear power.

It won't be easy, but hell, it's worth your DNA, your safety, your life.

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J.A. Savage is editor of California Energy Circuit.