Nuclear power's costs far outweigh its benefits

Mlwk Jrnl-Sntl, Sunday February 10, 2008

Posted: Feb. 9, 2008

The state Assembly's Energy and Utilities Committee voted to recommend passage of AB 346, which would repeal limits on new nuclear reactor construction in Wisconsin. The measure will now come up for a vote in the Assembly sometime this session.

Proponents of nuclear power argue that it does not produce carbon dioxide and thus does not contribute to global climate change. This argument, endlessly repeated by proponents of nuclear power, ignores the inconvenient fact that without the mining, milling and enrichment of uranium, there is no nuclear power. Each stage of the nuclear fuel cycle is extremely energy intensive and results in the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels.

The most energy-intensive stage of the nuclear fuel cycle is the mining and milling of uranium fuel. As the most accessible and higher grade uranium ores are mined, a greater amount of energy is required to extract uranium from less accessible and lower grade uranium concentrations.

After the ore is excavated by bulldozers and shovels, it must be transported by truck to the milling plant, consuming large amounts of diesel fuel. The uranium-bearing rock is then crushed and ground to a powder in electrically powered mills. The powder is then treated with harsh chemicals, usually sulphuric acid, to convert the uranium to a compound called yellow cake. Fuel is needed during this process to create steam and heated gases, and all the chemicals used in the mills must be manufactured at other chemical plants.

If the mill wastes, or tailings, which contain 85% of the original radioactivity in the ore, were to be disposed of properly by deep burial in the ground, additional quantities of fossil fuel would be required. Instead, these wastes are routinely dumped in large tailings piles on Native American lands, emitting radioactive elements into the air, water and soils, threatening human health and the environment in perpetuity. Communities near these tailings piles report a high rate of miscarriages; cleft palates and other birth defects; and bone, reproductive and gastric cancers as related health effects of uranium mining and exposure to contaminated air and water.

"This single remediation process, which should be scrupulously observed," says nuclear critic Helen Caldicott, "by itself makes the energetic price of nuclear electricity unreasonable."

Before uranium can be used in nuclear power plants it must undergo a process of enrichment. Uranium enrichment plants are the largest industrial plants in the world and consume enormous amounts of electricity. Far from being "clean," each 1,000-megawatt electric plant required the equivalent of a 45-megawatt electric coal plant - which annually burns 135,000 tons of coal - to supply its enrichment needs alone.

Proponents of nuclear power not only ignore the fossil fuel emissions of every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle, they also fail to recognize the substantial emissions of radioactive elements from this cycle and its disproportionate impact upon Native American lands and people.

Over half of the nation's uranium deposits lie under Navajo and Pueblo Indian lands. At least one in five tribal members recruited to mine the ore were exposed to radioactive radon gas and have died and are continuing to die of lung cancer. The Navajo Nation banned uranium mining and processing on its land in 2005. Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. said "it would be unforgivable to allow this cycle to continue for another generation."

And what about nuclear waste disposal? Under current law, highly radioactive waste fuel must have a place to be stored permanently before a new reactor can be built in Wisconsin. There is no known way to safely dispose of this waste.

Are we going to dump the waste on the lands of the Western Shoshone Indians, as the federal government proposes to do at the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada? Are we going to dump the waste on the lands of the Menominee Indian Nation in Wisconsin, as the Department of Energy tried to do in the 1980s?

The DOE is required by law to report to the president and to Congress on the need for a second repository before the end of 2009. If Wisconsin's common sense moratorium on the construction of new nuclear power plants is lifted, the DOE will have all the more reason to reconsider the granite bedrock of Wisconsin's Wolf River batholith as a suitable site for a permanent nuclear waste repository.

Al Gedicks teaches sociology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and has written extensively on the impact of resource exploitation on indigenous peoples.


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