No one really knows the net yield of nuclear power because at present its use is subsidized by fossil fuels in a thousand ways that cannot be estimated until we try to run a nuclear system without them. Will nuclear power have a more concentrated value than the wood output of the solar system, or of coal, or of cheap oil from rich deposits? The new power plant seems to be more economical than the competing fossil plants as long as it is running on the accumulated storages of nuclear fuel and fuel prospecting done on fossil-fuel subsidy. Is nuclear power at this level of net power delivery possible in a culture that does not have the accompanying fossil fuels? (Odum, 1971, p. 135).
by Mary Logan
I am broaching this topic in support of the Japanese people, in order to add my voice to the many who are challenging assumptions regarding the clean green nature of nuclear power. Choosing a nuclear future means that we choose profit over the future of humanity. The nuclear lobby is connected to climate change campaigns and the defense industry. The lobby deals in deception and omission; thus the title for this post that is part of a series of posts about laying siege to empire.
The Uranium Processing Chain
In order to understand the motives of the nuclear lobby, we must understand the complex Uranium processing chain. Gordon Edwards of Canada describes the entire process in a 10 minute video lecture here. Uranium mining creates uranium byproducts such as radium-226, thorium-230, radon gas, and polonium 210 that get released during the process into tailings. These byproducts remain exposed and radioactive; up to 85% of all radioactivity remains in the tailings. Uranium mining is energy intensive and also creates greenhouse gases.
Of the uranium that is mined, less than 1% is U-235 (fissile), and more than 99% is U-238 (fertile). Since the U-235 is needed for bombs, and nuclear power plants (NPPs) need ~4% U-235 fuel, enrichment is performed to increase the percentage of highly enriched uranium. The mined uranium is milled, and then refined, and then fabricated into fuel. In the refinery process, the U-235 is enriched to make more U-235 from U238. Loan guarantees exist for this process. Inside a reactor, the U-238 transmutes into Plutonium-239, which can then be separated chemically much more easily from U-238 to also make bombs, as Pu-239 is an ideal nuclear bomb material. Depleted uranium is U-238 waste from the enrichment process, which is also recycled into bombs. The enrichment process is energy intensive and it also creates large amounts of greenhouse gases.
Other fuel is then used in NPP reactors. Nuclear reactors fission hazardous toxic substances and then moderate and cool the fission process and associated water to 300 degrees C, and then we transmit the power as electricity, which is either used or lost in transmission.
The spent fuel is stored in increasingly dense configurations in unsafe conditions in spent fuel pools (SFPs) that are often perched over the tops of the nuclear reactors. The spent fuel needs to remain there, actively cooled for 5 or more years, until it is cool enough (with less fissioning) to be placed in metal casks, at the cost of about $1 million/cask (estimated–it’s complicated). There are no plans to deal with spent fuel.
Some spent fuel is reprocessed , which is then made into mixed oxide (MOX) fuel, which is newly proposed for use in NPPs as fuel, but can also be used for bombs. No MOX fuel is legally allowed for use in the United States yet, as the plutonium in the MOX fuel is extremely hazardous. Reactor 3/SFP 3 which exploded at Fukushima was the one loaded with MOX fuel, and there have been reports of both plutonium and uranium scattered about. MOX fuel has much more dangerous isotopes and is both hotter and more volatile. Spent MOX fuel is much more hazardous because it contains on average five times more plutonium than spent uranium oxide fuel.
In reprocessing, other isotopes such as plutonium are extracted for use by industry and the plutonium is also used to make bombs. The nuclear industry, the defense industry, and the US military are inextricably intertwined. Bombs spread depleted uranium (DU) in wars; 350 tons of DU in Iraq-1, 1700 tons in Iraq-2, and more in Afghanistan. The emissions from the entire process of nuclear production, including uranium tailings, enrichment wastes, NPP spent fuel, depleted uranium, bombs, and resulting plutonium are redistributed across the landscape, bioaccumulating over time and creating additional stressors for a society impacted by waning resources.
