I’d like to start with the bottom line: the problem with nuclear power is—in one word—radioactivity.
In a presidential election campaign several years ago, there was the line: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
When it comes to nuclear power: It’s the radioactivity.
Admiral Hyman Rickover, who was in charge of building the first nuclear power plant in the United States, Shippingport in Pennsylvania, and is heralded as the “father” of the nuclear navy, finally realized that. In a farewell address before a committee of Congress in 1982, as he retired, Rickover said, “I’ll be philosophical. Until about two billion years ago, it was impossible to have any life on Earth; that is, there was so much radiation on earth you couldn’t have any life—fish or anything.” This was from cosmic radiation around when the Earth was in the process of forming. “Gradually,” said Rickover, “about two billion years ago, the amount of radiation on this planet…reduced and make it possible for some form of life to begin…Now, when we go back to using nuclear power, we are creating something which nature tried to destroy to make life possible….every time you produce radiation” a “horrible force” is unleashed, said Rickover, “and I think there the human race is going to wreck itself.” Rickover went on to declare: we must “outlaw nuclear reactors.”
That was Rickover, a key figure in nuclear development in the U.S., not Greenpeace.
The problem is radioactivity—the radioactivity unleashed when the atom is split. That splitting is called fission.
This is a bit technical, but we need to understand it to understand the central problem of nuclear power: radioactivity.
Uranium is taken from the ground. That portion of the uranium, not much, less than 1 percent, Uranium-235, that’s fissile—which means it splits when bombarded with neutrons. What does it split into? Radioactive twins of safe and stable elements in nature: radioactive iodine, Strontium-90, Cesium-137—all called fission products. There are 200 of them.
The body doesn’t know the difference between, for example, that radioactive iodine and the iodine you put on a cut.
If these fission products are let loose in an accident—or are released without an accident and there are what are termed “routine emissions” from nuclear plants letting out fission products—and they are absorbed by the body, they can cause cancer and other diseases. They kill.
And then also produced by fission are three forms of ionizing radiation: alpha and beta particles and gamma rays.
And, importantly, additional neutrons are set loose which bombard other atoms and cause these atoms to split and yet more neutrons to be set loose. And this goes on and on—and is called a chain reaction.
And from this there’s heat—which in a nuclear power plant is used to boil water. It’s the most dangerous way to boil water ever designed.
Fission products, further, are what radioactive waste is composed of. Some of these poisons remain hot with radioactivity for thousands, some millions of years. During this time they must be isolated from life or they’ll destroy life.
This is the problem: radioactivity. The radioactivity produced with fission. This is the “horrible force” that Rickover spoke about that is unleashed and “is going to wreck” the human race. And we should not be anthropomorphic. Other forms of life are impacted by radioactivity, too. Cockroaches somehow are resistant to radioactivity—but we don’t want to leave a planet for cockroaches.
Why use this toxic process to boil water and generate electricity?
It has far less to do with science than it has to do with politics and economics—in specific: vested interests.
Atomic technology begins in the United States with a letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt, from Albert Einstein—written in Peconic on Long Island—and, if you’d like to see that letter, go to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum not far from here, in Hyde Park. It’s on display.
In 1938 fission was accomplished in Nazi Germany. Physicists Leo Szilard and Edward Teller, like Einstein, refugees from the Nazis, fearing Hitler might develop a bomb based on fission, with others, asked Einstein to write that letter to Roosevelt.
Einstein wrote that “it may be possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium” leading “to the construction of bombs…extremely powerful bombs of a new type.” Based on, yes, fission.
Out of that letter came the Manhattan Project. Scientists and engineers were gathered and put to work at facilities secretly built at locations across the United States. Laboratories and manufacturing plants in Los Alamos, New Mexico; Hanford, Washington; Argonne, Illinois; Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
Large corporations and universities were retained to manage the facilities. General Electric and Westinghouse—which were to become the Coke and Pepsi in the U.S. in the manufacture of nuclear power plants—got their start in atomic technology as Manhattan Project contractors.
By 1945 four atomic bombs had been built, one used for a test and two dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.
Also by 1945, 600,000 people had become part of a program on which billions of dollars had been spent.
