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Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer

Posted By Helen Caldicott On March 26, 2007 @ 12:18 am In Environment,Non-Fiction Reviews,Science | 32 Comments

[Editor's note: The following is the Introduction to Dr. Helen Caldicott's new book Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer.]

[Nuclear power] is a very important part of our energy policy today in the U.S. . . . America’s electricity is already being provided through the nuclear industry efficiently, safely, and with no discharge of greenhouse gases or emissions.

—Vice President Cheney in a speech to the Nuclear Energy Institute, May 22, 2001

The 103 nuclear power plants in America produce 20% of the nation’s electricity without producing a single pound of air pollution or greenhouse gases.

—President Bush in a speech to a group of nuclear power plant workers at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear reactor, June 22, 2005

The current administration clearly believes that if it lies frequently and with conviction, the general public will be lulled into believing their oft-repeated dictums. As this book will show, no part of “efficiently, safely, and with no discharge of greenhouse gases or emissions” is true. Nuclear energy creates significant greenhouse gases and pollution today, and is on a trajectory to produce as much as conventional sources of energy within the next one or two decades. It requires massive infusions of government (read taxpayer) subsidies, relying on universities and the weapons industry for its research and development, and being considered far too risky for private investors. It is also doubtful that the 8,358 individuals diagnosed between 1986 and 2001 with thyroid cancer in Belarus, downwind of Chernobyl, would choose the adjective “safe” to describe nuclear power.

Nuclear power is not “clean and green,” as the industry claims, because large amounts of traditional fossil fuels are required to mine and refine the uranium needed to run nuclear power reactors, to construct the massive concrete reactor buildings, and to transport and store the toxic radioactive waste created by the nuclear process. Burning of this fossil fuel emits significant quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2)—the primary “greenhouse gas”—into the atmosphere. In addition, large amounts of the now-banned chlorofluorocarbon gas (CFC) are emitted during the enrichment of uranium. CFC gas is not only 10,000 to 20,000 times more efficient as an atmospheric heat trapper (“greenhouse gas”) than CO2, but it is a classic “pollutant” and a potent destroyer of the ozone layer.

While currently the creation of nuclear electricity produces only one-third the amount of CO2 emitted from a similar-sized, conventional gas generator, this is a transitory statistic. Over several decades, as the concentration of available uranium ore declines, more fossil fuels will be required to extract the ore from less concentrated ore veins. Within ten to twenty years, nuclear reactors will produce no net energy because of the massive amounts of fossil fuel that will be necessary to mine and to enrich the remaining poor grades of uranium. (The nuclear power industry contends that large quantities of uranium can be obtained by reprocessing radioactive spent fuel. However, this process is extremely expensive, medically dangerous for nuclear workers, and releases large amounts of radioactive material into the air and water; it is therefore not a pragmatic consideration.) By extension, the operation of nuclear power plants will then produce exactly the same amounts of greenhouse gases and air pollution as standard power plants.

Contrary to the nuclear industry claims, smoothly running nuclear power plants are also not emission free. Government regulations allow nuclear plants “routinely” to emit hundreds of thousands of curies of radioactive gases and other radioactive elements into the environment every year. Thousands of tons of solid radioactive waste are presently accumulating in the cooling pools beside the 103 operating nuclear plants in the United States and hundreds of others throughout the world. This waste contains extremely toxic elements that will inevitably pollute the environment and human food chains, a legacy that will lead to epidemics of cancer, leukemia, and genetic disease in populations living near nuclear power plants or radioactive waste facilities for many generations to come.

Nuclear power is exorbitantly expensive, and notoriously unreliable. Wall Street is deeply reluctant to re-involve itself in any nuclear investment, despite the fact that in the 2005 Energy Bill the U.S. Congress allocated $13 billion in subsidies to revive a moribund nuclear power industry. To compound this problem, the global supplies of usable uranium fuel are finite. If the entire world’s electricity production were replaced today by nuclear energy, there would be less than nine more years of accessible uranium. But even if certain corporate interests are convinced that nuclear power at the moment might be a beneficial investment, one major accident at a nuclear reactor that induces a meltdown would destroy all such investments and signal the end of nuclear power forever.

