Why Nuclear Power Is Not the Way to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions

by Christine Frank / April 2006 issue of Socialist Action newspaper

An alarming number of so-called environmentalists in the United States are taking the position that more nuclear power generation is the way to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions that are contributing to global warming.

In an opinion piece in the San Francisco Chronicle a couple of months back, G. Pascal Zachary proposed such nuclear madness. He tried to assure readers that today’s new Generation IV reactors, which the utility giants and the federal government hope to foist upon
us, are much safer to operate than the older models and will do an efficient job of providing us with clean, inexpensive energy.

None of those claims are true, and the American people cannot allow themselves to be hoodwinked by sellouts like Zachary.

All of the reasons to oppose nuclear power—risk of catastrophic accident, routine radioactive emissions, accumulating irradiated wastes, all of which threaten the health of life on Earth—apply equally to the new pebble-bed technology Zachary is favoring and the aging reactors currently in operation.

Through its Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, the Bush administration plans to proliferate over 130 more nuclear power plants over the next 40 years worldwide. This includes the construction of small-scale reactors in Third World nations that will contribute further to their gross maldevelopment.

The U.S. nuclear power industry will receive more than $10 billion in subsidies and tax breaks—all at the taxpayers’ expense. That’s quite some price tag for electricity that supposed to be “too cheap to meter.” The beneficiaries of these hand-outs will be a consortium of utility companies, consisting of Westinghouse, General Electric, Entergy, and Exelon, the main owners, operators, and builders of America’s nuclear power stations. Bechtel, which builds nuclear-fuel reprocessing reactors, will also benefit from this welfare for the rich.

It is claimed by advocates such as Zachary that the advanced nuclear reactors, designed with new pebble-bed technology, will be much cheaper and safer to operate and will emit no sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxides, or greenhouse gases. The industry PR slogan is “nuclear energy means cleaner air.”

Friends of the Earth has estimated that a typical nuclear reactor must operate at full capacity for 10 years to repay its energy debt incurred by uranium mining and milling, fuel enrichment and fabrication, steel and zirconium manufacture, and plant construction—not including decommissioning. Another eight to 10 years can be added for fuel loading and reloading. It would therefore take approximately 18 years for one net calorie of energy to be produced for societal consumption. That can hardly be considered cost-effective.

In addition, vast amounts of carbon dioxide are created in every step of the nuclear fuel cycle—both upstream and downstream. Even the production of cement and concrete, needed in the basic construction of the plants and waste-storage facilities, releases CO2. In addition, all nuclear power plants use electricity for basic operation from outside sources that burn fossil fuels.

Greenpeace International states that if nuclear power supplied 75 percent of the world’s electricity, it would result in only a 25 percent reduction in harmful carbon emissions. Every dollar spent on simple energy-efficiency measures is seven times more effective in cutting carbon than the billions allocated for nuclear power.

Scaled-down safety measures

If the Department of Energy (DOE) gets its way, the advanced nuclear reactors it espouses will have fewer pumps, valves, pipes, and control cables. The plants will be semi-mass-produced in order to lower the costs of design and construction and take less time to get
up and running.

The so-called “passive” safety features rely on gravity and nitrogen gas pressure. The gas-cooled reactor will consist of four helium-cooled, graphite-moderated units, producing 538 megawatts, and are to last 40 years. It will be located below ground (out of sight, out of mind to the public), although the two steam turbine generators and cooling system will be above ground.

The fuel will be composed of millions of microspheres of enriched uranium oxycarbide coated with two layers of pyrolytic carbon and one layer of silicon carbon, combined with thorium oxide microspheres, sealed together in graphite blocks. Each reactor will contain about 10 billion fuel kernels. The coating is intended to prevent release of fission products, except when temperatures exceed 1600 degrees centigrade, at which point the reactor goes critical and neutron fission begins.

Points two and four of DOE’s Advanced Energy Initiative deal with the recycling and burning of plutonium from old weapons using the Power Reactor Inherently Safe Module or PRISM.

There is nothing inherently safe about what is essentially a breeder reactor that will be cooled by liquid sodium. The element is highly reactive and burns when exposed to air. It reacts chemically with concrete, explodes on contact with water, and if brought to a boil can cause the plutonium fuel to explode.

Despite these enormous risks, neither a containment vessel nor an emergency core-cooling system (ECCS) are part of the PRISM design—in spite of the obvious potential for a meltdown. The PRISM complex will have nine reactors divided into units of three, but will
have only one fully-automated control room, which will perform no safety functions.

The designers of the gas-cooled and PRISM reactors assert that operators are not necessary for safety. In the PRISM plan, three operators control nine reactors. Oncologist and long-time anti-nuclear activist Dr. Helen Caldicott points out that a single operator could conceivably be forced to juggle simultaneous catastrophic situations in a unit at full power experiencing loss of off-site operating power, in another shut down for refueling, and in one in startup mode. Good luck with that!

