[Marxism] Support Nuclear Power Maybe Not! [Fwd: 4.5 Billion Years in Provence]

Bill Quimby wquimby at ecr.net
Tue Jul 29 18:03:08 MDT 2008



-------- Original Message --------
Subject: 4.5 Billion Years in Provence
Date: Tue, 29 Jul 2008 18:54:23 -0500 (CDT)
From: Tom Davos <tomdavos at yahoo.com>
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http://www.motherjones.com/commentary/columns/2008/07/4-billion-years-in-provence.html

4.5 Billion Years in Provence

Recent radioactive leaks in France provide a cautionary tale for America's
"nuclear renaissance."

James Ridgeway July 29

As gasoline prices rise along with global temperatures, the nuclear energy
bandwagon is gaining momentum, and welcoming aboard Americans of all
political stripes. In the past month alone, President Bush, preparing for
climate change talks at the G8 summit, urged the world to "waken up to the
beauty of nuclear power", while Republican presidential candidate Sen.
John McCain, in one of his June speeches on energy policy, called for the
construction of 45 new U.S. nuclear power plants by 2030, 100 over the
longer term. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama and Al
Gore have both confirmed that they see nuclear power as a necessary part
of the nation's future "energy mix"a view also shared by House Speaker
Nancy Pelosi, a growing number of congressional Democrats, as well as a
handful of environmentalists who support the nuclear option as an
imperfect but unavoidable alternative to global warming and response to
peak oil.

This lesser-evil argument appears to be swaying public opinion: While most
polls show Americans about evenly divided on building more nuclear plants,
61 percent say they would support "increased use of nuclear power as a
source of energy in order to prevent global warming." There are even signs
of the arrival of "nuke chic"most appealing, perhaps, among those too
young to remember when the threat of nuclear annihilation was the planet's
inconvenient truth. A 2005 Wired magazine article promoting "clean, green
atomic energy" described nuclear power opponents as "the granola crowd,"
and asked, "Wouldn't it be a blast to barrel down the freeway in a
hydrogen Hummer with a clean conscience as your copilot?" And in 2006 Elle
magazine included nuclear energy in its list of the top ten "cool, new
things."

Big energy companies, of course, are only too happy to ride the nuclear
juggernaut, especially when it is fueled by substantial government
subsidies. In a country that hasn't broken ground on a new nuclear plant
since the 1979 near-meltdown at Three Mile Island, on June 30 the US
government's Energy Information Administration listed 19 license
applications to build commercial nuclear reactors under review or
anticipated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The number is expected
to exceed 30 by the end of next year. The NRC has hired 400 new staff to
deal with the flood of applications, and "streamlined" the process for
siting, licensing, and constructing new nuclear plants. And as the United
States once again goes nuclear, it looks for inspiration to the
longstanding poster child for atomic energy: France.

Suddenly, the French are very ` la mode among nuclear-friendly
politicians. Just five years ago, John McCain was berating France for its
opposition to the Iraq War. (In February 2003, he told CBS News that the
French "remind me of an aging movie actress in the 1940s who's still
trying to dine out on her looks but doesn't have the face for it. You
cannot be a great nation unless you have a great purpose.") But his
February 2008 visit to France was described by Time as "McCain's Paris
Romance." It isn't just the rise of Sarkozy l'Amiricain that's wringing
praise from former munchers of freedom fries. Its the nukes. "The French
are able to generate 80 percent of their electricity with nuclear power,"
McCain said after the trip. "There's no reason why America shouldn't."
South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham, who accompanied McCain to France,
declared: "Surely we can be as bold as the French. They know what they're
doing. They have a very mature nuclear program." Even George W. Bush has
pointed to France as a model for our energy future.

But events this month show that life as a nuclear-powered nation is far
from la vie en rose. In mid July, the French Nuclear Safety Authority
(ASN) announced a leak from a cracked pipe at a nuclear fuel plant in the
southeastern Drtme region. It said the leak was small and had not
contaminated groundwater. Such was not the case, however, on July 7, when
about 75 kilograms (165 pounds) of untreated liquid uranium were spilled
at the Tricastin nuclear plant in the Vaucluse, north of Avignon. As the
French began to repair to the countryside for their storied six-week
summer vacations, those in this corner of Provence were being told not to
drink the wateror swim or fish in it. One swimmer at a local lake told
the Guardian that people had been ordered out of the water "as if there
had been sharks in it."