In this day and age, nuclear power plants are also obvious targets for terrorists, inviting assault by plane, truck bombs, armed attack, or covert intrusion into the reactor’s control room. The subsequent meltdown could induce the death of hundreds of thousands of people in heavily populated areas, and they would expire slowly and painfully, some over days and others over years from acute radiation illness, cancer, leukemia, congenital deformities, or genetic disease. Such an attack at the Indian Point reactors, thirty-five miles from Manhattan, for instance, would effectively incapacitate the world’s main financial center for the rest of time. An attack on one of the thirteen reactors surrounding Chicago would wreak similar catastrophic medical consequences. Amazingly, security at U.S. nuclear power plants remains at virtually the same lax levels as prior to the 9/11 attacks.

Adding to the danger, nuclear power plants are essentially atomic bomb factories. A 1,000 megawatt nuclear reactor manufactures 500 pounds of plutonium a year; normally ten pounds of plutonium is fuel for an atomic bomb. A crude atomic bomb sufficient to devastate a city could certainly be crafted from reactor grade plutonium. Therefore any non-nuclear weapons country that acquires a nuclear power plant will be provided with the ability to make atomic bombs (precisely the issue the world confronts with Iran today). As the global nuclear industry pushes its nefarious wares upon developing countries with the patent lie about “preventing global warming,” collateral consequences will include the proliferation of nuclear weapons, a situation that will further destabilize an already unstable world.

Meanwhile, every billion dollars spent on the supremely misguided attempt to revivify the nuclear industry is a theft from the production of cheap renewable electricity. Think what these billions could do if invested in the development of wind power, solar power, cogeneration, geothermal energy, biomass, and tidal and wave power, let alone basic energy conservation, which itself could save the United States 20% of the electricity it currently consumes.

A Greenpeace report issued in October 2005 predicted that solar power could supply clean electricity to 100 million people living in sunny parts of the world by the year 2025. Such an enterprise could create 54,000 jobs and be worth $19.9 billion. In just two decades, the amount of solar electricity could be equivalent to the power generated by seventy-two coal-fired stations—for example, enough to supply the needs of Israel, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia combined. (Egypt is currently one of the few countries in the world that hosts a government department solely devoted to the development of renewable energy sources)

The Carbon Trust, an independent company established by the British government, estimates that, with the correct amount of investment, marine energy—tidal and wave power—could provide up to 20% of the United Kingdom’s current electricity needs. As Marcus Rand, chief executive of the British Wind Energy Association, said, “The report provides impetus behind the vision that Britain can rule the waves and the tides making a significant dent in our carbon emissions alongside creating new world-class industries for the UK.”

According to Amory Lovins, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute, in 2004 the amount of electricity supplied by renewable energy sources—wind, co-generation, biomass, geothermal, solar, hydro (excluding electricity generated from large hydro dams)—added 509 times the total capacity worldwide that nuclear power contributed, and raised the global electricity production 2.9 times more than nuclear power contributed. These “minor” electricity sources already dwarf the annual growth of nuclear power generation, and experts predict that by 2010, they will add 177 times more capacity than nuclear power provides.

When nuclear proponents say that nuclear power can be used to reduce the United States’ insatiable reliance on foreign oil, they are simply wrong. Oil and its by-product gasoline are used to fuel the internal combustion engines in automobiles and trucks. Oil is also used to heat buildings. But oil does not power the electric grid. The grid, which is used to power electric lights, computers, VCRs, fans, hair dryers, stoves, refrigerators, air conditioners, and for industrial needs, is powered primarily through the burning of coal, other fossil fuels, and, currently, through nuclear power. (Oil does generate an infinitesimal amount of electricity—2% in the United States.)

