A Plutonium Paradise? A Critique of Nuclear Power

by on January 19, 2008 · 3 comments

in Environment

I just can’t believe the cheerful propaganda coming from the nuclear power industry and its boosters. They are telling us now that nuclear power is a “clean and safe solution” to the crisis of global warming. Nothing could be further from the truth. In my view, we are being offered a glowing picture of a cool plutonium paradise, a false bill of goods if there ever was one.Just recently, The Sacramento Bee published two essays promoting nuclear power as a solution to global warming. One from a former Greenpeacer who now works for the nuclear industry, claimed that current anti-nuclear activists such as Greenpeace are “living in the 1970s.” Another essay from a jazz-critic-turned-nuclear-revivalist sang non-improvised hosannas of “nuclear power for the people.”

Neither essay addressed the unresolved problems connected with nuclear power: reactor accidents, waste disposal, and the problem of nuclear weapons proliferation. Neither mentioned the astronomical costs or the fossil fuels consumed in the mining, building, maintaining, transporting waste, and the decommissioning of nuclear facilities.

Environmentalists fear that the promised air-conditioned plutonium paradise will produce a toxic, cancer-filled, irradiated earth. Sci-fi movies have provided us with depictions of mutant humans and animals evolving into monsters as a result of exposure to nuclear radiation from nuclear weapons testing. I call such horrifying depictions “nukemares.” Remember The Planet of the Apes? Remember Godzilla?

On Christmas Eve, I drove to see the ominous two towers at Rancho Seco, 25 miles southeast of Sacramento. I enjoyed a picnic lunch at “Rancho Seco Park,” the recreation area SMUD created after the plant closed down.

Rancho Seco was the first nuclear power plant to be closed down anywhere in the world as the result of a popular anti-nuke organizing effort and a public vote. In December 1986, the anti-nuclear organization SAFE gathered enough signatures to place a referendum on the ballot. In a voter referendum in June of 1989, the majority of Sacramento voters said, “Close it down.”

The day after Christmas 1985, a nuclear “event” (traced to a trip wire in a tiny electric box) caused the reactor to dramatically overheat. After Three Mile Island incident in 1979, and the meltdown of Chernobyl on April 26, 1986, the people of Sacramento had reasonable cause to be concerned when they voted to close down the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant in 1989.

SMUD accepted the results of the non-binding referendum and began the expensive process of decommissioning, which ends in 2008. Ranch Seco exemplifies what can happen when an alert community faces the dangers of nuclear power. We all breath easier because of those so-called “anti-nuke fanatics.”

Remember what happened at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania on March 28, 1979? There was an explosion inside a containment building, a partial meltdown of the reactor core, and a deliberate venting of radioactive gases into the atmosphere. A 140,000 people fled the area, where elevated levels of cesium and iodine were found in the milk samples collected from dairy farms. Ironically, the movie The China Syndrome with Jane Fonda was just opening in movie theaters that week.

Yet, we still worship our advanced technologies as if they are infallible.

Does anyone remember Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union? On April 26, 1986, a powerful explosion instantly killed two people. Dozens of fire fighters died from radiation poisoning within a few years. Nuclear radiation fallout spread throughout Western Europe to the point where the people of England could not eat lambs that grazed on their fields. Numerous cancer clusters and other effects of radiation such as contaminated mushrooms and berries in southern Germany, and contaminated reindeer in Scandinavia, emerged throughout Northern Europe and western Russia.

Remember the problems at Oak Ridge, Kyshtym, or Windscale? Remember the waste disposal accidents at Hanford, where hundreds of thousands of gallons of radioactive waste containing plutonium leaked out of tanks between 1945 and 1973? Are Californians comfortable with the fact that coastal nuclear power plants at San Onofre and Diablo Canyon are susceptible to tsunamis and located adjacent to earthquake faults? So far, no one has been able to convince me that today’s generation of nuclear power plants has eliminated the risk of nuclear accidents.
Yet, people have short memories. There is talk in the media about a “nuclear revival,” or a “nuclear renaissance.”

In June 2007, Dale Klein, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), told a gathering of industry leaders in Atlanta that he expects applications for 27 new reactors over the next two years. One corporate applicant said, “There is no serious opposition.”

Congress provided help for the “revival” at taxpayer expense. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 had generous subsidies for nuclear power and other alternatives to fossil fuels. Billions of dollars in tax credits, loan guarantees, and insurance was offered to cover licensing delays for new nuclear plants. The latest 2007 energy bill has more of the same.

New nuclear power plants are going to go up around the world. The US, China, France, Japan, Iran, India, Pakistan, England, Finland, Russia, Germany, Brazil and other modernizing countries are planning to build a new generation of nukes. Iran has plans for 18 new nuclear power plants. As plants are built in more countries, nuclear weapons proliferation will likely expand into previously non-nuclear countries. Governments will seek more repressive laws and tighter security arrangements to make sure the plants do not become targets for terrorists.

The US gets 20% of its energy from nukes and operates 103 nuclear power reactors, or a quarter of the 440 plants worldwide. The Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site in Nevada has been under development for more than 30 years. Construction has been frozen since 1997. A five-mile tunnel was drilled 10 years ago. If it opens, approximately 77,000 tons of nuclear waste would travel through this tunnel to chambers 1,000 feet below the ridgeline. In a January 18, 2008, edition of USA TODAY, an editorial on the Yucca nuclear waste site condemned Democratic presidential candidates for their opposition to the site, stating: “Opposing Yucca won’t strangle nuclear power, which appears poised for a rebirth.”

Nevertheless, no “safe and clean” solution to nuclear waste has been found.

France gets close to 80% of its energy from its aging nuclear power plants, and reprocesses 95 % of its waste. It has no idea where to store the remainder, “the worst of the worst.” It has considered dumping it in the oceans, but has encountered opposition from the Polynesians.

England’s Sellafield nuclear complex discharged all kinds of radioactive nuke waste and a quarter to a half ton of plutonium into the Irish Sea stirring up controversy until they were banned from doing so in 1983.

Greenpeace discovered the discharge as divers were trying to plug a main discharge pipe. Sellafield and the surrounding areas have higher than normal childhood cancer rates. Finally, a Greenpeace study following 9/11indicated that an air-born terrorist attack on the Sellafield nuclear complex in England could kill over three million people.

Countries with nuclear power plants and huge nuclear weapons complexes such as the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, and the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California, are creating a toxic mess that will plague human and non-human life for thousands of years. But will it really be a plutonium paradise? I say no – not so fast with nuclear power!

Rick Nadeau, a former director of Greenpeace Action in San Diego, now lives in Sacramento and is on the “Because People Matter” editorial board.

(This article is from the forthcoming March-April 2008 edition of “Because People Matter”, a Sacramento-based publication.)

See page 2 for references for this article.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Deb January 20, 2008 at 9:36 am

Yes, I remember Three Mile Island. My first son was born that year and I wondered what kind of a world I was bringing him into. Chernobyl broke my heart; especially the stories of the dead reindeer and the subsequent cultural detriment to nomadic Laplanders.

It continues to amaze me that some otherwise apparently sane people think that nuclear energy is a viable option. I think support of the nuclear power industry is a byproduct of denial.

Thanks for the well-stated article.


nunya January 20, 2008 at 8:06 pm

Warning! The photos are graphic.
Chenobyl victims
Iraq DU victims


Molly January 21, 2008 at 10:13 am

Very timely article. We need to ensure that the establishment does NOT usher in a NEW nuclear age under the guise of fighting global warming.


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