Nuclear power is dirty, dangerous and expensive


Richard Moore

Saskatchewan's critical choice

Nuclear power is dirty, dangerous and expensive ‹ and it won't solve global 
warming either.

Dateline: Monday, January 14, 2008
by Jim Harding

The world can no longer ignore the steadily mounting evidence that we must 
quickly replace greenhouse gas (GHG) emitting fuels (coal, oil, gas) as our main
energy source if we are to avert catastrophic climate change.

Nukes: to reduce coal-fired plants' GHGs yet meet anticipated demand, a new 
nuclear power plant would have to be built somewhere in the world every 15 days.

Three criteria can help steer the decisions about this urgent conversion to 
sustainable energy.

€  First, new energy systems must significantly reduce the GHGs emitted: we must
move to low or, preferably, no-carbon energy sources.

€  Second, the new energy systems must not create other environmental or peace 
and security issues: they must be ecologically and socially sustainable. As part
of this they must be much more egalitarian.

€  And third, the new energy systems must be able to rapidly enter the market 
and be cost effective.

Before we apply these criteria to nuclear, it is vital to understand the makeup 
and sources of GHGs. Carbon dioxide (CO2) accounts for three-quarters (76 
percent) of them, so reducing CO2 is fundamental to any strategy for averting 
extreme climate change. However, only one-third of the CO2 comes from electrical
power plants ‹ mostly from coal. The other two-thirds come from transportation 
(mostly cars and trucks) and from buildings, including factories and home 
heating. The rest of the GHGs come from methane (13 percent), nitrous oxide (5 
percent) and fluorocarbons, which includes the ozone-depleters.

When anyone proposes nuclear replacing coal as a magic bullet for global warming
they are therefore only addressing one-quarter of the sources of GHGs. We have 
to assess nuclear's capability in this context of reducing GHGs from electrical 
power plants, which must include doing cost and risk comparisons with other 
sources of electricity such as efficiency, wind and solar (photovoltaic) energy.

The myth of clean nuclear energy

The Canadian Nuclear Association (CNA) aggressively promotes nuclear as "clean".
Since the nuclear fuel system produces cancer-causing radiation from uranium 
tailings to spent fuel this is clearly untrue. Recent research (accepted by the 
international radiation monitoring body, and reported in its BEIR VII report), 
has confirmed there is no safe level of radiation.

By using the word "clean", the CNA clearly wants us to believe that nuclear 
doesn't produce GHGs. There is some trickery here, as it is true that the 
nuclear power plant does not release GHGs. But the overall assertion is untrue.

The nuclear industry is extremely energy-intensive, using massive GHG-producing 
fossil fuels ‹ from mining and milling to enriching uranium, to constructing and
decommissioning huge nuclear power plants, to transporting and storing nuclear 

Saskatchewan is now the biggest uranium-producing region in the world. Half of 
its exports go to the US, where uranium is enriched using two dirty coal-fired 
plants at Paducah, Kentucky. According to the US Department of Energy the most 
potent of the GHGs ‹ the otherwise banned ozone-depleting CFC 114 ‹ continues to
be released through this uranium enrichment.

Weighing carbon emissions

Though not at all "clean", nuclear is a lower-carbon fuel than coal, which 
presently produces 64 percent of global electricity. What kind of expansion in 
nuclear would be required to make a significant global dint in the emissions of 
GHGs from these power plants?

Two global scenarios have recently been studied, both assuming a growth of 
electricity of 2.1 percent per year. First, a 2003 MIT study looked at the 
impact of a three-fold increase in nuclear electrical capacity ‹ to 1,000 
Gigawatts (GW) ‹ by 2050.

Taking into account shut-downs of aging, ever more dangerous, nuclear plants, 
this scenario would require that a new nuclear power plant be built somewhere 
every 15 days from 2010 to 2050. And even if this were accomplished 
(hypothetically), electricity from nuclear would still only grow from 16 percent
to 20 percent of global electrical production (and from 5 percent to 6 percent 
of total energy use). Worse, GHGs would continue to rise.

This totally unrealistic scenario clearly shows that nuclear is not a magic 
bullet for global warming. It should therefore be rejected outright as a policy 
option. We'd end up with more radioactive contamination and still not curtail 
the rise in GHGs. This is going from the frying pan of global warming into the 
nuclear fire.

The second scenario, studied by Brice Smith for his 2006 book, Insurmountable 
Risks: The Dangers of Using Nuclear Power to Combat Global Warming, makes the 
same assumptions as the MIT study, except it calculates the number of nuclear 
power plants required to bring GHGs from power plants to 2000 levels by 2050. 
This scenario would require about 2,500 GW of nuclear electricity (or a 
seven-fold expansion) and would see nuclear playing the same relative role as 
coal does today.