Then there is the safety record of the companies that currently run the over 100 aging plants that are currently on-line in the U.S. Operating errors, accidents, and leaks are a regular occurrence in these satanic structures that mar the American landscape. If one reads the “Nuclear Shorts” column in Nukewatch’s Pathfinder, it is one long litany of horror stories
from around the country.

The scaled-down safety measures, greatly reduced staffs, and pre-fab design lacking ECCSs and containment vessels are all attempts to save money at the cost of the security and health of millions of people. The nuclear priesthood that has conceived of these technological horrors are so confident that nothing will go wrong that they have even eliminated public emergency evacuation and protections plans, even though the systems are vulnerable to multiple accidents, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Where to store the waste?

Then there is the problem of the vast stockpiles of radioactive wastes that continue to accumulate. Spent fuel, which is a thousand times more radioactive than fresh, is now stored on site in cooling pools because no permanent storage place exists. The DOE is still committed to the Yucca Mountain long-term storage facility in Nevada despite opposition from members of the Western Shoshone Nation, on whose treaty lands it lies.

The indigenous people there have been the victims of poverty and a corrupt tribal leadership that sold out to the federal government for the promise of a million dollars to each Shosone member. Together, it adds up to glaring environmental racism.

The government wants to go ahead even though a U.S. Geological Survey scientist was caught fudging his data on the underground hydrological conditions. Previously, Yucca Mountain was considered ideal because of extremely arid conditions that would prevent corrosion of waste containers. However, in the geologic past, the region has been much more moist. With climate change, there is no guarantee that things would remain the same over the centuries and that future generations would remain safe. Plus, an aquifer lies beneath the mountain, which would be contaminated if there were any leakage.

As we can see, there is nothing environmentally sound or remotely “green” about the capitalists’ expanded nuclear economy. If we were living in a sci-fi film, the only thing green would be the eerie glow coming from the power stations, waste dumps, and living things they contaminate.

That is because nuclear power generation is neither safe nor ecological. It is one long, interminable cycle of death that will continue and worsen for generations to come unless working people put a stop to it.

The risk of catastrophic accident, the routine radioactive emissions, the problem of poisonous wastes that are steadily leaking into the air, soil, and water—along with the threat of malignancies and teratogenic mutations doing untold damage to the human gene pool—will continue to hang over us. We need a revolution revolutionary program to deal with this
waking nightmare.

An emergency program

• Close down all nuclear reactors immediately, decommissioning both civilian and military facilities.

• Shift the world economy to non-polluting, renewable energy sources. Take real steps toward achieving a 50 percent reduction in energy consumption within a decade.

• End the secrecy and lies. The public has the right to know of all past and present dangers so we can cope with them through democratic decision-making, particularly on waste containment, which will be a tremendous problem for centuries to come.

• To that end, in the U.S., open the books of the DOE and NRC and private industry to expose the cover-ups about accidents and leaks so we know the extent of the damage done to the environment.

• Shut down the DOE and NRC, which function solely on behalf of the nuclear industry, and replace them with democratically-elected workers’ and farmers’ bodies that include environmentally conscious and humane scientists, engineers, and technicians to oversee the
safe decommissioning of all nuclear reactors.

• Monitor the public health effects, employing scientists and clinicians who are not apologists for the nuclear industry as we find now in the AMA, so that health-care workers can effectively treat cancers and genetic diseases to relieve human suffering.

• Provide decent medical care and just compensation to all uranium miners and nuclear industry workers whose health has been damaged; compensate their families for the loss of loved ones sacrificed to the nuclear juggernaut.

• Where deemed necessary, relocate, resettle and reemploy populations from badly contaminated areas, sealing them off from further human habitation.

• Clean-up radioactive dump sites and permanently contain radioactive wastes using robotics and the most extreme precautions to protect workers engaged in clean-up efforts while subjecting them to constant monitoring because there are no safe levels of radiation exposure.

• Define radioactive wastes according to their longevity, toxicity, biological pathways, and
predisposition to spread from their original sources.

These are presently described as:

(1) High-level spent reactor fuel and reprocessing wastes.

(2) Transuranic wastes contaminated with plutonium and its relatives, curium, neptunium, Americium, all with very long half-lives.

(3) Low-level wastes, which are also just as dangerous.

Since the beginning of the Atomic Age in 1942, the capitalist class has irradiated the entire surface of the planet to some degree or another. Realizing the above demands is the only rational and humane way to deal with this colossal environmental vandalism and sabotage to human health.

We must understand that we will never completely dispose of the millions of tons of radioactive wastes that have accumulated since the first bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They will remain on the planet for thousands of years, and all we can do is contain them as safely as possible to protect generations to come from chronic illness, genetic mutation, infertility and death.

We need a socialist revolution to put an end to this Hell on Earth that capitalism has created. Only then, will we be truly free to begin to deal with the magnitude of the problem humanity faces and to allow Earth and the human family to recover and heal.