With the war’s end there was anxiety among many of those involved in the Manhattan Project. Many of the scientists and government officials didn’t want to see the endeavor and their jobs over; corporations didn’t want to see their contracts ended.
As James Kunetka writes in his book City of Fire about Los Alamos Laboratory, with the war over there were now problems of “job placement, work continuity…more free time than work…hardly enough to keep everyone busy…without a crash program underway.”
Some of the people and corporations could continue building nuclear weapons, and they did. And they built even bigger bombs—the “super,” the hydrogen bomb. Buy nuclear weapons do not lend themselves to commercial spinoff. What else could be done with atomic technology to perpetuate the nuclear establishment that was established with the Manhattan Project?
There were all kinds of schemes conceived: using nuclear devices as substitutes for TNT to blast huge holes in the ground.
Indeed, in the 1950s the U.S. planned to string 250 nuclear devices across the isthmus of Panama and detonate them and, presto, there’d be a new canal—dubbed the Panatomic Canal. But that would rain radioactive debris on a large section of Central America. Finally, what the Manhattan Project became in 1946, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, withdrew that project because of “prospective host country opposition to nuclear-canal excavation.”
There were plans to use nuclear technology to use radioactivity to zap food so it would be seemingly OK to store for years. And to build nuclear-powered airplanes and nuclear-powered rockets.
And from the earlier reactors which were built to produce fuel for atomic bombs came another idea: using the heat of fission to boil water to produce electricity.
This was all about people and corporations seeking to perpetuate their vested interests, to somehow continue the nuclear establishment first created with the Manhattan Project.
The extreme dangers of atomic energy were understood.
1957 was a pivotal year. In that year, the first U.S. nuclear power plant—that one Rickover was in charge of building called Shippingport—opened. It was constructed by the government, and Lewis Strauss, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, made a speech saying that if you, the utility industry, didn’t build nuclear plants, we, the government, would. That was the stick. The carrot: passage in 1957 of the Price-Act Act which limited liability in the event of a catastrophic accident at a nuclear plant to $560 million –with the U.S. government paying the first $500 million.
Utilities would only have to pay $60 million in the event of a meltdown or other catastrophic accident.
That was the carrot.
I could fall on the sidewalk here at SUNY New Paltz and sue the state. Or slip in front of the motel where I’m staying in town and sue 87 Motel.
But if there is an accident at a nuclear plant—like a disaster at the Indian Point plants in Buchanan just 40 miles down the Hudson from where we are tonight—and New Paltz and elsewhere around the plant is impacted, and people are irradiated and land left rendered useless because of contamination, like around the Chernobyl plant in the Ukraine, we’d only be able to get reimbursed for a fraction of the loss.
Price-Anderson was supposed to be a temporary law but it has been extended and extended with now a $10.5 billion cap, still a fraction of the damages seen as resulting from a major nuclear plant accident.
Also in 1957, the first report on the consequences of a major nuclear plant accident was done, WASH-740, it was named, done at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island.
It said that in the “worst case” a nuclear power plant accident could kill 3,400 people. And injure 43,000—as distances of up to 45 miles. Property damage could be as high as $7 billion, it said. Not $560 million.
But WASH-740 was based on small nuclear power plants like Shippingport. Being proposed were plants five time that size, like the Indian Point plants now running not far from here.
So a WASH-740-update was done. It increased the estimated death toll from a major nuclear plant accident to 45,000, injuries to 100,000 and property damage to up to $280 billion. And over and over again WASH-740-update states “the possible size of the area of such a disaster might be equal to that of the State of Pennsylvania.”
This was a decade before a major nuclear plant accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania happened.
There’s not been a new nuclear power plant ordered and built since that near-catastrophe at Three Mile Island in 1979, but now the nuclear establishment—the nuclear interests within the U.S. government and nuclear industry—are pushing for a “revival” of nuclear power, to, more than 30 years later, get new nuclear plants built again.
They are showering us with disinformation to promote their deadly technology.
Some of the claims—and the realities:
Nuclear Power “Doesn’t Contribute” to Global Warming
This is a key claim in the current drive—that nuclear plants don’t emit greenhouse gases. But what we’re not supposed to know is that the overall nuclear “chain” or “cycle” has significant greenhouse gas emissions.