However, if the first scenario is unrealistic, this one is delusional, for it 
would require more than one nuclear plant being built somewhere every week. This
is simply not going to happen.

These two scenarios confirm earlier work by energy analyst Charles Komanoff and 
the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). They show the nuclear option 
fails to meet the first criterion of being capable of reducing GHGs even in the 
one area of power plants.

The danger is that immense nuclear propaganda will blind decision-makers in 
their desperate search for a magic bullet. Then nuclear will be embraced for 
political-economic reasons, and ‹ worse ‹ distract decision-makers and public 
from the urgent task at hand.

This approach is apparent in both the Federal Conservative Government that wants
nuclear to help produce heavy oil, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels ‹ so much 
for the magic bullet ‹ and the Saskatchewan NDP Government, that just doesn't 
seem to "get it" that nuclear is not sustainable development in either the 
economic or ecological sense.

Nuclear energy comes with its own risks

Nuclear cannot realistically reduce GHGs, but any expansion of nuclear power 
would increase the chance of a catastrophic nuclear accident and the dangers of 
accumulating nuclear wastes and proliferation. Therefore, nuclear totally fails 
on the second criterion, of sustainability and environmental sensitivity.

Smith estimates that the chances of a nuclear accident occurring in the US by 
2050 are 75 percent with the MIT scenario, and 90 percent with his own. This is 
not reassuring. He rightly points out that a major nuclear accident would 
increase global opposition to further nuclear expansion. We'd be back to the 
drawing board for solutions to climate change, while being still further along 
the extreme climate change scenario.

Global warming makes nuclear power even more dangerous, due to the importance of
its coolant system to avert a meltdown. As the Saskatchewan Environmental 
Society (SES) said in its 2006 pamphlet: "During France's heat wave in 2003, 
engineers told the government they could no longer guarantee the safety of the 
country's 58 nuclear plants. This kind of problem will likely become more common
with climate change."

Lest we forget, the nuclear fuel going into all these French reactors, which 
could contaminate Europe if any of them were to melt down, comes from Northern 
Saskatchewan, where the huge French nuclear conglomerate Areva (Cogema) 
operates. If (when?) a nuclear accident happens in France, or another country 
depending on Saskatchewan uranium such as Japan or the US, what will we say? 
Will the very short-term economic benefits here have been worth the loss of 
arable land and death and suffering of so many others elsewhere?

The case against nuclear grows the more nuclear amnesia is challenged. If 
nuclear were to expand there would be a steady accumulation of deadly nuclear 
wastes, such as plutonium, which is toxic for 8000 generations. The scenarios of
global nuclear growth discussed above would require the building of a permanent 
storage site every 3 to 5 1Ž2 years.

Repositories for nuclear wastes ‹ deposits in geologically stable mines ‹ have 
been talked about since 1957. But, as Smith points out, "not one spent fuel rod 
has yet been permanently disposed of anywhere in the world." This is the same 
system that the AECL and Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) are 
presently lobbying First Nations bands about in Northern Saskatchewan and 

Nuclear power plants are not economic

These reasons are more than enough for any reasonable and compassionate person 
to support a sustainable, renewable energy system that addresses global warming,
and, in the process, phases-out nuclear energy. But there is more.

At its peak, even with huge subsidies, France, the country most dependent on 
nuclear-generated electricity (80 percent), only built a few reactors a year. It
is obviously not economically realistic to consider a nuclear power plant being 
built every week. Not only would this divert labour and capital from making the 
quick transition to sustainable, renewable energy, but the world's financiers 
are generally not predisposed to nuclear's costly and risky technology. Without 
government legislation (eg Canada's Nuclear Liability Act) that protects the 
nuclear industry from liability in the case of multi-billion dollar accidents, 
the industry wouldn't even be in the energy market.

Nuclear, therefore, fails on the third criterion, of cost effectiveness and 

Cost comparisons of nuclear vs sustainable, renewable alternatives should put 
the final nail in the nuclear coffin. While the nuclear industry says new 
reactors could produce electricity for 6-7 cents per kWh, these estimates depend
on the nuclear industry continuing to be heavily subsidized by the taxpayer.

When the cost of borrowing money is factored in, Ontario's Energy Probe 
estimates that subsidies to the AECL total around $75 billion. Several studies 
(eg reported in New Scientist, and discussed in Helen Caldicott's new book) have
shown that without these direct and hidden subsidies, the cost of nuclear would 
increase three-fold (ie 300 percent) to the consumer. This holds true for 
Ontario Hydro consumers, who suffer from a serious case of "nuclear dependence",
which has created a public debt of $35 billion.

Even without a level playing field, energy efficiency, co-generation and wind 
are already cheaper than nuclear (or coal) ‹ at 4-6 cents per kWh. According to 
Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, renewable energy, worldwide, has 
already passed nuclear as a source of electricity (20 percent to 16 percent). 
This increase in renewables is partly due to wind, biomass and solar power, but 
is also due to co-generation from waste heat. Wave (tidal) power will soon 
accelerate this trend.