The incident was given a low rating in terms of risk, but the French
nuclear watchdog group CRIIRAD (Commission for Independent Research and
Information on Radioactivity) reported that the amount of radioactivity
released into the environment was 100 times higher than the site's limit
for an entire year. The Tricastin facility was temporarily shut down, the
water ban remains in effect, and the French government has begun testing
the water around all 59 of its nuclear plants.

Such dramatic events were bound to make headlines, and even had some media
predicting a chill in Frances long love affair with linergie nucliaire,
which it embraced during the energy crisis of the 1970s and never let go
of. But in fact, the idea of France as a model of safe, affordable nuclear
energy is largely a myth, and the current situation hardly an aberration.
Incidences of radioactive contamination are common in France, which has
had no more success than any other country in solving the intractable
problem of radioactive waste. At the Tricastin site, for example, about
770 tons of nuclear waste have been buried for the past 30 years, and four
smaller incidents took place in 2007 alone, according to CRIIRAD.

Nuclear contamination even threatens the twin sacraments of French life,
wine and cheese. In May 2006, Greenpeace reported that low-level
radioactive waste from a nuclear dumpsite had been found in the
groundwater near the Champagne vineyards of eastern France. A report
released earlier the same month on contamination from an older nuclear
waste facility in La Hague, Normandy showed radioactivity more than seven
times the European safety limit in local underground aquifers, which are
used by farmers for their dairy cattle in a region renowned for its Brie
and Camembert.

The La Hague facility is particularly important to current debates over
the future of nuclear power. It is the world's largest nuclear fuel
"reprocessing" plant, where spent nuclear fuel is broken down and parts of
it recovered for use in new fuel. Reprocessing is widely touted as a
solution to the problem of managing the high-level radioactive waste from
spent fuel rods, which remains dangerous for about 240,000 years (Depleted
uranium, the byproduct of the enrichment process, is even more robustly
radioactive, with a half-life of 4.5 billion years.).

The problem is that reprocessing yields nearly pure plutonium, a substance
even more deadly and more volatileand far more easily utilized by
terrorists. In 2003, Greenpeace staged an event for the media in the
middle of a town in Burgundy, in which it intercepted trucks carrying what
was supposed to be a top-secret shipment of reprocessed plutonium from La
Hague. High-level waste is shipped overland to La Hague from all over
Europe, and the plant itself, which stores large amounts of highly
radioactive nuclear material awaiting reprocessing or transport, would be
an especially devastating target for a terrorist attack. (Surface-to-air
missiles were briefly stationed around La Hague following 9/11.)

Even under ordinary conditions, La Haguelike its more notorious British
counterpart, Sellafield releases low-level radioactive waste into the air
and sea. Several studies have found elevated levels of childhood leukemia
around the Normandy site.

Such is the world that American nuclear proponents apparently have in
mind: a landscape dotted with nuclear plants, traversed by trucks carrying
nuclear fuel and waste. And France is more than ready to export all of
this. Arevathe French state-owned nuclear giant responsible for the waste
sites in Normandy and Champagne, as well the two plants that had leaks
this monthis positioned to take full advantage of the US nuclear revival.

This is much in keeping with the strategy of President Nicolas Sarkozy,
who has made it clear that he wants France to become an ever-bigger
exporter of both nuclear-generated electricity and nuclear technology.
Since his election, he has signed cooperation agreements on civilian
nuclear energy with Algeria, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, and the
United Arab Emirates. In a speech given just days before the Provence
nuclear spill, Sarkozy said: "More than ever, nuclear is an industry for
the future and an indispensable energy source....We can be electricity
exporters when we have neither oil nor gas. This is an historic chance for
development." The head of French Greenpeace's nuclear campaign recently
accused Sarkozy of behaving "like a traveling salesman for Areva."

This year alone, Areva has won several major contracts to supply fuel to
current US nuclear facilities, and signed on to build a $2 billion uranium
enrichment plant in Idaho. (Sen. Larry Craig (R-Id.) subsequently flew
over for what he called a "nuclear tour de France.") In addition, Areva,
which also has US contracts for nuclear waste disposal and reprocessing,
is already participating in George Bush's 2006 Global Nuclear Energy
Partnership (GNEP), a potentially disastrous plan that includes building
fuel reprocessing facilities similar to La Hague at sites in the United
States. As in France, reprocessing is promoted as a panacea for high-level
nuclear waste, which still has no long-term US disposal site. (The other
increasingly popular approach is to simply pass the buck to future
generation by advocating "interim storage.")

