Utah’s Nuclear Legacy

By Sophia Nicholas

Will Utah plow fearless into the past? Or is it time to embrace real clean energy? First a look at Utah’s nuclear legacy.
by Sophia Nicholas
I used to be a garden-variety environmentalist—I recycled, worried about global warming, aimed to eat organically. I grew up in Utah, where there were no nuclear power plants, so I didn’t think much, if at all, about the nuclear issue. Topics concerning the nuclear industry are controversial and “unsexy.” There are no cute-faced prairie dogs to save or sea turtles to count. Simply a lot of talk about “fission,” “fuel cycles,” “spent rods,” and sometimes “yellowcake” and “proliferation.”

But in the course of the past year, things have changed. It’s amazing how the words “nuclear power plant” and “in my backyard” focus one’s attention. And I’m learning that nuclear power has had more impact on Utah than most of us realize.

At college in the East, I learned about the inequality of the world food system and all the science behind climate change. Everyone had heard of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island and the targets of opportunity that pools of spent fuel rods at nuclear power plants present to terrorists. But it wasn’t until I joined the staff of HEAL Utah (Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah) that I learned how communities in the West—the Navajo Nation, the early Mormon towns of southern Utah, the Goshute Reservation and many others—have been targeted and exploited in the name of “the greater good” of nuclear progress.

Often couched in patriotic terms, this “greater good” meant condoning the era of nuclear weapons testing in the 1950s and ’60s, a “greater good” which spread radioactive fall-out over hundreds of miles, killed sheep and ranchers’ livelihoods, spawned clusters of rare cancers in small communities, and produced a devastating legacy of birth defects in the children of children who watched the bombs drop from their schoolyards.

More recently, “the greater good” has meant carving up swathes of our west desert to make room for the thousands of tons of nuclear waste—low-level in the case of EnergySolutions’ commercial dump and high-level in the nuclear industry’s attempts to store spent nuclear fuel in the Goshute Reservation 50 miles west of the Salt Lake valley.

Even now, if you listen to the EnergySolutions commercials, you’ll still hear the language of “duty” and “greater good,” “patriotism” and “sacrifice.” They seem to say: “We’re just ‘playing our part’ to solve global warming. We’re sacrificing this small area of Utah’s lands to the world’s nuclear waste, so the world can restart its nuclear reactors and finally solve this pesky global warming problem.”

Should we enable a system of energy production that requires us to poison and cordon off portions of our land for generations?

Add this hornet’s nest to the list of possible futures: Two Utah state legislators (one now former) are pedaling a 3,200-megawatt nuclear power plant in Green River, Utah. They have gone so far as to secure the needed water rights. They ran a bill in the 2007 legislature to saddle Utah electric ratepayers with the construction costs, which was mercifully shot down.

Hot, hot, hot

Climate change is one of the most challenging threats our planet faces —on this almost all environmentalists agree, and a majority of the population as a whole. While it’s commonly accepted that the world drastically needs to cut carbon emissions, the challenge is in how we actually take significant action.

When you begin to talk about nuclear power, the discussion becomes even more heated. It’s one of the few issues environmentalists can’t seem to agree on.

Is nuclear power the answer to climate change? Is it clean, safe and renewable? What happens to the waste?

And most pressing: If we do not embrace nuclear, what do we do?

On the surface, nuclear power sounds like the essence of good recycling: Stop polluting the earth’s atmosphere with carbon-based fuels while reusing the radioactive waste that’s produced to generate even more electricity. It’s not unlike the allure of the original atomic era, when man first harnessed “the power of the stars” with the potential to dominate and destroy not only nature, but all of its inhabitants. But defining “clean energy” only on the basis of its carbon output does not consider the wide range of other environmental and human costs of this “silver bullet” resource.

Any discussion about the benefits of nuclear power must consider the entire nuclear fuel cycle, from mining to waste disposal. (The statistics I quote in this article come from the research and records of HEAL Utah, as well as interviews with a represen?tative from the Nuclear Regula?tory Commission, who, conveniently, is also my uncle.)