In 2004 small-scale renewables added 6 times the capacity to generate 
electricity and 3 times the electrical output as did nuclear. According to the 
SES, by 2010, "renewable energy is projected to outstrip nuclear power's energy 
output by 43 percent globally".

While Saskatchewan's NDP government has made an important step towards 
supporting wind power, its policies hold back decentralized energy production 
(we need net-metering) and still emphasize an economy based on exporting 
polluting and toxic non-renewables such as uranium and oil. (In 2003, 78 percent
of the primary energy exported from Saskatchewan came from uranium; 20 percent 
came from fossil fuels.) We are quickly becoming known as the main world region 
for exporting radioactivity (uranium) as well as having Canada's highest per 
capita GHGs emissions.

A costly way to create jobs

All aspects of economics, including job-creation, go against nuclear. Nuclear is
extremely capital-intensive. Even including its front-end uranium mining, 
nuclear produces very little employment per amount invested.

Each job in uranium mining involves $750,000 or more of capital. Uranium mining 
has delivered a pittance of the royalties originally promised to the province 
and one-half of the jobs promised to northern Indigenous people. And it is 
making the North a Nuclear Sacrificial Area.

Meanwhile, study after study has confirmed that a renewable energy sector 
produces many more jobs. Wind, like solar, produces five times as much 
employment as nuclear per amount invested. Yet, according to the Federation of 
Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN), SaskPower turned down a request to partner 
on a wind farm with a northern Band.

Co-op wind farms in rural Saskatchewan should also be encouraged.

Since Germany decided to phase out nuclear power, renewable energy there has 
grown to provide 250,000 jobs. Solar energy is beginning to replace fossil fuel 
generated electricity and lower GHGs and it is expected to produce 200,000 jobs 
by 2020. By then 27 percent of Germany's electricity will come from renewables.

Furthermore, Germany's quick transition from nuclear to renewables shows how 
important it is to resist privatization of public utilities here and elsewhere. 
Unlike places like New Zealand, which privatized electricity during its 
neo-liberal days, Germany was able to pass legislation in 2000 that provides 
cash incentives for shifting to renewable energy, which has made a dramatic 

Consumers can feed back energy into the power grid. Power companies must pay 49 
cents a kWh to buy solar electricity for the grid. This cost still saves them 
money, compared to the capital costs of nuclear or coal plants and the projected
costs of climate change.

Meanwhile Saskatchewan asks consumers to pay extra for "Green" Wind Power. We 
clearly have to get serious and not just engage in a face-lift on an 
unsustainable and dangerous non-renewable energy policy.

Saskatchewan has an important choice to make over the near future. Will Cameco, 
Cogema and the ill-informed Saskatoon Chamber of Commerce, with its amoral 
approach to economic development, prevail? Will Saskatchewan expand the costly 
and dangerous nuclear fuel system with a uranium refinery and perhaps a nuclear 
waste dump? Will it support nuclear power for the tar sands?

As we've seen, going nuclear will do nothing to avert global warming, though 
some big business would make huge profits. However, this approach would divert 
capital and labour from truly making the urgent conversion to a sustainable, 
renewable energy system.

Perhaps the most vital consideration of all is that wholeheartedly embracing 
nuclear energy will condemn future generations to accumulating radioactive 
weapons and wastes while failing to help make the necessary transition needed to
avert catastrophic climate change. This would be a double-whammy for our 
children's children.

Jim Harding is a retired professor of environmental and justice studies who 
gardens, writes and hosts retreat-workshops for activists on the Crows Nest 
Ecology Preserve in the Qu'Appelle Valley. He presently teaches a class on 
"Ecology and Justice" as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Regina and is
active with the Ecumenical Coalition KAIROS in its campaign for a just and 
sustainable energy policy.

References: Brice Smith, Insurmountable Risks: The Dangers of Using Nuclear 
Power to Combat Global Warming. (IEER Press, 2006); Helen Caldicott, Nuclear 
Power Is Not The Answer, (The New Press, 2006); and, Jim Harding, Canada's 
Deadly Secret: Saskatchewan Uranium and the Global Nuclear System, (Fernwood, 

Jim Harding, PhD, and author of Canada's Deadly Secret: Saskatchewan Uranium and
the Global Nuclear System, will be in the Ottawa region the week of January 21, 
2008 ‹ making stops in Ottawa, Wakefield, Perth and Carleton Place. He will 
address the implications of potential uranium mining in eastern Ontario and West
Quebec. For more info, see website below.

Related addresses:
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newslog archives:

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cyberjournal website:

How We the People can change the world:

The Post-Bush Regime: A Prognosis

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