Why Nuclear Power Is Not an Energy Solution for Global Warming

By Chip Ward

Factor in the cost of mining, transporting and milling the uranium needed to fuel a nuclear power plant—for starters—and you’ll see nuclear power is no bargain. If you’ve seen those television commercials for Energy Solutions (they were Envirocare before the extreme makeover) that show endangered tree frogs crawling across the corporate logo, you may have already guessed that Energy Solutions is to tree frogs what Donald Trump is to salamanders —that is, there is no relationship beyond the contrived imaginings of the advertising agency that Energy Solutions pays to come up with such nonsense.

Nevertheless, the claim that nuclear power is an “energy solution” for the global climate crisis we are now experiencing is worth examining because it is being made by the nuclear industry’s political lobbyists and PR operatives across the nation and is now being echoed by the politicians who are in the industry’s pocket. Even clueless car dealers who own unpronounceable arenas, basketball teams, racetracks, and faux-Mayan restaurants are joining the chorus calling for more nukes to combat global warming.

So let’s look at the facts. The industry’s reps are right on one point: nuclear reactors themselves do not directly emit greenhouse gasses that contribute to global climate change. That good news should be tempered by the fact that the “emissions” from those reactors take the form of extremely radioactive waste that is dangerous for tens of thousands of years, is also dangerous to transport, is an obvious target for terrorists, can be used to make “dirty bombs,” and is endlessly expensive to endlessly manage. In Utah, we are very familiar with the intractable problems from nuclear power’s waste stream and the troubling politics of ‘pass the radioactive hot potato’ that go with it. But let’s be generous and concede that although small amounts of radiation are emitted from nuclear reactors, no greenhouse gasses are emitted.

Nuclear power generation, however, requires so much more than just what happens in the reactor alone. The raw material for nuclear power is uranium. Uranium must be located and mined, transported and milled, and then further processed into useable fuel. At every step along the way, energy is consumed and emissions that are indeed greenhouse gases are released. At one time, for example, four dirty coal-fired power plants were operated exclusively to electrify the uranium enrichment plants at Paducah, Kentucky, and Portsmouth, Ohio.

Nuclear power is infrastructure intensive. Nuke power plants come in one size—extra large—and massive construction projects also burn up fossil fuel and spew CO2 as trucks, bulldozers and cranes do their thing. Nuclear power plants require massive amounts of materials, of course, and the steel comes from smoky steel furnaces and iron ore that is also mined by pollution-belching machinery. Cement, lead, and other reactor materials also result in CO2 emissions as they are produced. Then there is building an infrastructure for the waste—the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada, which is looking very doubtful these days, was slated to be the largest single construction project in history and the machinery and materials used to build it also contribute to global warming.

Recent research highlighted in the prestigious British journal, The Ecologist, estimates that when the entire production cycle is accounted for, nuclear power emits less greenhouse gas than burning coal but far more than alternatives such as wind, solar, and conservation. For every unit of uranium recovered, the study concluded, 20 units of CO2 are produced. So much for saving the planet from greenhouse gasses. Suggesting, as the industry does, that we assess the global warming impact of nuclear power based on reactor emissions alone, then, is profoundly misleading. This comes as no surprise—the industry has a long history of misrepresenting its dangers, its costs, and its potential. This was the energy solution that we were told in the 1950s would be so cheap it wouldn’t be worth metering.

What about reprocessing the high-level radioactive waste into fresh fuel and skipping that dirty uranium mining and milling cycle altogether? That, after all, is what Energy Solutions would like to be all about. And that is how nuclear power was supposed to work when it was sold to us the first time back in the ’50s and ’60s. But the one commercial attempt at reprocessing was a financial and environmental disaster that went belly up after just six years, leaving U.S. taxpayers with a whopping $5 billion clean-up that has yet to be completed. Reprocessing facilities in France and England are responsible for about 90% of “routine radiation emissions” for their entire nuclear fuel chain—by far the dirtiest component of nuclear power generation. As a result of reprocessing in England, about 1,000 pounds of plutonium was discharged into the Irish Sea, making it one of the most radioactive bodies of water on Earth. Plutonium from reprocessing facilities has been detected in the teeth of children hundreds of miles away and has spread as far as the Canadian Arctic.

So-called “breeder reactors” were supposed to produce plutonium that could be used for fuel in other non-breeder reactors, thus making nuclear power self-sustaining. Aside from three breeder reactors built abroad, two of which are no longer active and one of which never “bred,” and a breeder reactor built in Michigan that experienced a partial meltdown in 1966, breeder reactors were not constructed because they are potentially more catastrophic than your run-of-the-mill Three Mile Island or Chernobyl reactors. They are also much more expensive to build. A new generation of breeder reactors and new “light-water” nuclear reactors are imagined but could be 20 years or more in development if they are ever perfectible and affordable at all—too late to make a difference in global warming.

When America walked away from breeders and reprocessing in the ’70s, too many workers involved in reprocessing the fuel had become sick. Unfortunately for the proponents of nuclear power, the technical problems involved in “recycling” nuclear fuel are too complex, too expensive, and too dangerous. Energy Solutions boasts it is the leader in a new quest to successfully reprocess nuclear waste. Given the thoroughly disappointing and wishful history of reprocessing so far, this is a bit like being on the cutting edge of alchemy during the Middle Ages. Or maybe there is just money to be made selling wishful thinking to those who are desperate for a solution and in denial about the unlikelihood of ever realizing one. Energy Solutions or energy delusions?