“The ultimate effect of a pollutant or toxin is not only related to its transformity, but more importantly to its concentration or empower density (emergy per unit area per unit time, i.e. seJ/m2*day) in the ecosystem. Where empower density of a stressor is significantly higher than the average empower density of the ecosystem, it is released into, one can expect significant changes in ecosystem function” (Brown & Ulgiati, 2009, p. 318).
Nuclear Power’s Climate Renaissance
Nuclear power lobbyists have achieved a renaissance and new image for nuclear power in the last decade, with many proposed new NPPs in the US.
One turning point, people on both sides of the issue agree, was that proponents took advantage of the public concern over climate change and carbon-producing fuels beginning in the early 2000s and were able to recast themselves — first to fence-sitting lawmakers, then to the public as a whole — as a “clean” alternative that would not harm the environment. “It was a brilliant campaign,” said Tyson Slocum, an energy expert at Public Citizen, which opposes nuclear energy because of concerns about its safety, security and cost. While everyone was focused on shutting down coal plants, they had a couple of years to themselves to just talk to the American public in very sophisticated ad campaigns and to reintroduce a generation of Americans to nuclear power,” he said. “That was very powerful” (Lichtblau, 2011, NYT).
Just whose agenda is climate change? Many environmentalists including James Hansen, Bill McKibben, and George Monbiot among others have adopted the position that a nuclear future is safe and necessary for our future. Yet the expansion of nuclear power that would be necessary to replace fossil fuels and maintain Business as Usual is unrealistic and dangerous. Limiting factors other than the most important one of net emergy exist. With peak oil comes peak uranium. Nuclear energy is a non-renewable source. There are still 435 reactors in operation worldwide today that require 175 million pounds of uranium per year. However, current production rates are facing a deficit of about 40 million pounds (Hall, 2012). And considering that we are entering water wars, is there enough water left to cool NPPs? Owners of NPPs in north Georgia were worried about continued operations during Georgia’s drought several years ago. France, which creates 80% of its electricity from nuclear power, uses 40% of the water in the country to cool its plants. Proposals for nuclear power plants in Utah are reigniting water wars. Nuclear power suffers from limits of net emergy, limited water, and non-renewable uranium sources.
The US Department of Energy (DOE) in the US is run by a nuclear engineer, Steven Chu, who is cheerily pro-nuke. The DOE is pro-nuke. Radiation monitoring authority was handed off by the NRC to the NEI lobbying body. The response by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to Fukushima radiation releases in the US has been to propose a rewrite of standards that would have astronomically increased risk. For example, proposed drinking water standards for the EPA would be raised by 831 times for Strontium 90, while I-131 standards would be raised by 89,000 times. NRC and DOE direct the EPA on these matters, and nuclear lobbies direct the NRC/DOE.
Many federal subsidies and tax breaks have evolved in the development of nuclear power. The government finances, insures, and pays for NPPs. Special tax breaks exist for new NPPs. Nuclear plants crowd out other renewables, and only work with a number of taxes and subsidies. Tax breaks are also available for decommissioning plants, although NPPs are being recertified instead of decommissioned, which is not profitable. This process is referred to by insiders as sharpening the pencil (Donn, AP). Twenty year license extensions have been granted as regulations for relicensing have been revised to skip inspections, and narrowed over time. In the US, 31 plants have applied for relicensing, and every one has been approved. Over half of all US NPPs are over 30 years old, nearing the end of their planned lives. Taxpayer backed loan guarantees exist for new NPPs, which have a history of huge cost overruns causing cancellation. The newest scheme of nuclear utilities is to demand that the taxpayer pay upfront for these white elephants. For a complete coverage of taxpayer support of the nuclear industry, see Sanders and Alexander (Alternet, 2012). The power of the nuclear lobby is also felt in subtle, more indirect ways.
