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Dirty Energy & FuelHealth

Challenge to the Nuclear Industry: Honest Questions Require Honest Answers

My Issues and Support of Nuclear Power

In the past year or so I’ve been writing articles in opposition to the proliferation of nuclear power stations, not only in the United States, but in the world.  The responses have been enlightening, intelligent, pedestrian and downright rude.

In each case, the respondents seem to have either missed my general point, or ignored it altogether in order to make their point that nuclear power is clean and safe.  So I want to go on record, again, that in and of itself, a nuclear power generating station does not pollute the air with toxic smoke and chemicals.  In a limited sense it’s “clean”.  That, I support, but there’s more to consider.

My entire case revolves around the mining, processing and storage of spent uranium and radioactive materials, the effects they have on the environment and the people who populate it.

It’s no secret that many people around the world are afraid of nuclear energy, partially because of the Chernobyl disaster, but also the stories of miners and their families who have been affected by radiation during their lives, and still live in “dirty” areas.  The move to build a hundred or more nuclear power facilities in the coming years means more mining, milling and production of highly toxic, radioactive waste.

With that in mind, I want to pose some questions on behalf of ordinary citizens in the world, of which I am one.  That may sound arrogant, but that’s ok, I’ve never been known for my humility.  I’m not a scientist, or an expert on anything but managing to stay alive for 77 hectic and sometimes downright destructive years.

Mining and Milling Issues – Will You Assure Us That:

  • An open-pit or underground uranium mine will not contaminate ground water aquifers, streams or rivers, the soil and plants in or near the mine, and that tailings will be properly covered or processed to prevent dust from becoming airborne?
  • An in-situ process facility will not contaminate ground water aquifers, streams or rivers, the soil and plants in or near the facility?
  • Mining companies will immediately return their area to an environmentally safe condition once the last bit of uranium has been removed?  Will they bear some or all of the clean-up costs as specified in an agreement with partners in the operation, and make monies available upon request?
  • Workers at mining and milling operations be properly protected from radiation?  Should they acquire a disease directly linked to radiation exposure, will their health care be covered after leaving the company?

Reactor Issues – Will You Assure Us That:

  • All nuclear power facilities are operated in a safe manner, that employees are properly trained and equipment is maintained on a regular basis?
  • Human error has been ruled out of the operation, and that the equipment will prevent spills, leaks and the release of other materials into the environment?
  • Security of all facilities is sufficient to ward off or detect any terrorist, disgruntled employee or random attack?
  • Decommissioning of a facility will result in immediate and appropriate clean-up and safe transportation and disposal of all materials that have been exposed to radiation?
  • Those aging facilities, many of which are reaching or have exceeded their intended service life, are safe and immune from accidents?

Disposal of Radioactive Materials – Will You Assure Us That:

  • Current methods of storing spent nuclear materials is done safely and poses no threat whatsoever to the environment?
  • Those storage areas are properly maintained, and that security is present to thwart any terrorist, disgruntled employee or random attack?
  • Very soon, you will work with the federal government to establish a permanent storage area(s) for all used radioactive materials?
  • You will encourage and help fund research and development of the reuse of spent uranium?

How About Us – Will You Assure Us That:

  • We count; that our health and safety is not only your concern, but your responsibility?
  • If spills or other mishaps occur because of equipment failure or human error, you will provide fully-paid medical care for those afflicted with radiation poisoning?
  • We can believe you?

Cheap Shot?

Maybe, but let’s face it, there are many areas around the world that need clean-up, and the responsible companies are dragging their feet and not living up to their agreements.  There’s enough evidence to support that inquiry.

So, bring on your comments, but more than that, I’d like to hear from someone who represents the international nuclear industry, since this is a world issue.  Of course, I’ll always entertain and welcome a response from an American industry representative.  You can contact me through Green Options and we can either discuss these points in a podcast interview, or in written form.

We have a right to know what’s in store if the nuclear industry takes off once again, and we also have the right to oppose further construction of nuclear power plants and the resumption of uranium mining in the United States.

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11 comments
  1. red craig

    Ken, the costs of waste handling are already covered by charges to the utilities which go into a nuclear waste fund. It could be that the fee should be raised to account for inflation, but only a fraction of a cent per KWH.

    Incidentally, your remark about liability limit is just more misinformation from political groups. Please look here for better information.

  2. Ken

    Hear, hear. I might add (or rephrase) that the industry might bear a greater share of its full costs – including both retraction of the Price-Anderson liability limits, and honest pricing of its energy. The latter is almost always calculated as operating costs, without including the perpetual operation of waste disposal sites (at least for the next 20,000 years and more).