As Michel Lee, chair of the Council on Intelligent Energy & Conservation Policy, which has been involved in the Indian Point issue, the “dirty secret is that nuclear power makes a substantial contribution to global warming. Nuclear power is actually a chain of highly energy-intensive industrial processes. These include uranium mining, conversion, enrichment and fabrication of nuclear fuel; construction and deconstruction of the massive nuclear facility structures; and the disposition of high-level nuclear waste.”
As the Nuclear Information & Resource Service notes in its report Nuclear Power Can’t Stop Climate Change, the claims that nuclear plants don’t contribute to global warming “fail to account for the entire nuclear fuel chain.” Omitted is the “fact that the nuclear fuel chain emits more CO2” than “sustainable options…Wind and solar…which are virtually greenhouse-gas free.”
Michael Mariotte, executive director of NIRS, stresses, moreover, that these sustainable alternatives, renewable energy technologies here today are the “safer, faster and cheaper way” to deal with global warming. He says: “Why not go safer, faster and cheaper when you have a choice—and we do have a choice.”
Then there’s the claim that: No One in the U.S. Has Died As a Result of Nuclear Power And Perhaps the Toll of the Chernobyl Disaster Will Be 4,000 Dead
This book, published this year by the New York Academy of Sciences, Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, is the most comprehensive study ever done on the explosion of Unit 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear plant, the worst nuclear plant disaster—so far—in the world.
Written by a team of scientists, it concludes that between 1986, when the accident happened, and 2004, some 985,000 people died, especially of cancer, as a result of the radioactivity emitted. That’s based on health data, radiological reports and scientific studies especially from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus but from other affected nations as well.
This new documentation of Chernobyl casualties coincides with the estimate of Dr. Vladimir Chernousenko, the nuclear physicist in charge of the clean-up, on a television program I did with him a decade ago—The Truth About Chernobyl which you can view on YouTube—that that a million people will die due to the accident.
Incidentally, the International Atomic Energy Agency claims that 56 people have died as a result of the Chernobyl disaster and the final death toll can be expected to maybe reach 4,000. The IAEA was set up through the United Nations in 1957 “to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy.” It was to be a mirror image of our U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. The AEC was abolished by Congress in 1974 for being in conflict of interest: promoting and at the same time supposedly regulating nuclear power. But the IAEA continues. And its Chernobyl casualty claim is quite the Big Lie.
Importantly, it doesn’t take an accident for radioactivity to be released from a nuclear power plant affecting on people (and other life). As noted, there are “routine releases” of radioactive gases because nuclear plants are not sealed—and I’d recommend you go to the website of the Radiation and Public Health Project to see important reports on the impacts through the years—especially in cancer clusters—as a result of these “routine emissions.”
Then there’s The French Nuclear “Success” Story
In fact, the French nuclear power program is a health and economic disaster. On the table in the back I’ve left a pile reports by the group Beyond Nuclear, Nuclear Power and France: Setting the Record Straight. It discloses leukemia clusters in communities around France’s La Hague nuclear reprocessing center and notes that La Hague, on the Normandy Coast, discharges 100 million gallons of radioactive liquid waste yearly into the English Channel. Marine life has been seriously contaminated. Waters off La Hague have been “measured as 17 million times more radioactive than normal sea water”—and this contamination has affected waters as far as the Arctic Circle.
Inland, there have been numerous leaks at French nuclear plants—and the problems have been rising.
And there is no French love affair with nuclear energy but rather a deep mistrust. Polls show a majority in France want nuclear power phased out. There have been massive protests against construction of new plants.
Global Chance, a French research organization, has issued a report Nuclear Power: The Great Illusion, which states that the “image” that the French nuclear program is “successful…is a sham.”
A Nuclear Plant Can Withstand an Airborne Terrorist Hit
There have been concerns about nuclear plants being terrorist targets for years. This concern was heightened after 9/11 when American Airlines Flight 11 flew over the two Indian Point nuclear plants just above New York City before, minutes later, crashing into the World Trade Center. Then came the revelation that al-Qaeda had been considering targeting nuclear plants. And, reports are, it still is.
The nuclear industry insisted its plants were “robust” and could withstand such a hit. But in recent times, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (which replaced the AEC) has finally stopped accepting this claim.
It has ordered the builders of all new nuclear plants in the U.S. do a “design-specific assessment of the effects of the impact of a large commercial aircraft.”