While nuclear industry lobbying is widespread and aggressive, its impact is not always readily apparent. Take, for example, the Lieberman-Warner climate change bill, which the Senate is expected to debate this summer. The bill—also known as S.2191, or America’s Climate Security Act—does not mention the word “nuclear” once in its 200-plus pages. Yet an aide to Senator Joe Lieberman called the measure “the most historic incentive for nuclear in the history of the United States,” according to Environment & Energy Daily. One section of the Lieberman-Warner bill says that “25 percent of all the funds deposited into a new climate change worker training fund shall be reserved for zero and low-emitting carbon energy that has a rated capacity of at least 750 megawatts of power,” notes Tyson Slocum, the research director of Public Citizen’s energy program. “That’s a huge threshold, so that’s going to exclude wind and solar right off the bat. . . . The only thing that could possibly meet that target would be nuclear power.” Similar language in another section of the bill effectively reserves another half a trillion dollars for the nuclear industry, according to Slocum (Farsetta, 2008, The Progressive).
Exelon’s Political Action Committee (PAC) is EXELONPAC. The company is positioned to profit from “expensive carbon” and has been lobbying for cap and trade of carbon dioxide emissions. “Exelon CEO John Rowe is a vociferous and longtime advocate of climate change legislation. In 2009, Forbes reported that if the Waxman-Markey climate legislation — supported by Obama — became law, ‘the present value of Exelon’s earnings stream would increase by $14 a share, or 28%.’” Executives at the company have close ties to the Obama administration as advisors and fundraisers. “Frank Clark, CEO of Exelon’s Chicago-based subsidiary ComEd, was an Obama advisor and fundraiser, and Exelon director John Rogers has also raised funds for Obama” (Wikipedia on Exelon, 2012).
It is clear to me that we need to protect ourselves as best we can, since the government is choosing to protect private nuclear corporations over its citizens. In Japan, the regulatory capture makes it hard to separate the government from TEPCO. The company is being nationalized this summer. Will we be able to detect any difference when it is nationalized?
Capture of the Media
Some of my resources who have the courage to speak truth to power are listed below. Without these voices, my impression of the Fukushima disaster from mainstream media reports would be that everything is just fine in Japan.
- Majia’s Blog
- Fukushima Diary
- A Green Road
One needs the suspicion of Machiavelli these days to parse out the underlying motives and players in the media storm regarding complex environmental issues and energy resource companies. Consider that if you see an expose on BP and the Gulf, that there may be a clean green nuclear lobbyist lurking somewhere behind the piece. Or if you see a climate change advocate, such as James Hansen, consider that they are potentially pro-nuclear. Or if you see an environmentalist such as George Monbiot touting electric cars, his solution for future electricity may be nuclear. As resource availability gets tighter, we’re seeing the wealthy resource companies direct their lobbying and PR efforts against each other. Many agency players are muzzled. The World Health Organization is not allowed to discuss health impacts of radiation. Nuclear engineers / researchers sign contracts that prevent them from talking. Even PBS and Jon Stewart’s Daily Show now have nuclear sponsors. The DC-based Nuclear Energy Institute is global, even representing Japan’s Tepco. Excessive concern over the climate or fossil fuel-related ills is often backed by the nuclear lobby. The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, Time Magazine, Scientific American, and many other newspapers and journals have suggested that Fukushima is no big deal, or that “nobody died from Fukushima ”, “there will be no or very few cancers or deaths from Fukushima ,” Fukushima is not as bad as Chernobyl, or that any concern about aspects of Fukushima is just hysteria. “No immediate health effects” appears to be the most common rejoinder to new announcements.
Nuclear energy is only cost-effective because there is no insurance coverage for a melt-down. There is no solution for reactors or spent fuel pools that have melted down. NPPs are the only alternative technology requiring an emergency evacuation plan, and the current evacuation plans in the US are not current, as the populations and the amount of spent fuel at each plant has expanded greatly since the original plans were put in place. As populations have expanded, the ability to evacuate large populations or to emigrate in response to crisis has diminished. The industry benefits because we can’t see, smell, or feel radiation, and because most damage has “no immediate effects on health” and takes 5 to 10 years to reveal itself. The companies who would be expected to compensate, decommission, and decontaminate are private corporations bent on profit-making as their primary goal, with the ability to disband in a catastrophe. As one woman in Japan said, “doing nothing costs nothing.”