How exactly is electricity generated? In the case of hydropower (which accounts for 7% of the electricity generated in the United States) the momentum of falling water is converted into electricity. For most of the remaining 93%, coal (50%), natural gas (18%), nuclear power (20%), and oil (2%) are used to produce immense amounts of heat. The heat boils water, converting it to steam, which then turns a turbine, generating electricity. So, in essence, a nuclear reactor is just a very sophisticated and dangerous way to boil water—analogous to cutting a pound of butter with a chain saw. At the moment, hydro provides 7%,and unfortunately wind is only 2% of the total U.S. mix, while solar is less than 1%. Globally, coal supplies about 64% of the world’s electricity, hydro and nuclear each provide 17%,and renewable sources again make up 2%.

Tragically, more and more people are believing the myths propagated by the nuclear industry about nuclear power—that it is emission free, produces no greenhouse gases, and is therefore the answer to global warming. Before the British election in May 2005, the nuclear industry slowly and surely fashioned a classy public relations campaign targeting politicians, media, and the British public. (That campaign, coordinated by the Nuclear Industry Association, cleverly did not address the dubious benefits of nuclear power but focused instead upon the current shortcomings of wind-generated electricity and other alternative power sources.)

The British Department of Trade and Industry (DIT) also viewed the 2005 election as an opportunity to promote nuclear power. Adrian Gault, director of DIT’s strategy group, made a wild and uninformed prediction that nuclear power would be supplying half of Britain’s electricity by 2050 while cutting greenhouse emissions. (Meanwhile, in 2001, DIT’ s Nuclear Industries Directorate had already agreed to participate in an international consortium to build the next generation of nuclear reactors—to be constructed by a British or American company. So their real agenda had been established four years earlier, and the propaganda campaign in May 2005 was merely an attempt to bring the British public around to seeing the wisdom of preordained policy.)

The British nuclear industry is working hard to persuade members of parliament and other influential public figures of the benefits of nuclear power. Dr. James Lovelock, the UK-based scientist who developed the Gaia theory, now wrongly advocates the use of nuclear power as one solution to the global warming crisis. Sir David King, chief UK government science advisor, says that nuclear power plants are the only realistic way to satisfy growing energy demands while meeting global warming targets. And former UK Greenpeace leader Peter Melchett, who now works for the giant public relations company Burson-Marsteller, has also publicly endorsed this concept. The British nuclear industry has sacrificed full disclosure and jettisoned truth in order to ensure a new round of government subsidies for nuclear power. The government subsidy program for the nuclear industry—which might be dubbed the “Security of Supply Obligation”—amounts in essence to the socialization of nuclear power, ensconced within a “free market” economy.

In England in 2006, nuclear power has risen to the top of the political agenda, as government ministers and public officials rush to address an impending energy crisis, driven by Russia’s January 2006 decision to cut off its natural gas supplies to the Ukraine and hence to much of Europe. This scare helped to convince an already compliant Prime Minister Blair and senior people at the UK Department of Trade and Industry that new nuclear power stations are needed.

In the United States and Canada, leading environmentalists similarly seem to have been swayed by the Bush/Cheney/nuclear industry rhetoric. Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalogue; Gus Speth, the dean of Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies; and former Greenpeace Canada leader Patrick Moore, who now consults for the mining, fishing, and timber industries—all seem to have accepted the nuclear industry’s propaganda as fact. Meanwhile, it is increasingly critical to set the record on nuclear power straight, as international battles for oil threaten to morph into world wars, and leading NASA scientists are taken to task by the Bush administration for daring to tell the truth about global warming.

It is interesting to speculate why President Bush and Vice President Cheney are so beholden to and enamored of the nuclear power industry, an industry that has never actually been exposed to the chill winds of the market economy they unfailingly espouse elsewhere. As neither the president nor the vice-president can boast a scientific education, they would be hard pressed to understand the scientific and medical problems associated with this arcane industry. Both are oilmen who have made a great deal of money directly or indirectly through that industry; they are deeply indebted to big business for political contributions; and they overtly seem not to be interested in the health and well being of the American people, let alone the dire situation facing the planet in the form of global warming, and the threat of nuclear meltdowns and nuclear pollution.

