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On Nuclear Power

The following two letters to the editor are a response and a rebuttal to that response to an article by Doug Brugge called Nuclear Power's Dirty Secrets.

Reply to Doug Brugge
Nuclear Power Article

by James E. Hopf
San Jose, California

To the Editor:

Doug Brugge’s article on nuclear power is wrong on numerous fronts. It is outrageous to characterize nuclear power as “as foolhardy and dangerous” as coal and oil. Coal and oil power plants cause over 25,000 deaths in the US alone every single year, under normal operation!! Worldwide they cause almost a million deaths annually. On top of that, they are the largest single cause of global warming. In stark contrast, Western nuclear plants have never killed a member of the public, and have never had any measurable public health impact, over their entire 40-year history. Even the Chernobyl accident’s total (eventual) impact is tiny compared to the annual impact from fossil fuels (100-10,000 deaths vs. roughly a million annual deaths). And the maximum possible impact of any Western plant accident is far smaller than Chernobyl. All scientific studies of the total external costs (i.e., public health and environmental impacts) of various energy sources have concluded that nuclear’s external costs are tiny compared to fossil fuels, and not much higher than renewables.

Increasing the number of plants in countries that already have nuclear power will have absolutely no impact on nuclear weapons proliferation. Such countries are responsible for 80-90% of the world’s CO2 emissions, so there is no great need to introduce nuclear power to nations that do not already have it. That said, developing nations that do not have nuclear power will probably choose to develop it, whether we build new plants or not. In fact, not building new nuclear plants in the developed world will, if anything, increase the likelihood of weapons proliferation, as it will induce more developing countries to develop nuclear power, in response to soaring oil and gas prices (brought on by increased gas/oil use in developed countries that forgo nuclear).

While the impacts of uranium mining are finite, they are much smaller than that of coal mining, for a given amount of energy produced. Compared to the overall impact of fossil fuel use, the impacts of uranium mining are miniscule. Even renewable sources have some impact, as they cover huge amounts of land area, require massive amounts of raw materials such as steel and concrete (that also must be mined), and they sometimes use toxic materials of construction themselves (e.g., solar cells).

In terms of overall global warming impact, the entire nuclear power process produces only 2% as much CO2 as coal, 5% as much CO2 as natural gas, less CO2 than solar, and roughly the same as wind. The bottom line here is that all non-fossil sources (i.e., nuclear or renewable) have a negligible impact on global warming.

"The huge downsides associated with both fossil and fissile energy sources"

by Doug Brugge
Boston, Massachusetts

To the Editor:
Mr. Hopf, a member of the Public Information Committee of the American Nuclear Society, raises some of the standard pro-nuclear industry arguments in his response to my essay in which I argued against including nuclear power as a response to global warming.

When I was younger, the nuclear industry regularly claimed that no one had ever been killed by nuclear power.  That was wrong then as are the now highly modified and carefully worded claims of Mr. Hopf ("Western nuclear plants have never killed a member of the public").  In fact, as I mentioned in my essay, mining and processing of uranium have resulted in tens of thousands of illnesses and thousands of deaths in the US alone (over 30,000 compensation claims have been approved in the US for uranium and Department of Energy workers) and many times that world wide.  The nuclear industry has had to modify its claim of innocence after Chernobyl and after evidence of the harm to workers became more public.

Comparing nuclear to coal to make it look good is hardly comforting.  I am not a supporter of coal and do not believe that the choice is coal vs. nuclear.  I want to see the development of renewable energy sources that do not kill thousands of people, workers or the public.  I am realistic though, we will have some coal and nuclear in the mix for the foreseeable future, but I want to put the emphasis on developing other energy sources and I oppose expanding nuclear to replace coal.  The area in which nuclear is far more worrisome than coal however, is with regard to disposal of highly radioactive wastes and in term of contributing to nuclear weapon proliferation.

Mr. Hopf has a point that adding nuclear plants in countries that already have nuclear power and nuclear weapons does not easily lead to nuclear proliferation.  One concern, however, even in these countries is that the reprocessing of nuclear fuel in Europe and plans to do so in the US will lead to the production of large quantities of weapons grade material that must be safeguarded.  I do not believe Mr. Hopf’s argument that discouraging nuclear power in nonnuclear states will accelerate nuclear proliferation.  If that were the case, the US and Europe would be encouraging Iran to build nuclear power plants rather than imposing sanctions.  An approach to global warming that relies heavily on nuclear power, will likely spread nuclear technology further throughout the world, including to unstable regimes and non-state actors (look at Pakistan, can anyone feel happy that they have nuclear weapons and spread the technology elsewhere?)

While the developing nations currently do not contribute heavily to global warming, that is rapidly changing.  Do we want large-scale building of nuclear plants across India and China?  I would say no.  Even though these countries already have nuclear weapons, their ability to secure nuclear technology and their safety records are likely to be far worse than in the US or Europe and that, in turn, raises the possibility of more Chernobyl type disasters and/or the spread of weapons grade materials.  And these countries will also have an increasingly large waste disposal problem as well.

Finally, Mr. Hopf says that the "entire" nuclear process produces tiny amounts of CO2.  In actuality, the full nuclear cycle produces between 20 and 40% of the CO2 of coal fired power plants currently (see Oxford Research Group, 2006), depending on how you calculate it.  But that is with easy access to high grade ore that is a depletable resource.  As high grade deposits are used up, we would have to mine lower grade ore that is more difficult to extract.  Below 0.1% U3O8 in mass and as we exploit ores in hard rock, the CO2 emissions from the nuclear cycle increase dramatically and can even exceed those of coal.

All energy sources, including wind and solar have a carbon imprint and a range of negative environmental and health impacts, for example land use, as Mr. Hopf correctly points out, but wind and solar do not have the huge downsides associated with both fossil and fissile energy sources.

Published in In Motion Magazine September 30, 2008