Feed the beast

During the uranium boom of the 1940s and ’50s, thousands of mines sprung up throughout Utah and thousands of workers took up the job of feeding the early reactors that provided the raw material for nuclear weapons. As early as the 1950s, the federal government had secretly studied the health of uranium miners and found significant health impacts, including increased incidence of lung cancer, respiratory disease, and diseases of the blood.

Producing electricity from nuclear energy, as well, begins with mining uranium.

No music

with this heavy metal

Extracted uranium goes to a milling facility, where it is crushed and treated with a strong basic or acidic solution to separate the uranium from the other material in the rock. The resulting “yellowcake” of concentrated uranium is sent off to a different facility for enrichment, while the remaining tailings are left behind.

Energy intensive and expensive, uranium milling produces piles of mill tailings full of heavy metals, radioactive materials, and other pollutants that sit in tailings piles that are not always adequately secured. Taxpayers in Utah have already paid over $390 million to clean up four mill sites in the state. The Atlas mill tailings just outside of Moab are currently leeching these toxins into the Colorado River. It  will cost the public upwards of $1 billion to relocate and remediate that one site alone.

Towns near milling operations have suffered abnormal rises in health ailments from their exposure to the tailings. In Monticello, after their mill closed in 1960, children played on the tailings pile. Much of the material was used to pave streets and aid in construction. The government did not warn people of the known dangers. Today, a local health survey found over 500 cancers in past and current Monticello residents—a town with a population of about 2,000.

Concentrate, concentrate

After the uranium is milled and turned into yellowcake, it is sent to an enrichment facility where the concentration of fissionable uranium-235 is increased. The relative concentration of uranium-235 in mined ore is about 0.7%; it is increased to 3-5% for use in nuclear power facilities. The same enrichment process and technology used to make power can also be used to make nuclear weapons, if you continue the enrichment process long enough.

Extreme reaction

The enriched uranium is formed into fuel rods, which are grouped together into fuel assemblies. These assemblies are inserted into the nuclear reactors where unbridled chain reactions start occurring.

It’s that simple: The chain reactions create heat, which boils water to produce steam. The steam turns a turbine, which generates electricity. “And that’s basically how a nuclear reactor works,” my boss, HEAL Utah executive director Vanessa Pierce, tells me. “You unleash the power of the atom to turn a turbine, essentially. It’s kind of silly that it creates such a dangerous form of waste just to make steam.”

When a fuel rod can no longer create electricity—about three to five years—it is still radiologically and thermally hot. It’s stored in a cooling pool for several more years with a constant circulation of water to prevent an uncontrolled criticality—or explosion—from occurring.

“The word ‘spent fuel’ is really a misnomer,” Pierce says, “because the fuel rods are literally one million times more radioactive once they’re taken out of the reactor than when they were put in. This happens because the material has been irradiated by all of these free radicals that have gone through the chain reaction inside the reactor, creating very ‘hot’ radionuclides as a result.” Hence, the water supply controlling the processes of the reactor is very important.

A typical reactor will lose 16,500 gallons per minute to the atmosphere, perhaps more in desert conditions.

House looks clean,

but what’s that smell?

The biggest problem with the nuclear power, however, on top of the detrimental environmental and health impacts of the mining, mill?ing, enrichment and generation pro?cesses, is the waste issue.

What do we do with all of the spent fuel rods, which have half-lives in the thousands of years? Currently, all of these are stored on-site at the nuclear reactors where they’re generated.

When nuclear power plants began operating, the “waste problem” had not been solved and it has not gotten any closer to this day. In 1982, the federal government said it would take ownership of the waste, quickly homing in on Yucca Moun?tain in Nevada as a site for deep geologic storage. However, billions of dollars and two decades later, Yucca is no closer to being open than it was in the beginning.

Scientists question its geologic stability. “[Yucca Mountain] was chosen because it was politically expedient, not because it was scientifically the most desirable,” says Pierce. The site continues to be embroiled in political controversy. “Basically you cannot get elected in Nevada unless you oppose Yucca Mountain,” says Pierce.

Proponents of the nuclear power “renaissance” gloss over the waste issue, pushing, as McCain has done, for 45 new nuclear reactors to keep pace with the ones going offline in the coming years. Others say we should ramp up our construction of reactors even more so we can completely eliminate coal-based fuels.

