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Nuclear is not the solution

Pushing nuclear power as a panacea for the reduction of global-warming gases is pure propaganda; don’t fall for it

At present, there are 438 nuclear reactors in operation around the world. If, as the nuclear industry suggests, nuclear power were to replace fossil fuels on a large scale, we would need to build between two and three thousand large (1,000-megawatt) reactors at the rate of one a week for the next 50 years.

Considering that almost no new nuclear plants have been ordered in the US since 1978, this proposal is less than practical. Furthermore, even if we decided today to replace all fossil-fuel-generated electricity with nuclear power, there would only be enough economically viable uranium to fuel those reactors for eight years.

The true economies of the nuclear industry are never fully accounted for. The cost of uranium enrichment, for example, is heavily subsidised by the US Government.


Nuclear power plant in Cattenom, France. Pic. courtesy: Google

The true cost of the industry’s liability in the case of an accident in the US is estimated to be US$600 billion, of which the industry pays only two percent - the remaining 98 percent is covered by the US Federal Government.

The cost of decommissioning all the existing US nuclear reactors is estimated to be US$33 billion. These costs - plus the enormous expense involved in the storage of radioactive waste for a quarter of a million years - are not now included in economic assessments of nuclear electricity.

Emission-free

It is said that nuclear power is emission-free, but the truth is very different. In the US, where much of the world’s uranium is enriched, the enrichment facility at Paducah, Kentucky requires the electrical output of two 1,500-megawatt coal-fired plants, which emit large quantities of carbon dioxide. Also, this enrichment facility, together with one at Portsmouth, Ohio, was responsible for the release (from leaky pipes) of 93 percent of the chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) gas emitted yearly in the US. The Portsmouth plant closed in 2001, but the Kentucky plant still operates.

The production and release of CFC gas is now banned internationally by the Montreal Protocol because it is the main culprit responsible for stratospheric ozone depletion. But CFC is also a global warmer up to 20,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

In fact, the nuclear fuel cycle utilises large quantities of fossil fuel at all of its stages: the mining and milling of uranium, the construction of the nuclear reactor and cooling towers, robotic decommissioning of the intensely radioactive reactor at the end of its 20-40-year operating lifetime, and transportation and long-term storage of massive quantities of radioactive waste.

Contrary to the nuclear industry’s propaganda, nuclear power is therefore not green and it is certainly not clean.

Nuclear reactors consistently release millions of curies of radioactive isotopes into the air and water each year. These releases are unregulated because the nuclear industry considers these particular radioactive elements to be biologically inconsequential. This is not so.

These unregulated isotopes include the noble gases krypton, xenon and argon, which are fat-soluble and, if inhaled by anyone living near a nuclear reactor, are absorbed through the lungs, migrating to the fatty tissues of the body, including those near the reproductive organs.

These radioactive elements, which emit high-energy gamma radiation, can mutate the genes in eggs and sperm and cause genetic disease.

Nuclear reactors

Tritium, another biologically significant gas also routinely emitted from nuclear reactors, is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen composed of two neutrons and one proton with an atomic weight of three.

The chemical symbol for tritium is 3H. When one or both of the hydrogen atoms in water are displaced by tritium, the water molecule is then called tritiated water. Tritium is even more mutagenic than gamma radiation, which incorporates directly into the DNA molecule of the gene. Its half-life is 12.3 years, giving it a biologically active life of 246 years. It passes readily through the skin, lungs and digestive system and is distributed throughout the body.

The dire subject of massive quantities of radioactive waste accruing at the 438 nuclear reactors across the world is rarely, if ever, addressed by the nuclear industry.

Each typical 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactor manufactures 33 tonnes of thermally hot, intensely radioactive waste per year and, already, more than 80,000 tonnes of highly radioactive waste sits in cooling pools adjacent to or on the roof of the 103 US nuclear power plants, awaiting transportation to a storage facility yet to be found.

The long-term storage of radioactive waste continues to pose a problem. In 1987, the US Congress chose Yucca Mountain in Nevada, 150 km North-West of Las Vegas, as a repository for America’s high-level waste. But Yucca Mountain has subsequently been found to be unsuitable for this task because it is a volcanic mountain made of permeable pumice stone and is transected by 32 earthquake faults.

Startling revelations

In addition, a congressional committee has now discovered fabricated data about water infiltration and cask corrosion in Yucca Mountain; data produced by personnel in the US Geological Survey. These startling revelations, according to most experts, have almost disqualified this location as a waste repository site, meaning that the US now has nowhere to deposit its expanding nuclear waste inventory.

Biological impacts

Vulnerable to terrorist attack during storage and transportation, high-level nuclear waste includes hundreds of radioactive elements that have different biological impacts in the human body, the most important being cancer and genetic diseases.

The incubation time for cancer, following exposure to radiation is five to 60 years; those who are most sensitive to its malignant effects are children, elderly people, and individuals with already compromised immune systems.

Nuclear power clearly leaves a toxic legacy. It produces global warming gases, it is far more expensive than any other form of electricity generation and it can trigger proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Third World Network Features

(The writer is a co-founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility and the author of seven books on nuclear power)

 

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