Last month President George W. Bush visited a nuclear power plant in Maryland to proclaim, “It is time for this country to start building nuclear power plants again.” Bush has joined the nuclear industry’s public-relations campaign for what it calls a “nuclear renaissance,” putting construction of new nuclear plants on a fast track. One of the first new nukes in the United States is proposed by Exelon Corp. for Clinton, only 30 minutes from Springfield. Promoters give as a major reason for reviving nuclear power their desire to “fight global warming” because reactors themselves produce few greenhouse gases.
This is the same Bush administration that until recently denied that there is scientific proof that global warming exists and recently stiff-armed British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s effort to get the United States to sign on to provisions of the Kyoto treaty to mitigate global warming. So, considering the administration’s track record on the environment, promoting nuclear power for its environmental benefits already smells bogus. And when it is taken into account that enriching nuclear fuel depends heavily on processes that produce greenhouse gases, and that fossil-fuel plants provide the electricity to run enrichment facilities, the global-warming argument for nuclear evaporates.
A June 29 report by the National Academy of Sciences gives further evidence that nuclear power causes more problems than it solves. It has long been known that nuclear reactors give off low doses of radiation, both inside and outside the plant, yet until now the industry has argued that the low-level doses are harmless. But the NAS panel stated conclusively that there is no safe level: “The scientific research base shows that there is no threshold of exposure below which low levels of ionizing radiation can be demonstrated to be harmless or beneficial,” the report states. “The health risks — particularly the development of solid cancers in organs — rise proportionally with exposure. As the overall lifetime exposure increases, so does the risk.” The more nuclear plants that are built, the more people will be exposed to low-level radiation.
During the Illinois drought, another environmental problem has come to light. Researchers have shown that fossil-fuel and nuclear power plants account for 84 percent of Illinois’ water use, mostly from rivers. This raises the concern that in a future warmer world, in which temperatures and evaporation will increase and rain will decrease, water sources may not be capable of supplying current power plants, let alone more nukes. According to the Nuclear Energy Information Service, the problem became apparent during the drought of 1988. “Over 100 reactor-days of operation were either sharply curtailed or cancelled completely because the reactors’ thermal output into our rivers exceeded EPA thermal pollution standards,” says NEIS.
Add these concerns to the necessity of isolating highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel from the environment for thousands of years and the risk of accident or terrorist attack at a nuclear plant, and it becomes clear that nuclear power is no green bargain. It is no economic bargain, either, as evidenced by the fact that the U.S. Senate recently voted to spend more than $10 billion in subsidies to support nuclear-power expansion. There are alternatives, including clean-burning coal, wind, and solar power, as well as conservation. Dollars spent on energy efficiency and conservation can displace far more global-warming gases than dollars spent on nuclear power.
The United States can’t allow itself to be duped by arguments that a “nuclear renaissance” is the solution to energy or environmental problems. The campaign by politicians and the nuclear industry must be stopped with facts and reason before we may embark on a wiser course to the energy future.