Who knew how high feelings now run on the possibility of
expanding use of nuclear power in California?
Who knew how high feelings now run on the possibility of expanding use of nuclear power in California? But no column in this space during the last 30 years has drawn the impassioned response of one published last spring which argued that atomic power is not a viable answer to the problems of either global warming or our dependence on foreign oil.
Many readers cited French dependence on nuclear power as an example California could follow, especially since France uses mostly American technology in the 56 nuclear generating stations which now produce about 76 percent of its total electricity.
Trouble is, despite its dependence on the atom, France has no more solved the problem of nuclear waste disposal than we have. Yes, the French are more efficient in recycling nuclear waste than American plants. Plutonium is reclaimed from spent fuel rods in France and any unused uranium made into new fuel elements. But there’s still plenty of leftover waste after all that. “Currently scientists don’t know how to reduce or eliminate the toxicity,” Christian Bataille, the French official charged with solving the problem told the American television program “Frontline.” “Maybe in 100 years, perhaps the scientists will.”
In the meantime, there have been riots over abortive French plans to store radioactive waste underground and now it is “stocked” in closely-guarded above-ground government-run centers.
Says Claude Mandil, head of atomic energy for the French ministry of industry, “If France is unable to solve this issue, I do not see how we can continue the nuclear program.”
So much for following the French example.
Then there’s the common argument that nuclear power plants create no carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases. That turns out to be a classic half-truth. Sure, the plants themselves don’t spew any greenhouse gases. But nuclear power comes from uranium and that has to be mined somewhere. Since gases produced anywhere on the planet all contribute equally to the global warming problem (yes, some readers also deny that this problem is real, but even onetime denier President George W. Bush has come around to accepting reality), it’s valid to examine how much CO2 is spewed in mining and shipping that uranium.
It turns out much uranium is strip mined in places like Australia and South America. All material removed from strip mines is hauled out by trucks that run on diesel. In a typical Australian operation outlined in an Australian academic paper titled “Nuclear Power: the energy balance” published on the website www.peakoil.org.au, the ore is taken to a mill, where the rocks in which it is found are crushed into powder that is then treated with an acid to dissolve the uranium from the ore. Depleted ore is washed and eventually put into slurry and tailings ponds maintained with more diesel-powered machinery. In its final processing stage, uranium yellowcake is roasted at about 800 degrees Centigrade (about 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit) in oil-fired furnaces.
Virtually every step of uranium mining, processing and shipping depends on fossil fuels and the paper’s authors conclude that for high quality ore, the CO2 produced in getting uranium to nuclear power plants amounts to about one-third to one-half what an equivalent natural gas-fired power plant would produce. When using low quality ore, the CO2 is about equal to what the same energy production spews in a gas-fired plant.
All of which means the claims about the greenhouse gas purity of nuclear power are far from true.
“Yes, there is a waste problem, but that is not an unsolvable problem,” wrote another reader. Maybe so, but until the problem is solved, questions about the ultimate safety of nuclear energy will remain open. And that’s not even including the possibility of terrorist attacks. The sheer size of atomic power plants renders them vulnerable to 9/11 type attacks, and even though nuclear cores are well shielded by very thick reinforced concrete, no one knows if they can withstand the type of heat produced in such an event.
The bottom line: Even some of its biggest users are now doubting the wisdom of continuing dependence on nuclear energy, while claims that the atom is one answer to global warming don’t hold water. Which means California would be far better off developing renewable energy sources like windmills and solar panels on a far larger scale than today’s, rather than taking any more nuclear risks.