What about the existing 104 U.S. nuclear plants? They would be left as is and be, as Paul Gunter of Beyond Nuclear says, “pre-deployed weapons of mass destruction.” Gunter notes: “Public documents within the NRC confirm that the plants were never designed or constructed for aircraft impact, particularly explosion and fire.”
Uranium Fuel Is Abundant
The claim is made by nuclear proponents that the uranium fuel used in nuclear plants is an abundant source in comparison to oil that could vanish in several decades. But uranium fuel for nuclear plants comes from so-called “high-grade” ore containing substantial amounts of Uranium-235, the isotope of uranium that splits or fissions. It is not abundant.
Even the IAEA, that promoter of nuclear power, estimates that there is only enough high-grade uranium resources “to last only another 85 years.”
This limit is why many nuclear scientists have long said nuclear power will need to be based on manmade plutonium. But the plutonium-fueled breeder reactors can explode like atomic bombs. And they would contain tons of plutonium compared to the few pounds needed to make an atomic bomb. The first atomic bomb using plutonium, the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, contained 15 pounds of plutonium. And plutonium-fueled breeder reactors, even more so than uranium-fueled reactors, can easily provide the fuel with which to make atomic bombs.
It is The “Peaceful” Atom
There has never been a “peaceful” atom. Any country which gets a nuclear facility has the materiel—the plutonium built up in a uranium reactor—and the trained technicians to make nuclear weapons. That’s how India got The Bomb in 1974. It got a “civilian” reactor from Canada and the U.S. trained Indian personnel in atomic technology. And India had nuclear weapons. Atoms for war and energy are two sides of the same coin.
Nuclear Power Is “Inexpensive”
It’s extremely expensive—now $12 to $15 billion to build a nuclear power plant. “No private money anywhere in the world is being used to build new nuclear plants,” points out Michael Mariotte of NIRS.
President Obama has called for a taxpayer-supported nuclear loan guarantee fund of $54.5 billion to build new nuclear plants. There’s been one bill that’s been in Congress, pushed by Senators Joseph Lieberman and Lindsay Graham, to provide $544 billion for new nuclear plants. There’s another bill to provide unlimited taxpayer dollars.
Says Amory Lovins, a physicist and co-founder and chairman of the Rocky Mountain Institute: “Nuclear is incredibly expensive. “Wall Street is not putting a penny of private capital into the industry…It’s uneconomic. It costs, for example, about three times as much as wind power, which is booming.”
Just last week, Constellation energy pulled out of building what was to be one of the first of the nuclear plants, at Calvert Cliffs in Maryland, because of finance issues.
And, John Rowe, chairman of Exelon, the biggest nuclear utility in the country, said last week that the lower price of natural gas puts off the sought-for revival of nuclear power by 10 or 20 years. It need be forever.
Speaking of costs, the costs of an accident, the most recent report on the impacts of a reactor accident—and I’ve left photocopies of the Congressional breakdown of the report on the table in the back—is titled Calculation of Reactor Accident Consequences for U.S. Nuclear Plants (acronymed CRAC-2).
Every nuclear plant in the U.S. was evaluated as to “early fatalities” in the event of a meltdown with breach of containment. For the Indian Point 2 and 3 nuclear plants (Indian Point 1 has been permanently shut down), CRAC-2 projects 46,000 “early fatalities” if Indian Point 2 underwent a meltdown with breach of containment; 50,000 “early fatalities” from a meltdown at Indian Point 3. Peak “early injuries” from 2: 141,000. From 3, 167,000. Cancer deaths, 13,000 from 2; 14,000 from 3. As to property damage, CRAC-2 estimated $274 billion as a result of a meltdown at 2; $314 billion as a result of a meltdown at 3. But that’s in 1980 dollars which would be triple that today: a trillion dollars for an accident at one of the two Indian Point plants.
And, as noted, because of the Price-Anderson Act, all the nuclear industry would have to pay to compensate people for deaths, injuries and property damage would be $10.5 billion— a fraction of what CRAC-2 estimates would be the potential costs.
