Why nuclear power is not a solution to global warming

Nuclear power map

Courtesy www.nukepills.com


By Judith Johnsrud

Sixty years into the Atomic Age, and 26 years after the accident at Three Mile Island, electric utility companies and their regulators have renewed their claims that nuclear power reactors are "safe, clean, and reliable.” There claims are easily refuted.

Nuclear power is not clean

The claim that nuclear power is “clean” is based on that fact that operating a nuclear reactor produces virtually no carbon dioxide. However, operating a reactor is only part of the nuclear production nuclear fuel chain, much of which requires the use of coal, oil, gas, and diesel fuels to:

  • Mine and mill uranium ore;
  • Enrich Uranium-238, the fuel used in reactors, with a fissionable isotope;
  • Fabricate and transport reactor fuel;
  • Build the reactors;
  • Supply the electricity to operate the plant (much of it from coal-fired plants);
  • Cool, store, and guard intensely irradiated "spent" fuel rods;
  • Decommission old plants;
  • Transport high- and low-level wastes to interim storage facilities or ultimate burial sites;
  • Dig the tunnel deep into Yucca Mountain or a substitute site for high-level waste.

And while an operating nuclear reactor doesn’t release carbon dioxide, it regularly releases radioactive gases and liquids into air and water. These gases and liquids decay unevenly as they disperse, but all releases add to the background radiation we experience, and some remain biologically hazardous for extremely long times. Thus, Pennsylvanians repeatedly receive low-level radiation exposures from our state’s nine operating reactors, as well as additional doses from the nation's other 103 nuclear reactors, the majority of which are located in the eastern and mid-western states.

Biologists explain that humans have evolved in a sea of naturally occurring radiation, but until recently little was known about the effects of inhaled and ingested low doses that may remain within our bodies and continue to irradiate our organs or blood stream. For years, epidemiologists' have observed patterns of excess cancers, infant death, and low birth weights near nuclear facilities, but such studies were dismissed as statistically insignificant. However, recent biological research has identified the following low-level radiation damages that occur at cellular, molecular, and DNA levels: chromosome aberrations, clustered lesions, cellular bystander effects, imperfect cell repairs, adaptive responses, genomic instability, and mutations that affect later generations. Some researchers now state that a single radiation track through a cell is sufficient to initiate an injury, a cancer, or other damage.

In June, the National Academy of Sciences re-confirmed its 1990 conclusion that there is no safe level of exposure to radiation. All radiation exposures increase the risk for cancers, other illnesses, DNA damage, and harmful mutations.

Nuclear power is not safe

Nuclear reactors are potential targets for terrorist attacks. Something as simple as the failure of both offsite and onsite power sources can cause the loss of a reactor’s essential control systems, making it susceptible to an attack.

Also, as reactors age, equipment metals weaken and major safety-related systems require costly replacements. However, despite aging facilities, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has relaxed many inspection and maintenance requirements.

Another grave safety and health concern is the buildup of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive wastes. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) reports that extremely hazardous wastes are stored at more than125 sites around the nation. Many sites are nearly filled to capacity; while others now hold more fuel than originally intended. One low-level waste site that Pennsylvania generators have depended upon plans to refuse out-of-state wastes starting in 2008.

No nation has succeeded in developing a permanent geologic disposal facility. The Yucca Mountain site in Nevada, proposed for high-level wastes, has repeatedly been delayed, most recently by the discovery of questionable geologic research. Storage of spent fuel at reactor sites raises concerns about potential terrorist attacks and whether these high-level wastes will essentially be abandoned onsite, rather than placed at a disposal facility.

As disposal costs mount, the NRC is trying to deregulate low-level wastes and allow them to be recycled, possibly into unlabeled consumer products.

Unfortunately, there is no real way to be rid of radioactive materials, because some fission byproducts and nuclear wastes remain hazardous for extraordinarily long periods of time. For example, it takes 4.5 billion years for just half of the atoms in Uranium-238, the primary source of nuclear fuel, to disintegrate.

Nuclear power is not reliable

At present, some 440 nuclear reactors are operating worldwide, requiring about 67,000 tons of uranium per year. At the current consumption rate, known reserves are only enough to last about fifty years.

If a thousand new nuclear power plants are built in the coming decades, as proposed in a 2003 study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, annual uranium consumption would rise to some 250,000 tons and known uranium reserves and resources would be exhausted in about fourteen years. Even if large new rich uranium deposits are found, doubling known reserves—improbable from a geological viewpoint—total reserves will last fewer than thirty years.

A clean, safe and reliable alternative

As long as nuclear power plants operate, we risk catastrophic accidents or intentional destruction; absorb unsafe, low-level radiation exposures; and generate dangerous radioactive wastes that we may never learn to sequester.

But we need not fail in our responsibility to protect the lives and genetic integrity of our own and future generations.

There is a clean, safe, and reliable thermonuclear fusion reactor available—the sun. It delivers its energy in a constant flow without radioactive wastes and with far less radiation, and its energy can be harvested in numerous ways, including photovoltaics and wind.

Judith Johnsrud is chair of the Chapter's radiation and environment committee.


Published November 2005