Areva has also formed a partnership with Baltimore-based Constellation
Energy to build new nuclear power plants in the United States. Their joint
company, UniStar, has already filed a licensing application for a plant at
Calvert Cliffs, on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, projected to open in
2015; it is expected to file soon for another at Nine Mile Point in
upstate New York. The new US plants are slated to be the countrys first
EPRs (Evolutionary Power Reactors), a design developed by Areva and
promoted as a new generation of safer, more cost-effective reactors. But
the first prototype EPR, being built by Areva in Finland, is two years
behind schedule and at least $1 billion over budget, and construction of
the second, in Normandy, has been plagued by a series of defects.

Plans for Areva's US plants are moving forward nonetheless, with help from
US taxpayers and friends in high places. Dick Cheney's 2001 Energy Task
Force gave a big push to nuclear energy, and the new energy legislation
that followed in 2005 contained $12 billion in subsidies to the nuclear
industryeven more than it gave to the oil and gas or coal companies. A
2007 investigation by MSNBC showed a major jump in Arevas lobbying
expenditures and campaign contributions while the bill was under
consideration, as well as close connections with three key players:
then-Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham became chairman of Arevas US
subsidiary when he left the Bush Administration in 2006. The task forces
Executive Director, Andrew Lundquist, also served briefly on Arevas US
board. And a former Areva lobbyist, Alex Flint, helped shepherd the energy
bill through Congress while serving a stint as staff director on the
Senate Energy Committee, which was then chaired by Pete Domenici (R-N.M.).
Nuclear powers biggest booster in Congress, Domenici, is also the only
American who has received the French Nuclear Energy Society's highest
award.

Areva's new American partner, Constellation Energy, had also been invited
to meet with Cheneys task force, and the two companies announced their
joint venture less than six weeks after the passage of the 2005 energy
bill with its whopping nuclear subsidies. Announcing that they had begun
to procure the materials to construct the first plants, Constellation's
Michael Wallace acknowledged: "The Bush Administration and Congress have
made this commitment possible by developing, passing and carrying out the
Energy Policy Act of 2005."

In other words, despite the host of assurances about safety and
cost-effectiveness, the nuclear industry couldnt survive for a moment in
the free-market without handouts from American taxpayerssome of which, in
the case of the government-owned Areva, will go into the French treasury.
The libertarian Cato Institute, attacking the 2005 energy bill, called
nuclear power "purelya creature of government," saying it was still
viewed by private investors as "the pariah of the energy industry."

Such obstacles arent likely to derail Americas rush toward nuclear
power, nor are the cautionary tales currently playing out in Normandy and
Provence. Legislation passed in 2007 included additional subsidies for the
industry, increasing government loan guarantees for new nuclear reactor
construction and uranium enrichment to more than $20 billion. While an
attempt by John McCain to embed still more nuclear subsidies into a
climate change bill failed last year, that battle isnt over yet. And with
McCain, a major nuclear cheerleader, and Barack Obama a cautious supporter
with large campaign contributions from the industry, the future doesnt
look promising for nuclear energy opponents.

Already, the United States has nearly twice as many nuclear plants than
France104, compared with their 59. But its a matter of proportion: The
US is more than 15 times the size of France, and has about 5 times its
population. The US gets only about 20 percent of our electricity from
nuclear energy, and if we wanted to, we could still learn to live without
it; we havent yet reached the tipping point. The City of Light, by
comparison, wouldn't survive a single night without nuclear power.

Ironically, as Americans are drinking the nuclear Kool-Aid, there are
signs that the French may be losing their appetite for the fare in the
atomic cafi. Anti-nuclear protests seem to be on the rise in France,
against both new nuclear plants and the high-risk transportation of
radioactive fuel and waste. A recent European Commission study found that
two-thirds of the French want to decrease the share of their energy that
comes from nuclear power. And last year, following the so-called Grenelle
de l'Environnementa series of discussions among government, industry,
unions, and nonprofit groups that yielded a set of environmental
goalsNicolas Sarkozy announced that France would aim to decrease its
reliance on nuclear-generated electricityto no more than 60 percent.

James Ridgeway is Mother Jones' senior Washington correspondent.





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