Another claim, The New Nuclear Plant Designs Are “Inherently Safe”
The nuclear industry is touting its “new and improved” nuclear plant models as “inherently safe.” They’re not. They, like all nuclear plants, are “inherently dangerous,” emphasizes Gunter of Beyond Nuclear. They are subject to catastrophic accidents, have “routine emissions” of radioactivity, produce nuclear waste which must somehow be isolated from life some of it for millions of years.
Says Mariotte of the Nuclear Information & Resource Service, the purportedly “inherently safe” new nuclear plants “do not exist.”
And they, in fact, never can. That’s because the basic issue about atomic energy is radioactivity. Once atom-splitting or fission occurs, radioactivity is produced—and it’s a killer.
Finally, the argument that Nuclear Power Is “Needed”
This is a central falsehood for, in fact, there’s absolutely no need to undergo the life-threatening dangers of nuclear power.
The noted British magazine, the New Scientist, put out this issue on safe renewable energy technologies based on a United Nations report that found, as the New Scientist notes, that “renewable energy that can already be harnessed economically would supply the world’s electricity needs.”
From solar to wind (now the fastest-growing and cheapest new energy technology) to geothermal to tidal-power to wave-power to bio-fuels to small hydropower to co-generation, and on and on, a renewable energy windfall is here today.
Consider the breakthroughs at the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, in using solar power to break down water into oxygen and hydrogen—with the hydrogen then being able to be used as a a fuel.
As Dr. John Turner, senior scientist at the lab told us when I did a TV shoot out there: “It’s the forever fuel. This uses are two most abundant natural resources—sunlight and water–to give us an energy supply that is inexhaustible.”
Indeed, amazing at that lab, NREL, is whatever division you go to, scientists speak of the potential for all the energy we need from the energy technology they’re working on.
At NREL’s Solar Energy Research Facility they’ve pioneered a new amazing solar energy technology called “thin film photovoltaic.” Rather than conventional rigid solar panels, it involves flexible membranes impregnated with high-efficiency solar collectors. These sheets of solar-collecting membranes can be applied over glass buildings. Skyscrapers that rise in Manhattan or buildings here on the New Paltz campus can serve as electricity generators. “Thin film photovoltaic” is now being widely used in Europe. Scientists at NREL’s Solar Energy Research Facility say through solar we could get all the energy we’d ever need.
But then you go to NREL’s National Wind Technology Center where the scientists speak about wind providing all the energy we need. They were pioneers in the great advances in wind energy in recent years—especially the development of turbines with highly-efficient blades and wind turbines that can be…and are...being placed on land and increasingly, in Europe, offshore.
Bluewater Wind is getting set to build the first offshore wind farm off Delaware. It would be this country’s first.
Wind is now the fastest growing energy technology. It has been expanding 25 percent a year and that kind of future annual growth is predicted. Wind energy costs a fifth of what it did in the 1980s—and is now fully competitive with other energy technologies—and a continuing downward cost trend is anticipated.
And at NREL’s National Bioenergy Center, the scientists say biomass could fulfill a huge portion of the world energy needs—and we’re not talking here about using food stocks, corn, but switchgrass and poplar trees and other, again, non-food energy crops.
The scientists at NREL might not be right on any single energy source—but all together these and other renewable energy sources, can, in a mix, provide all the energy we need. As NREL declares on its website:“There’s no shortage of renewable energy resources.”
And there’s so many more:
Consider: wave power. In Portugal, a wave power project has just begun. Pelamis Wave Power, a Scottish company, has engineered it—a line of machines will be tapping nature’s constant ocean power.
And tidal energy. The government of Nova Scotia is moving ahead with tapping the enormous power of the 40 and 50 foot tides that twice a day rush in and out of the Bay of Fundy—driven by the moon.
And energy from algae.
And micro or distributed power, smart grids, cutting energy loss from transmitting electricity over long distances.
Renewables Are Ready is the title of a book written by two Union of Concerned Scientists staffers in 1999. Today, they are more than ready. Combined, importantly, with energy efficiency, these clean, safe, renewable energy technologies render nuclear as unneeded.
The question, of course, is can we put the nuclear genie back into the bottle. We can and must. What people have done—things that are terrible like nuclear power—other people can undo.
Nuclear technology came out of World War II like mustard gas came out of World War I. Mustard gas, a horrible killer, has been outlawed. Nuclear power needs to be, too—and instead we need to employ energy we can live with.