Safety Is Not The Only Issue For Nuclear Power
Decades after the crises at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the explosions and meltdowns at Japanese nuclear reactors have brought nuclear safety back into the forefront of the news. Certainly safety at nuclear power plants is an important consideration, but as calls increase to address nuclear safety around the world, these rare, but dramatic events should not be the sole concerns about nuclear power. Decisions about expanding nuclear power must address a host of other issues.
My entry point to the nuclear issue is from studying the blue collar mining and milling of uranium ore that is a feedstock for nuclear fuel. Many thousands of workers have died from exposures in the mines that extract uranium ore, a story that is not well known. Studies are underway attempting to determine the extent of harm to families living near the uranium mines and mills. To me the Navajo widows and children of deceased miners have long been an argument against expansion of nuclear power.
But policy makers and the public are likely to be concerned about larger macro factors. Prime among them should be the relationship between nuclear power technology and proliferation of nuclear weapons. I have long been puzzled by the paucity of commentary on this problem. We have seen nuclear weapons spread to Israel, Pakistan, India and North Korea. Nuclear power is clearly one technological step toward being able to produce weapons. Iran is a key example. Is Iran enriching uranium for nuclear power (as they claim) or trying to build nuclear weapons? The bottom line is whether we want more and more countries to have nuclear weapons with some, such as India and Pakistan, facing off in their own version of the Cold War.
Another worry is that disposal of high level nuclear waste is challenging for both technical and political reasons. The primary technical problem is that this waste must be secured for lengths of time that exceed human civilization. Can we really assure such long term tracking and management? But even if we can, politically it has proven difficult to get states in the US to accept this waste. Yucca Mountain was the plan, but Nevada is a swing state and in the last presidential election you could not find a candidate in favor of moving high level nuclear waste there. The core problem is that no one wants this stuff near them.
Finally, the economics of nuclear power are not strong. The nuclear industry depends heavily on financial support from the government. And the crisis unfolding now in Japan only exacerbates the problem because the logical conclusion is that the only way to try to ensure safety is through increased regulation, which will make nuclear power even more expensive. Further, despite some public confusion, reserves of uranium are limited and extraction, as with oil, will at some point become more expensive once high grade, easy to reach deposits are depleted.
In the lead up to the crisis in Japan the strongest argument that supporters of expanding nuclear power in the US had was the example of countries that relied heavily on nuclear. These countries include France, Germany, the UK and, Japan. The argument was that if these countries can live safely with such dense concentrations of nuclear power, so could we. That argument is rapidly being lost with every new development in Japan. But more importantly, the substantial expansion of nuclear power was never very likely in the US. Instead, it has far more potential in developing countries such as China and India. It is difficult for me to see how these countries can do a better job with nuclear power than has Japan, an advanced industrial country with all the expertise and experience one could want.
Ultimately though, for me, the issue circles back to the uranium miners. I will forever remember the Navajo widows in tiny Cove, Arizona, lamenting that there were no longer men with gray hair in their community. The men who should have reached the age of gray hair had mostly died from working in the mines. One Navajo woman that I know lost several older male relatives to uranium mining. I know that these people are a drop in the statistical bucket, but experiencing the impact on real people often moves us more than do hard cold statistics.
Doug Brugge is Professor of Public Health at Tufts Medical School in Boston and co-editor of The Navajo People and Uranium Mining (University of New Mexico Press, 2006).
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Published in In Motion Magazine April 2, 2011.
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