    Moreover, it is at best unrealistic (and worse, profoundly anti-democratic) to assume that transport of wastes from operating sites (where they have always been stored in the United States) to long-term repositories (Yuca Mountain or otherwise) will be low-cost and hitch-free.

  3. red craig

    David Anderson, you’ve put your finger on the core of the argument. Can renewables replace both fossil-fuels and nuclear? The answer is no because a full-time world cannot and will not rely on part-time energy sources. For the details, please look here and here

  4. Graham

    With this issue come up a lot these days I’ve seen more information bounced around about it. From what I’ve gathered waste isn’t actually that big of a problem. About 95% of spent uranium can be recycled and reused as fuel (the states stopped reprocessing it a few decades ago for political reasons, I think). The remaining 5% consists of short and medium half life material (half lives of a few years to several hundred). This is what is the most toxic. Some of it can be used for medical isotopes and the rest can be diluted down in a concrete like substance, which is insoluble in pretty much everything, and stored in a mine somewhere. After about 300 years (which is still a long time but isn’t as long as I would think most people would expect it to be) it’s as radioactive as naturally occurring uranium.

    As for terrorism issues there aren’t really any. Weapons grade uranium is 70% U235 while reactor grade uranium is 3% U235 depending on what kind of reactor you use, some require less. So even if you stole it you have to reprocess it all to make a bomb, at which point you might as well go mine it anyway rather than attempt to steal it. And as long as you’re reprocessing the waste entirely, there’s nothing in it to make a bomb out of. I believe they’ve also done tests like flying planes into the side of nuclear power plants to see what damage they can do and the only thing they accomplished was completely totalling the plane.

    Unfortunately I can’t provide you with the links for this as I got it off of reddit and now I can’t find it again, but I hope this answers a couple of your questions.

    Nuclear, safety considerations aside, is just going to have to be a stopgap power supply as we’re just going to run out of Uranium at some point as well as oil.

  5. Matt

    Max; excellent article, well written and argued.

    I would add one additional comment. Energy and climate aside, we are at a time when other resource use is arguably threatening our eco-systems.

    Will the proponents of nuclear also assure us that they will take this fact into consideration, and not compromise resource efficiency with promises of abundant ‘free’, ‘clean’ energy?

  6. David Anderson

    Saying “Coal is worse” is not a rational argument. I don’t see Max advocating coal instead of nuclear. Embark on a crash program to green our energy sources. It’s that simple. (though not simple at all, it’s entirely possible, only a question of who wins and loses, and I’ll give you a hint: the current energy players are not the winners)

  7. Walt

    Did you know that a coal plant emits more radiation then a nuclear plant? In fact the Capitol building in Washington DC will fail international nuclear safety checks because it emits more radiation then a nuclear plant is allowed to.

  8. red craig

    Max, I don’t know if any representative of the “nuclear industry” will respond, since it may possibly be that they don’t read all your articles. I’m no representative, but I’ll respond anyway.

    You think you’re being clever by calling for a guarantee of perfect safety, asking for a long list of promises of things like “Current methods of storing spent nuclear materials is done safely and poses no threat whatsoever to the environment?” Anyone who offers such total guarantees can automatically be accused of over-promising and therefore dismissed as unreliable.

    You’ve always heard that there are no guarantees in life. But nuclear energy is an exception. Here’s the guarantee: If 100% of the world’s electricity came from nuclear energy, millions of lives would be saved, farmland would be purer, marine life would be less poisoned by heavy metals, global warming would be farther away, and we’d be in a stronger position to avoid climate change.

    Meanwhile, here’s a question for you. Coal mining is many times more dangerous than uranium mining and has caused many times more destruction. The same can be said of coal waste compared to nuclear waste. In fact, nuclear energy waste never has caused harm to anyone or anything. Why is it you never publish articles condemning the use of coal?

  9. bleah

    Why don’t you ask the same questions to the oil and coal companys? Did you know that much more radioactive material is released by the world’s coal plants then all the nuclear power plants which is inside the burnt coal (in addition to massive amounts of sulfer and CO2). The reason being it takes 20-30 coal plants to produce the same power as 1 nuke plant, and contained in all those lumps of coal is a lot of crap/ chemicals that go directly to our air.

    Now the problem is with all your nimby pandy wandy scaremongering, in which people hear the world “radioactive”, and they freak out. Also most people like you don’t consider the big picture. Places around the world are being decimated by climate change/ species loss, and in your article u worry about uranium miners. However you purposely fail to point out that the amount of uranium needed to power a nuke plant is puny compared to the massive amount of coal minors needed to fuel coal plants. Google how many coal miners die a year…

    Other then that I agree with containment/ safety issues.

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