When President Carter, a former nuclear submarine commander, ruled out reprocessing for America, he cited the danger that the by-products of reprocessing could be used to fashion nuclear warheads. In fact, every new nation that has recently acquired nuclear weaponry or is about to do so, including North Korea, Iran, India, and Pakistan, have relied on the by-products of nuclear power generation to produce nuclear weaponry. The danger of terrorists using nuclear power by-products is also very real. Although the problem of nuclear proliferation and terrorism can be regarded separately from the question of whether nuclear power can ease global warming, a world that is experiencing climate chaos and the ensuing displacement of refugees and competition for viable habitat should not also be awash in nuclear weapons. A nuclear exchange will not be an “energy solution” to global warming. Reprocessing nuclear fuel is the pipe dream Energy Solutions is smoking—saner minds just say no.

Uranium is finite and world supplies are decreasing while prices and competition for access increase, especially for high-grade ore that does not require more in expenditures of energy than the energy it contains. Without reprocessing as a realistic option, dwindling supplies of uranium could raise the same tragic dynamic that is fueling war for access to oil at the end of the fossil fuel epoch. The inevitable scarcity of uranium would be accelerated if the world decided to build the thousands of nuclear power plants that would have to be built to make a dent in global warming. Do we want to burn all that fossil fuel as described above to build an energy production system that is likely to become as vulnerable and unreliable as an oil pipeline through the Middle East is today?

Nuclear power plants would be vulnerable not only to fuel scarcity and disruption, but to terrorism and to global warming itself. Severe weather would make nuclear power plants too dangerous to operate and reactors would be shut down in the face of hurricanes, floods, and even droughts and heat waves.

Nuclear energy is terribly expensive. To make a difference in global climate change, we would have to immediately build as many nuclear power plants as we already have in the U.S. (about 100) and at least as many as 2,000 worldwide. A massive investment would have to be made immediately.  Wall Street won’t invest in nuclear power because it is too risky, even though the industry is shielded from liability by the Price Anderson Act (yep, you guessed it—if a reactor melts down, taxpayers have to cover most of the costs). The partial meltdown at Three Mile Island taught investment bankers how a $2 billion investment can turn into a $1 billion clean-up in under two hours. Since the private sector cannot and will not generate the capital for such an expensive undertaking and will not tolerate the risks, the taxpayer would have to foot the bill. Gosh, do you think there might be cost overruns? Do you think this could be done on schedule (so far, the Yucca nuclear waste repository is 20 years behind schedule)?

Then there is the time factor. Even under the most ideal scenario, a doubled nuclear power infrastructure would take decades to build—too late to make a difference in climate change. Globally, to build the 2000 nuclear reactors that expert studies say would make a difference in climate change, four reactors would have to be built per month between 2010 and 2050. Also, a Yucca-sized dump would be needed every three to four years. Is this reasonable and realistic? In the time it would take to build enough reactors and dumps, we could cover the globe with windmills and solar panels, put everyone in China in a Prius, and find scores of new ways to conserve or create energy. And the money we spend to build new nukes would mean less money to develop wind and solar or to conserve the energy that we now waste—solutions to our energy woes that would make a difference much sooner than later. (To learn how we could cut global warming emissions in half through efficiency and clean energy, check out the executive summary of the National Resources Defense Council’s “Responsible Energy Plan for America” at www. nrdc.org/air/energy /rep/execsum.asp.)

Where would all those new reactors go and how would they get there? Communities are not lining up to have nuclear power plants built in their neighborhoods. Building so many new reactors would require a widespread suspension of civil rights and democratic practices. Communities and citizens would have to get out of the way —they couldn’t be allowed to resist or sue if they believed their health or property interests were endangered. That pesky, if anemic, public participation process for locating new nukes would have to be scrapped altogether. Unelected, inaccessible, and distant bureaucrats would have to be given the power to overrule the locals and fast-track the construction of new plants. Nuclear power is a technology better suited to authoritarian regimes than democratic cultures, which is why you can build a reactor in North Korea or Iran more easily than you can put one up in California. We shouldn’t have to burn up the Constitution to get clean energy.

Nuclear power is an energy solution only if the problem you are solving is how to make big profits from the potentially catastrophic global crisis we find ourselves in. Billions of federal tax dollars for research into reprocessing added to billions to bury the waste in environmental sacrifice zones like Utah’s West Desert will solve the problem of Energy Solutions’ investors—how to cash in on the public’s fear of global climate change and their willingness to invest in solutions. But if you are looking to actually alleviate global warming, nuclear power is no solution at all. It is a shill, snake oil, a cruel joke with unwanted consequences—and those Energy Solutions advertisements are as shameless as they are baseless. And, fortunately, most of us sense that. The only person buying the Energy Solutions pitch, it seems, is Larry Miller, a used-car salesman who should recognize a lemon when he sees one.

“Activist, urban librarian and environmental writer as well as the author of ‘Hope’s Horizon: Three Visions for Healing the American Land,’ Chip Ward (as the title of his fascinating book suggests) likes to focus on the sparks amid the global gloom,” writes Tom Engelhardt of The Nation Institute.

This article was originally published on January 31, 2007.