Ironically, while the Bush administration is reluctant to admit that global warming is really happening and that it could be caused by deleterious human activities, it is using the issue of global warming to justify the increased production of nuclear power, which, it claims, is the answer to (the non-existent problem of) global warming. Claiming, as Cheney does, that atomic electricity produces no carbon dioxide, the culprit responsible for 50% of atmospheric heating, the U.S. nuclear propaganda apparatus has been shifted into high gear to convince politicians and public alike that there can be and will be no other reasonable solution apart from nuclear power to answer this catastrophic global problem now threatening many life forms with extinction. Global warming has been a great gift to the nuclear industry.

Fewer than ten days after taking office, Cheney promised to “restore decency and integrity to the oval office,” while he simultaneously took charge of the administration’s energy task force, called the National Energy Policy Development Group. On April 17,2001, Cheney met with Kenneth Lay, the CEO of the now disgraced Enron Corporation, to discuss “energy policy matters” and the “energy crisis in California.” Following that meeting, Lay gave Cheney a three-page wish list of corporate recommendations. A subsequent comparison of that memo against the final report of the National Energy Policy Development Group showed that the task force had adopted all or significant portions of the Lay memo in seven of eight policy areas. In total, seventeen policies sought by Enron were adopted.

Cheney and his aides met at least six times with Lay and other Enron officials while preparing the task force report, which is now the basis of the administration’s energy proposals. Cheney’s staff also met with an Enron sponsored lobbying organization, the “Clean Power Group.” Cheney, his aides, and cabinet departments have repeatedly refused requests for the records of these meetings, despite the fact that the Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972 says that task forces like Cheney’s must conduct public meetings and must keep publicly available records. While we do not know, as a result, what Enron may have advocated in that meeting with respect to nuclear energy, we do know that Enron made significant contributions to the Bush/Cheney campaign, the Florida recount fight fund, and to the Bush/Cheney inauguration—a situation that calls into question whether legal and ethical guidelines were crossed.

The American Nuclear Society recently held a meeting in San Diego that drew scientists and industry professional from all around the world. The prevailing mantra was simple—surprise the opponent, plan ahead, coordinate, be pro-active not reactive, and engage and communicate with antinuclear groups. This extensive propaganda campaign is global. A formally chartered organization composed of the governments of Argentina, Brazil, Canada, the European Union, France, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Republic of South Africa, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States, called the Generation IV International Forum (GIF), is collaborating with the U.S. Nuclear Energy research Advisory Committee to elucidate the benefits, technical and institutional barriers, and research needs for the most promising nuclear energy system concepts.

Other countries engaged in the possible construction of nuclear power plants include China, which already has nine nuclear reactors and plans to build another thirty nuclear power plants. (Even if it builds its thirty plants, however, nuclear power will still provide only 5% of its energy mix, while the percentage of China’s electrical generation capacity by natural gas is expected to increase from 1% today to over 6% by 2030 according to the International Energy Agency.) New nuclear power capacity is under consideration or construction in India, Japan, Taiwan, Turkey, Belarus, Vietnam, Poland, and South Korea. Russia as well as Finland have several plants under construction.

Nuclear power is often referred to behind closed doors in the U.S. Department of Energy as “hard” energy whereas wind power, solar power, hydropower, and geothermal energy are referred to as “soft” energy pathways. Clearly the same psychosexual language used by the Pentagon generals to describe various aspects of nuclear weapons and nuclear war has been translocated into the nuclear power vocabulary of some very powerful and influential men in the electricity generating field. As a physician, I contend that unless the root cause of a problem can be ascertained there can be no cure. So too the pathology intrinsic in the nuclear power gang needs to be dissected and revealed to the cold light of day.

The potential for growth in the renewable non-CO2 producing sectors is enormous. All that is required is a commitment by government leaders to urgently enact serious laws mandating energy conservation, and to shift the subsidies currently provided to the nuclear power industry to alternative and renewable electricity generation. Corporations as well should be incentivized to invest in exciting and diverse non-polluting energy technologies. In truth, the earth is in the intensive care unit, and the prognosis is poor indeed unless we all take courageous measures.

© 2006 by Helen Caldicott. This piece originally appears in Dr. Helen Caldicott’s Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer (The New Press, September 20, 2006). Published with the permission of The New Press and available at good book stores everywhere.


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