Despite the nuclear energy industry's well-funded efforts to convince the public otherwise, uranium fuel for atomic power plants is in limited supply. Like coal, oil and gas, it will soon run out, leaving scores of giant reactors useless and abandoned.
Also like fossil fuels, the impact of mining and processing fuel for nuclear power plants involves huge impacts on humans and the environment. With mines mostly in Australia, the American west, Canada, and central and southern Africa, atomic power has created huge ecological crises whose solutions are a long way off and are already proving to be exceedingly expensive.
When uranium ore is gouged out the ground, it emits radon gas that fills mine shafts with deadly fumes. Uranium miners throughout the world have historically suffered from abnormally high lung cancer rates. They also die in the same kinds of accidents that kill coal and other ore miners.
When the raw uranium is brought to the surface, it's milled into fine sands called tailings. Billions of tons of these waste granules are dumped near milling plants throughout the world, emitting huge quantities of radioactive radon gas, a well-known cause of lung cancer. Radon emissions from mills in Colorado and New Mexico have been tracked as far away as New York City and Washington DC. They are the number one source of increased background radiation from the atomic fuel cycle.
Alongside the mills are huge ponds of acid solutions used to separate the usable uranium isotopes from the waste. These ponds are extremely lethal to human beings and poisonous to the environment. Periodically the dams holding them back break, wrecking ghastly havoc on the regions downstream.
The percentage of uranium usable for fuel is less than 5% of the total ore dug out of the ground. Those rare isotopes must then be enriched in giant factories that are extremely inefficient. The dominant process actually coverts the solid ore into a gas (uranium hexafluoride), and then back to solids. The plants consume huge quantities of energy, most of it now generated by fossil fuels.
The biggest enrichment plant in the US, at Paducah, Kentucky, is powered by two huge coal plants. Though the nuke reactor industry claims to generate about 18% of the nation's electricity, some 3% of the nation's electricity is used to refine uranium for those power plants.
At every stage of the mining, milling and enrichment process, significant quantities of fossil fuel-generated greenhouse gases are poured into the atmosphere. The idea that the nuclear fuel cycle “creates no greenhouse gas emissions” is a deliberately and dangerously misleading myth.
The spent fuel rods from atomic reactors remain intensely radioactive for centuries, and are among the most lethal industrial objects ever created by human beings. Standing within a few feet of a single rod can result in death in less than five minutes.
In recent years the nuke power industry has tried to revive the myth of reprocessing, by which spent fuel can be re-formed into usable fuel. The technology has been tried in a number of nations, including the US. But it is prohibitively expensive, and makes no economic sense. It also generates substantial new quantities of intensely radioactive waste for which no long-term disposal methods have been discovered.
Reprocessing also creates large quantities of weapons-grade plutonium, the material used to build the Bomb that destroyed Nagasaki. Making more plutonium under any circumstances threatens the world with the production of still more atomic weapons. India, Pakistan, South Africa and Israel, along with numerous other countries, are known to have fashioned nuclear weapons from uranium extracted from ostensibly civilian nuclear power programs. Recently the United States has threatened war with Iran on the presumption that the civilian enrichment process would give them the fissionable materials needed to build their own atomic weapons.
From start to finish, from mining, milling, enrichment, fissioning and waste disposal to the failed re-use of radioactive fuel, the nuclear fuel cycle has proven catastrophic for human and ecological health, for the economy, and for the proliferation of atomic weapons.
But no radioactive windmill wastes will ever be used to destroy a city. Solar panels will not emit cancer-causing radon gas.
Blighted Homeland (Los Angeles Times four-part series)