[Marxism] More on Nuclear Power

Sukla Sen suklasenp at yahoo.co.uk
Sat Aug 18 20:44:07 MDT 2007

No To Nukes

It’s Tempting To Turn To Nuclear Plants to Combat
Climate Change, But Alternatives Are Safer and

Los Angeles Times Editorial

Japan sees nuclear power as a solution to global
warming, but it’s paying a price. Last week, a
magnitude 6.8 earthquake caused dozens of problems at
the world’s biggest nuclear plant, leading to releases
of radioactive elements into the air and ocean and an
indefinite shutdown. Government and company officials
initially downplayed the incident and stuck to the
official line that the country’s nuclear plants are
earthquake-proof, but they gave way in the face of
overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Japan has a
sordid history of serious nuclear accidents or spills
followed by cover-ups.
It isn’t alone. The U.S. government allows nuclear
plants to operate under a level of secrecy usually
reserved for the national security apparatus. Last
year, for example, about nine gallons of highly
enriched uranium spilled at a processing plant in
Tennessee, forming a puddle a few feet from an
elevator shaft. Had it dripped into the shaft, it
might have formed a critical mass sufficient for a
chain reaction, releasing enough radiation to kill or
burn workers nearby. A report on the accident from the
Nuclear Regulatory Commission was hidden from the
public, and only came to light because one of the
commissioners wrote a memo on it that became part of
the public record.
The dream that nuclear power would turn atomic fission
into a force for good rather than destruction
unraveled with the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979
and the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986. No U.S. utility
has ordered a new nuclear plant since 1978 (that order
was later canceled), and until recently it seemed none
ever would. But rising natural gas prices and worries
about global warming have put the nuclear industry
back on track. Many respected academics and
environmentalists argue that nuclear power must be
part of any solution to climate change because nuclear
power plants don’t release greenhouse gases.
They make a weak case. The enormous cost of building
nuclear plants, the reluctance of investors to fund
them, community opposition and an endless controversy
over what to do with the waste ensure that ramping up
the nuclear infrastructure will be a slow process -
far too slow to make a difference on global warming.
That’s just as well, because nuclear power is
extremely risky. What’s more, there are cleaner,
cheaper, faster alternatives that come with none of
the risks.
Glowing pains
Modern nuclear plants are much safer than the
Soviet-era monstrosity at Chernobyl. But accidents can
and frequently do happen. The Union of Concerned
Scientists cites 51 cases at 41 U.S. nuclear plants in
which reactors have been shut down for more than a
year as evidence of serious and widespread safety
Nuclear plants are also considered attractive
terrorist targets, though that risk too has been
reduced. Provisions in the 2005 energy bill required
threat assessments at nuclear plants and background
checks on workers. What hasn’t improved much is the
risk of spills or even meltdowns in the event of
natural disasters such as earthquakes, making it
mystifying why anyone would consider building reactors
in seismically unstable places like Japan (or
California, which has two, one at San Onofre and the
other in Morro Bay).
Weapons proliferation is an even more serious concern.
The uranium used in nuclear reactors isn’t
concentrated enough for anything but a dirty bomb, but
the same labs that enrich uranium for nuclear fuel can
be used to create weapons-grade uranium. Thus any
country, such as Iran, that pursues uranium enrichment
for nuclear power might also be building a bomb
factory. It would be more than a little hypocritical
for the U.S. to expand its own nuclear power capacity
while forbidding countries it doesn’t like from doing
the same.
The risks increase when spent fuel is recycled. Five
countries reprocess their spent nuclear fuel, and the
Bush administration is pushing strongly to do the same
in the U.S. Reprocessing involves separating plutonium
from other materials to create new fuel. Plutonium is
an excellent bomb material, and it’s much easier to
steal than enriched uranium. Spent fuel is so
radioactive that it would burn a prospective thief to
death, while plutonium could be carried out of a
processing center in one’s pocket. In Japan, 200
kilograms of plutonium from a waste recycling plant
have gone missing; in Britain, 30 kilograms can’t be
accounted for. These have been officially dismissed as
clerical errors, but the nuclear industry has never
been noted for its truthfulness or transparency. The
bomb dropped on Nagasaki contained six kilograms.
Technology might be able to solve the recycling
problem, but the question of what to do with the waste
defies answers. Even the recycling process leaves
behind highly radioactive waste that has to be
disposed of. This isn’t a temporary issue: Nuclear
waste remains hazardous for tens of thousands of
