Being originally from the Bahamas, whose low-lying islands have been devastated in the past decade by hurricanes linked to global warming and will be enormously impacted by sea rise, I am all for solutions to global warming, as well as reducing fossil-fuel air pollution. However, having spent months researching the benefit-risk ratio of stepping up nuclear fission power, I am sure that it is not the solution. A good solution, to quote author Wendell Berry, is "that which causes a ramifying series of solutions." Unfortunately, resorting to more nuclear power will incur more economic, environmental, public health and security problems.
Since Peter's cousin David insists we divorce "the quantitative from the emotional," I'll begin with the best and most pragmatic reason why nuclear power is not the solution: market failure. Touted as being cheap, nuclear power has been subsidized since the late 1940s--the latest energy bill dedicates billions of dollars to nuclear power, while a renewable energy portfolio standard and a section on global warming were summarily axed--and yet today nuclear power cannot compete in the market with burgeoning alternatives: windpower and other renewables, combined-heat-and power (cogeneration), and efficient use of energy. The paradigm for claiming that nuclear power is cheap compares it to coal- and gas-fired power, but does not take into account the less expensive competitors described above. Each nuclear power plant requires around $2 billion and at least 10 years to build. Nuclear energy is a non-renewable resource. According to the August 2005 National Geographic : "The readily available uranium fuel won't last much more than 50 years." Thus, by opting nuclear, American taxpayers will be substituting one non-renewable energy source (fossil fuels) with another (uranium), while investing billions of dollars in a terminal solution.
Some argue that the nuclear option is a necessary evil to thwart climate change and to bridge the gap between the end of oil and the capacity of better energy sources to meet the demand. Don't buy it. According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonpartisan organization that advocates "efficient and restorative use of resources": in 2004, "decentralized no- and low-carbon competitors...added nearly three times as much output and six times as much capacity as nuclear power added; by 2010, industry forecasts this sixfold ratio to widen to 177...," not counting gains from more efficient use of energy. The reality is that better energy sources and energy efficiency are already outdoing nuclear power in market demand and cost effectiveness, while reducing fossil fuel use and thus the carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming. And these competitors are yet to reach their full potential. In a report issued this fall, RMI's Amory Lovins explains in quantitative terms: "...if climate matters, then we must buy the most solution per dollar and per year spent. Empirically, on the criteria of both cost and speed, nuclear power seems about the least effective climate-stabilizing option on offer." (See "Nuclear power: economics and climate-protection potential" at www.rmi.org/sitepages/pid171.php#E05-08.)
A 2003 study, "The Future of Nuclear Power," conducted by MIT researchers, found that 1,000 to 1,500 new reactors would have to be built by 2025 in order to put a dent in global warming. According to the National Resource Defense Council, adding 1,200 nuclear plants would mean 15 more enrichment plants, 50 more reprocessing plants, 14 Yucca Mountains, and $1-2 trillion in capital investment, and would cut 0.2 degrees Centigrade from the global average temperature rise.
Now, if I'm allowed to be "emotional," I would like to discuss the risks that pursuing more nuclear power poses. Cousin David's insistence--"Don't confuse nuclear power with the bomb!"--is fatuous. As we are reminded daily in the press, we are threatened by terrorist attacks, and a nuclear power plant gone wrong either intentionally or by accident could be as detrimental as a bomb, particularly as nuclear proponents see breeder reactors as "a crucial next step." (See Nat. Geo. 8/05.) Powered by plutonium reprocessed from spent nuclear fuel, these reactors are cooled by sodium. Sodium reacts violently with water, liberating hydrogen, which may ignite. Many Americans are smart enough to know what would happen if one of these breeder reactors were to explode. A report by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Energy, estimates that "...0.08 milligrams inhaled will have 100 percent probability of causing a fatal cancer." Keep in mind that this type of plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years. Plus, "... a full-scale breeder program could be an arms-control nightmare because of all the plutonium it would put in circulation" ( Nat. Geo . 8/05).
Nobel physicist Hannes Alfven writes that given the risks of nuclear technology, "No acts of God can be permitted." Just how are we to ensure that no acts of God (much less man) occur? This leads to other questions. Since the nuclear industry claims that the chances of meltdowns or terrorist attacks are unlikely, why can't it buy insurance at market prices, and why does the recent energy bill allot $2 billion in "risk insurance" to the industry? Why the controversy over Yucca Mountain? Why is the Colorado legislature forestalling attempts by the Cotter Corp., an affiliate of General Atomics, to import 10 million pounds of radioactive soil from New Jersey and to store it at Cañon City?
Links between exposure to radiation and cancer, birth defects and other health problems are well documented. Dr. Bruce Struminger is the medical director of the Radiation Exposure Screening and Education Program for Indian Health Services on the Navajo Reservation. The program, funded by the Department of Health and Human Services, addresses the health issues of former Cold War uranium workers and assists with the medical testing necessary to apply for "compassionate payments" from the federal government under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. Dr. Struminger told me recently that a new study shows that no level of exposure to radiation is safe. For a complete picture of the health and environmental repercussions of the nuclear industry, read Killing Our Own , online at www.ratical.com/radiation/KillingOurOwn/index.html .
Since most uranium in the U.S. is concentrated on the Colorado Plateau, an increase in domestic nuclear power is bad environmental news for western Colorado and eastern Utah, one more extractive industry to add to oil, gas, coal and most likely oil shale. Our backyard, as The Denver Post described it, is "ground zero" for uranium mining.
Contrary to Cousin David's assessment that our society is shortsighted, many Americans are looking ahead, which is why Coloradans passed Amendment 37 (10 percent renewable energy by 2015), and states are implementing their own versions of the Kyoto Protocol, despite the federal government's refusal to sign on - quantitative proof that Americans are willing to convert to alternatives and wish to curb pollution and global warming. It's our government that is shortsighted by allowing corporations to have a stranglehold on policy. Why else has the government slackened regulations that prevent pollution from fossil-fueled plants; not required that American vehicles be more fuel-efficient; and continued to give taxpayers' money to giant oil companies such as Exxon-Mobil while they make record profits? Not supporting more nuclear industry means not handing the power controls over to more indifferent corporate owners, but instead, decentralizing power, in terms of both energy and politic. The encouraging thing is that better solutions are occurring and consumers in the capitalist market are driving them. All we have to do is vote for them and invest in them.