The purpose of this essay is to present an update on recent developments in the nuclear fuel cycle, in order to demonstrate that modern nuclear realities could and should be transformed into something that might bode well for the future of humanity.
Thirty years ago, a generation of safe energy advocates warned that nuclear power and nuclear weapons were not immaculately conceived. Dr. Helen Caldicott, a Boston pediatrician and anti-nuclear activist, was one of these people. In a recent address on the medical and ecological consequences of nuclear power, Dr. Caldicott points out the fact that the nuclear power industry is promoting nuclear electric as a panacea in the reduction of global-warming gases. In fact, she says, if nuclear power were to replace fossil fuels on a large scale globally, it would be necessary to build two thousand large 1,000-mega-watt nuclear reactors. Further, to replace all fossil fuel-generated electricity today with nuclear power, there is only enough economically viable uranium to fuel these world-be reactors for three or four years. Besides, Belgium, Germany, Spain and Sweden have decided to phase out their operating reactors due to a whole litany of problems now associated with the licensing, building, financing, and operating of these types of plants.
According to Dr. Caldicott, the negative aspects of increased nuclear electric include: the costs of uranium enrichment, the massive liability involved in a nuclear accident, the enormous costs of decommissioning all existing and new reactors, and the great expense incurred in the transportation and storage of high level radioactive waste for at least 250 thousand years.
The prevailing ethic promoted by the utilities says that nuclear power is "emission-free." The truth is quite different. Nuclear power stations systematically release small, but measurable, amounts of radiation. And, even very low doses pose a risk of cancer over a person's lifetime, according to the National Academy of Sciences. The Academy, therefore, is now concerned about radiation levels allowed at abandoned reactors and other nuclear sites. Some anti-nuclear advocates argue that stringent regulations are needed when cleaning up abandoned nuclear sites and considering health risks near nuclear power plants. Thus, there is virtually no radiation dose that is completely safe.
In connection with the above findings, it must be noted that cancer, not heart disease, is now the leading cause of death in America. And, for the first time in U.S. history, those younger than 85 years will die of cancer before any other cause. How many more byproducts of modern civilization will we tolerate before we say, "No more?" Clearly, governmental agencies are failing to protect public health here and abroad.
While politicians and media are clamoring for more nuclear power stations, we still need a long-term solution for the problem of medium and high level nuclear waste storage. The subject of massive quantities of radioactive waste accumulating at 442 global nuclear reactors is rarely, if ever, addressed by the nuclear industry. According to Dr. Caldicott's thoughtful speech, the typical 1000-megawatt reactor produces 33 tons of thermally hot, intensively radioactive, waste per year 1. More than 80,000 metric tons of highly radioactive waste sits in cooling ponds next to the 103 operating U.S. nuclear power plants, awaiting transport to yet-to--be-named storage facilities. Much more nuclear waste accumulates at reactor sites in France, Russia, Japan and elsewhere. The long-term storage of radioactive waste is an immense, and perhaps insoluble, social, political, and environmental problem.
According to Dr. Caldicott, the incubation time for cancer is five to fifty years following exposure to ionizing radiation1. Children, elders, and individuals with weakened immune systems are many times more sensitive to the malignant effects of radiation than other persons. Iodine 131, which was released at Chernobyl and at Three Mile Island, is radioactive for twenty-three weeks and it bio-concentrates in leafy vegetables and milk. Iodine 131 enters the human body via the stomach and lung, where it can later induce thyroid cancer. In Belarus, north of the Ukraine, more than 2,000 children have had their thyroids removed for cancer, a situation never before recorded in pediatric literature. Plutonium 239 is so toxic that one-millionth of a gram is carcinogenic; and on inhalation it causes lung cancer. Plutonium, which remains seriously radioactive for 500,000 years, has a predisposition for the testicle, where it can cause testicular cancer and induce genetic diseases in future generations.
A study published in November, 2005 in Radiation Research by U.S. And Russian scientists blamed excess cancers in the Ural Mountains in Central Russia on chronic exposures to low doses of radiation leaked from a weapons factory 50 years ago. Science magazine called the new report--along with a large scale study revealing an elevated cancer risk in nuclear industry workers around the world--"the strongest direct evidence yet of chronic, low-dose health effects."
In spite of the negatives noted above, the Bush Administration is planning America's first production of plutonium 238 since the Cold War, stirring debate over the risks and benefits of this deadly material. "The real reason we are starting production is for national security," states Timothy A. Frazier in a recent interview. Frazier is head of radioisotope power systems at the Department of Energy. He vigorously denies that any newly produced plutonium would involve the production of nuclear arms, satellites, or weapons in space.
Under President George W. Bush's most recent budget, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is slated to shut down its network of libraries that serve its own scientists as well as the public. In addition to the libraries, the EPA will pull the plug on its electronic catalog which tracks tens of thousands of unique documents and...