A study by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in D.C. assessed how many reactors would need to come online to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to year 2000 levels by 2050. They assumed nuclear would account for 50% of our energy portfolio, with renewable sources such as solar, wind and geothermal and energy efficiency making up the other 50%.

Their conclusions were startling and point to the need to develop other sources of energy beyond both coal and nuclear. To bring nuclear up to 50%, they found that somewhere in the world a nuclear reactor would have to come on-line every six days. This would require a new Yucca Mountain to store the resulting waste opening up every three years. No country in the world has succeeded in doing this thus far.

As for reprocessing: Yes, France does it. And no, it is not a solution, as reprocessing only uses 1% of the original waste—the plutonium. This process requires an acid bath to separate the plutonium from the uranium and other materials, and creates both a highly radioactive as well as extremely corrosive liquid byproduct. As my coworker John Urgo likes to say, “Calling that recycling is like taking the tab off a soda can and recycling it, throwing the can away, and saying you recycled the can.”

Nuclear might produce low-carbon, or even zero-carbon energy if the engineering is done perfectly—but it is in no way “clean.” Stan?dards have improved and technology continues to develop. However, nuclear power remains an extremely polluting, extractive industry.


a question of priorities

Even if nuclear power did not have such a hazardous impact, from a practical viewpoint the economics still make it unsustainable as a solution to climate change. Construc?tion costs are the main culprit, with each reactor estimated at $6-$8 billion. To succeed, a nuclear renaissance would require billions of dollars in taxpayer-backed loan guaranties and direct federal subsidies. As recently as September, before the financial meltdown overtook Con?gress, the “Gang of 20” senators was considering inserting legislation into an energy bill which would have provided unlimited federal loan guaranties to the nuclear industry, pumping an estimated $500 billion into this energy sector.

Think about how far that money can go if it is invested in ratcheting up energy efficiency and propelling renewable technologies into our society!

Getting unstuck: so many more options for a healthy future

If we are serious about addressing the one problem that threatens the way we live and relate with the environment as we know it—climate change—it would be a shame to waste such an incredible opportunity by simply trading one extractive fuel for another. We need an even bigger paradigm shift in the way we relate with the land we live on, the resources we use to power our life, and the way we communicate these problems with others.

That’s why, now, I feel so passionate about nuclear power and energy policy—because it’s really about so much more than that.

Instead of turning away from the ugly, scary issues, I am delving into them: They offer an unparalleled opportunity for shifting the debate. It is in these deep, dark realms where the practical meets the essential, and where the need for effective communication, not only among like-minded people, but among people who cannot even agree on the problem, comes out.

We are stuck in a rut, as a country, as energy producers and consumers, that is symptomatic of the disconnect we have with the environment as a whole. How do we treat the places we live? How do we fully account for the resources that power our societies, not just in economic or carbon-trading terms, but in the fuller impact they have on our health and environment? How do we envision a new system, one that is practical, holistic and inclusive?

In addition to energy policy, it’s an important question for all sorts of issues, from food production to education to health care to family relations.

What this means for HEAL is taking the hard line against nuclear waste and nuclear power, while also rigorously assessing what we can do in Utah in terms of renewable energy. Rather than retreating from a conservative legislature or skeptical dominant culture, we’ve had to ask ourselves how we work here, in the community we live in, to effect change. We’ve found that it requires a change in the method and form of communication. In our renewable energy study, which will be the topic of a later article, we are using hard science as a language to build bridges with people who may not even believe climate change is a problem, but who do value energy independence, homegrown technologies and healthy communities. 

The challenge, with energy policy, with “environmentalism,” with “activism” as a whole, especially in Utah, is how to see the big picture—and communicate it—in a holistic, rather than a reductionist way. As with nuclear power, this means paying attention to the painful histories of the nuclear era of the past, holding the line against further abuses, and proactively working towards positive, systemic change within a new energy paradigm.

Here’s to all of us learning how to walk our talk.

Sophia Nicholas is the development director for HEAL Utah, where she has been enthusiastically learning new ways of telling Utah’s environmental stories.

This article was originally published on December 31, 2008.