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Four Reasons Why Nuclear Power is a Terrible Way to Generate Energy

December 4th, 2005 · No Comments · Energy & Sustainability, Other, Shel's Personal Life

Nuclear power plants cause great risk, and the industry actually uses more power than it produces. Read on:

My first exposure to the nuclear industry was in 1972 when Con Edison proposed to build a nuke 2 miles north of New York City’s northern border and 3 miles north of where I was living at the time. We raised the issue of thermal pollution (yes, a contributor to global warming), and they caved almost instantly. Two years later, I found out why. I did a college research project on whether nuclear energy was safe and what I found scared me deeply. And five years after that, I wrote my first book (co-authored with Richard Curtis and Elizabeth Hogan, who had written one of the books I read for my college project)–on why nuclear makes absolutely no sense as an energy alternative.

Before I tell you what I found out, I want to say again that no environmentalist I am aware of recommends switching to coal. There are far safer and cleaner alternatives, including the sun–which could meet all our energy needs just by itself–as well as wind, conservation, and many other options. Just like nuclear, coal is a devil’s bargain–but fortunately, it is not necessary.

On to a few of the many arguments against nuclear power (there are a number of others, but these are the ones I find most perturbing).

1. The need to completely isolate the stew of various toxic and radioactive wastes, all with different half-lives and corrosion factors–for between 100,000 and 250,000 years. To put that in perspective, the earliest known artifacts of human industry date back only about 25,000 or 30,000 years. The first cities were only 10,000 years ago. Yet we have the hubris to think we can not only build containers that will last ten times as long as recorded human ingenuity (and be immune to terrorism even though they’re a much easier target than the power plants themselves) but that the warning signs will not only be legible but still be understood. I am highly skeptical of that ability, and it’s an absolute necessity.

2. The nuclear industry’s lack of confidence in its own safety record, in that it relies on an insurance program, subsidized by our tax dollars, and with sharply limited liability in the event of an accident. Those who support free-market capitalism should be appalled and terrified at the incredible threat to private property rights that this represents. Even the US government’s threat in the 50s to nationalize the power industry and produce its own nukes if the private sector didn’t step up was not enough to create the nuclear power industry. It took this law that takes both the power companies and insurance companies largely off the hook in case of an accident or terrorist attack. I do see that the most recent (2002) renewal of this barbaric 1957 law finally pushed the cap from the $560 million that was totally unrealistic the day it was written to some $9 billion per accident–still a tiny fraction of what could be ruined in a Chernobyl-like accident, and you can bet the power companies will be first in line to collect the few dollars available, leaving little or nothing for ordinary folks. The plants themselves typically cost about $2 billion apiece back in the 70s when most of them were built, and the replacement cost in today’s dollars would be much higher.

3. The abysmal safety record of the US and Russian nuclear industry (France, as far as I know, has done a better job). There have been hundreds of minor but potentially serious accidents, touching, I believe, every nuke in this country. And there have been four major accidents that I’m aware of, within 20 years, one of which was catastrophic (Chernobyl, which removed much of the Ukraine from productive use and polluted the entire world–thank goodness it was not in a heavily populated area! Had that accident happened at, say, the Enrico Fermi or Indian Point site, or that nuke I helped to block in New Rochelle, NY, or the nuke that sits on the river just outside St. Petersburg–Russia’s second-most important city–tens of thousands would have died)

  • Enrico Fermi, near Detroit, Michigan, 1966
  • Browns Ferry, Alabama, 1975
  • Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, 1979
  • Chernobyl, Ukraine, 1986

Oh, and there have been a number of other fatalities. See, for instance, http://www.lutins.org/nukes.html

4. We undergo all this risk *for zero benefit.*

There is energy usage in fabricating and building and maintaining the power plant itself. There are energy costs in mining and refining and preparing the unranium and the fuel rods, and in recovering and reprocessing spent uranuim. There are energy costs in running the plant, and there are regular, heavy refurbishments necessary.

What is usually ignored is that there are very substantial energy costs in dismantling and storing the used power plant (virtually the whole of the generation area and the cooling waters and all suitings etc) and the spent fuel which has to be monitored, kept cool and guarded from theft by – in particular – terrorists or Governments keen to join the nuclear weapon club.

What he doesn’t say is that according to my research, counting the entire fuel cycle–mining, milling, processing, transporting the uranium, and then reprocessing the spent fuel rods–and not even counting the vast energy costs of decommissioning the plants at the end of their lives, the nuclear industry is a net consumer of power. Counting decommissioning and storage, it’s even worse. In other words, the nuclear industry consumes more energy than it produces! All risk, no benefit.

In short: a whole lot of risk, no benefit.

This is a stupid answer to the energy crisis, and don’t let anyone try to build a nuke near you!

Note: for many provocative and mostly solution-oriented articles on energy, please visit the sustainability section of Down to Business magazine. There are a whle lot of ways to do energy that are nonpolluting, renewable, and thoroughly achievable.

Shel Horowitz, editor of Down to Business and Peace & Politics, has been writing about sustainability and social change for over 25 years. Click here to learn about his award-winning book, Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First, and his campaign to change the world of business with an ethics pledge campaign.


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