While there is a lot of dispute on how to address climate change there is little dispute that climate change poses a serious threat to future life on the planet. Recently Senators Boxer and Kerry proposed expansion of nuclear energy as one solution within a larger plan. However, it is worth asking whether nuclear energy is a viable option given the consequences of uranium mining, cost of development, shipment of material, safety of plants and disposal of waste, along with the larger question of whether or not we could be fully protected from a nuclear disaster. Now is the time to discern fact from fiction.
One of the first problems would be obtaining uranium, the raw material for nuclear energy. Mining poses significant hazards. Native American tribes in both Nevada and Arizona have called for bans on mining. The estimated cleanup cost in West Karnes, Texas, a former mining area, is $350 million. Streams near the mines are now polluted and radioactive. Similarly, Rio Puerco is permanently contaminated as a result of radioactive waste water having broken through a dam in New Mexico’s uranium mine back in 1979. Even if uranium could be safety mined, would we want radioactive material to be shipped on rails or highways across the country?
What about the cost? The estimated cost of building one reactor is $6 to $12 billion. The estimated cost to build the 100 reactors as called for by Kerry and Boxer is over 4 trillion. The plants generally take at least 10 years to build. And many plants would not be built due to community opposition. If built, the plants may pose new environmental justice questions if the sites were in poor and minority communities. As recently as April 2009, residents of Appollo, Pa., were awarded over $52 million in a 14-year suit for damages from exposure to radioactivity. Would the nuclear industry pass these types of costs to the consumer?
You may ask, don’t the French have a successful nuclear energy program? Articles posted on Beyond Nuclear’s website claim that Areva, a French company charged with building new plants, is crippled by cost overruns and delays. One report claims that of the 45 reactors scheduled to be built, 22 are behind schedule. Areva recently reported a 2.3 billion euro loss on the plant in Finland and a 79 percent drop in profits. Areva gets its uranium from Niger, but supplies may be limited as Niger has moved to close over 100 mines.
Then we have the ultimate fear — nuclear disaster. Whether as a result of terrorism, human negligence, force of nature, an aging plant or faulty storage can we risk another Three Mile Island or Chernobyl? Areas near Chernobyl are predicted to remain contaminated for another 600 years. Exposure to excess amounts of radiation is correlated with high rates of cancer, leukemia and genetic damage. If there were an accident, there would be no way of effectively notifying people at risk. There is no hospital or health system currently in existence in the U.S. that could address a disaster in the short or long term. And, there would be no way to protect the many forms of life on the planet, animals, birds, water, soil and air. Wouldn’t it make more sense to consider conservation to reduce our energy use as we look to develop solar, wind and water power and make improvements to the current power grids?