Japan is arguably one of the countries that is furthest into economic energy descent as a result of its 20 year recession. As a result of the Fukushima disaster, the country has shut down all of their nuclear power plants as of May 6th, 2012. So what is the current emergy yield ratio of nuclear power? Consider Japan’s plight as a bellwether for other countries not so far into descent. Not only are the Japanese not receiving any energy from their 50+ NPPs, they now have to go to considerable effort to maintain power to the plants and protect stored waste as NPPs are abandoned and TEPCO is nationalized. Running nuclear power in a collapsing economy is like trying to raise yourself up by your own bootstraps. The argument can be made that becoming too reliant on an energy source that provides electricity, but that is absolutely reliant on electricity for vital cooling could be a mortal fault. If the grid goes down, and we lose the 20% contribution of nukes to electricity, then what does that mean for the continued long-term cooling of NPPs? As the net emergy yield of nuclear power plants wanes, the question becomes not will we build more but instead can we decommission the ones that we have safely and what do we do with the waste?
The problems are so far “beyond the design capacity” of the [Fukushima] plant that the Japanese are working in uncharted territory, said Michael Friedlander, a former senior operator at U.S. nuclear power plants (CNN, April 10, 2011).
“No nuclear power plant has ever considered the inability to get on long-term core cooling for more than a week, much less three weeks,” Friedlander said. There are 104 overloaded NPPs and their associated SFPs in the US vulnerable to the same power outages as those in Japan. Those who say it couldn’t happen here lack imagination. Nuclear reactors are tiny stars that we try to harness and control in order to boil water. Isn’t there an easier and safer way to boil water?
The cost of failure is deadly. Any cutoff of electricity of over 100 minutes would mean a meltdown of NPPs and their overloaded spent fuel pools. If we can’t figure out how to run 50-year old nuclear power plants for a month or longer without external electricity sources for cooling, then we’d better start this casking process now. The industry will go bankrupt as crises accumulate, and it will be the failing governments’ responsibilities to nationalize the remains, while also having many, many other crises to worry about simultaneously. It would be better to decommission the plants now while we still have the fossil fuel support to do so. Japan has weighed the risks and halted all plant operations. Why are we so worried about climate change when it would take one long regional blackout to potentially cause catastrophic damage globally? Perhaps the only benefit here is that Fukushima may become the biggest boost to relocalization ever—it will put eating local food of known origin/lading on the map.
I write today about the nuclear lobby to add my voice to those wanting to hammer the last nails into its coffin. The Americans started all of this, and we need to finish it. Some would say that the Fukushima crisis in Japan is the Americans’ just desserts, given the wind and fallout patterns of the jet stream at the mid-latitudes in the northern hemisphere. I have a daughter, and if she chooses to have a child, I would like it to be healthy. Tell your legislators to stop nuclear support and to work towards dealing with our very dangerous spent fuel pools. Get yourself a geiger counter, question Pacific seafood, and be watching for fasciated dandelions. While external exposure to radiation is relatively harmless, the internal exposure is a very different matter, and once the isotopes enter the food chain, they bioaccumulate and biomagnify up the food chain. Our governments choose to avoid testing, raise limits, and suppress data rather than protect the public. Background levels are going up, and in the interest of the health of my family, I am teaching my clan about the unseen dangers of internalized isotopes, especially the long-lived ones, as they bioaccumulate and biomagnify in our ecosystem. Is nuclear power at this level of net power delivery possible in a culture that does not have the accompanying fossil fuels? It is now apparent in Japan that the answer is no.
Header art is Starry Night Over the Rhône, 1888, Vincent Van Gogh, Musée d’Orsay.