years. The only way to get rid of it is to put it in
containers and bury it deep underground - and pray
that geological shifts or excavations by future
generations that have forgotten where it’s buried
don’t unleash it on the surface.
No country in the world has yet built a permanent
underground waste repository, though Finland has come
the closest. In the U.S., Congress has been struggling
for decades to build a dump at Yucca Mountain in
Nevada but has been unable to overcome fierce local
opposition. One can hardly blame the Nevadans. Not
many people would want 70,000 metric tons of nuclear
waste buried in their neighborhood or transported
through it on the way to the dump.
The result is that nuclear waste is stored on-site at
the power plants, increasing the risk of leaks and the
danger to plant workers. Eventually, we’ll run out of
space for it.
Goin’ fission?
Given the drawbacks, it’s surprising that anybody
would seriously consider a nuclear renaissance. But
interest is surging; the NRC expects applications for
up to 28 new reactors in the next two years. Even
California, which has a 31-year-old ban on
construction of nuclear plants, is looking into it.
Last month, the state Energy Commission held a hearing
on nuclear power, and a group of Fresno businessmen
plans a ballot measure to assess voter interest in
rescinding the state’s ban.
Behind all this is a perception that nuclear power is
needed to help fight climate change. But there’s
little chance that nuclear plants could be built
quickly enough to make much difference. The existing
104 nuclear plants in the U.S., which supply roughly
20% of the nation’s electricity, are old and nearing
the end of their useful lives. Just to replace them
would require building a new reactor every four or
five months for the next 40 years. To significantly
increase the nation’s nuclear capacity would require
far more.
The average nuclear plant is estimated to cost about
$4 billion. Because of the risks involved, there is
scarce interest among investors in putting up the
needed capital. Nor have tax incentives and subsidies
been enough to lure them. In part, that’s because the
regulatory process for new plants is glacially slow.
The newest nuclear plant in the U.S. opened in 1996,
after having been ordered in 1970 - a 26-year gap.
Though a carbon tax or carbon trading might someday
make the economics of nuclear power more attractive,
and the NRC has taken steps to speed its assessments,
community opposition remains high, and it could still
take more than a decade to get a plant built.
Meanwhile, a 2006 study by the Institute for Energy
and Environmental Research found that for nuclear
power to play a meaningful role in cutting greenhouse
gas emissions, the world would need to build a new
plant every one to two weeks until mid-century. Even
if that were feasible, it would overwhelm the handful
of companies that make specialized parts for nuclear
plants, sending costs through the roof.
The accelerating threat of global warming requires
innovation and may demand risk-taking, but there are
better options than nuclear power. A combination of
energy-efficiency measures, renewable power like wind
and solar, and decentralized power generators are
already producing more energy worldwide than nuclear
power plants. Their use is expanding more quickly, and
the decentralized approach they represent is more
attractive on several levels. One fast-growing
technology allows commercial buildings or complexes,
such as schools, hospitals, hotels or offices, to
generate their own electricity and hot water with
micro-turbines fueled by natural gas or even biofuel,
much more efficiently than utilities can do it and
with far lower emissions.
The potential for wind power alone is nearly limitless
and, according to a May report by research firm
Standard & Poor’s, it’s cheaper to produce than
nuclear power. Further, the amount of electricity that
could be generated simply by making existing
non-nuclear power plants more efficient is staggering.
On average, coal plants operate at 30% efficiency
worldwide, but newer plants operate at 46%. If the
world average could be raised to 42%, it would save
the same amount of carbon as building 800 nuclear
Nevertheless, the U.S. government spends more on
nuclear power than it does on renewables and
efficiency. Taxpayer subsidies to the nuclear industry
amounted to $9 billion 2006, according to Doug Koplow,
a researcher based in Cambridge, Mass., whose Earth
Track consultancy monitors energy spending. Renewable
power sources, including hydropower but not ethanol,
got $6 billion, and $2 billion went toward
That’s out of whack. Some countries - notably France,
which gets nearly 80% of its power from nuclear plants
and has never had a major accident - have made nuclear
energy work, but at a high cost. The state-owned
French power monopoly is severely indebted, and
although France recycles its waste, it is no closer
than the U.S. to approving a permanent repository. Tax
dollars are better spent on windmills than on cooling

[Published on Monday, July 23, 2007 by The Los Angeles

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