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