Monday, June 1, 2009

Nuclear Power's Nine Lives

by Mort Malkin

Nuclear Power’s Nine Lives

Some millions of years from now, the sun will die, or at least turn cold. The nuclear power industry, though, gets a new life every few years.

The difference between the two goes further. The sun creates energy by nuclear fusion – combining nuclei of atoms into heavier forms. In the process, tiny particles disappear and large amounts of energy appear. E = mc2. Man-made nuclear power plants (and nuclear bombs) create energy beyond dynamite by nuclear fission, splitting the nuclei of atoms and producing heat which, in turn, spins turbines to make electricity. You mean we’re using nukes to boil water??

The nuclear power industry started when Eisenhower had a vision of “Atoms for Peace” and proclaimed a Shangri-la world in a speech at the UN in 1953. It was an optical illusion. At first, the promise of practically free energy sparked a decade of building “controlled” fission reactors replete with giant cooling towers all around the country. But there was no free lunch. It turned out that there were overruns on construction costs and the costs to human health in the mining and processing of uranium were beyond calculation. The coup de grace was the disaster at Three Mile Island, just 21 years after the first reactor went on line at Shippingport. Where else could both have occurred but Pennsylvania, the state of firsts?

After the Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986) spectacles, the insurance costs of building and operating nuclear power plants went ballistic. Lunch became very expensive. The actuaries of the insurance companies also took note of the Hanford (WA) nuclear reactors on the Columbia River, where plutonium for nuclear bombs was being processed and high level radioactive waste was accumulating to the tune of 53 million gallons over the course of a few decades. Savannah (GA) was second, but they held only 36 million gallons of the high level stuff. The over one hundred nuclear power plants around the nation added 50,000 metric tons of “spent” fuel rods (5% spent, 95% radiant) to the landscape. We were stuck with the hot stuff for more than seven thousand generations, and we’re still producing nuclear waste faster than it is decaying by a factor of oodle cubed.

Then, in the early 70s came the Arab oil embargo, just because we supported Israel in the UN. In the later 70s OPEC cut crude oil production, sending gasoline prices yet higher. Of course, the Seven Sisters (Exxon et al) would not take advantage of the shortages to add to their profits. They just kept their tankers full of oil off shore and out of port so the shortage of gasoline for our cars would be real. Too bad a news helicopter spotted the tankers a few miles out and the tabloids published pictures on the front pages the next morning. It was not as if Dick Cheney held a secret Task Force meeting with the oil companies to plan how they would divide up Iraq’s oil. But, the embargo gave the nuclear industry an opening to claim nuclear power would reduce our dependence on foreign oil … and lessen the need to develop solar, wind, and tidal power. But, it did not change the costs and risks of the Apollonian plants.

Yet another rebirth occurred when the reality of global heating was accepted by most Americans. Senator James Inhofe, who had led the dwindling forces of denial, reluctantly stopped calling those who faced the facts “environmental whackos.” Enter the moribund nuclear industry to tell us all, right up to President Obama, that nuclear energy emits no CO2. They would save us from dreaded global warming (overheating). Of course, they didn’t say a word about how much CO2 is produced by the mining, refining, and transporting of the ore, the construction of each nuclear plant, or the warming of the water used in the cooling of the reactors. But when it came to radioactivity – from the mining to the (lack of) disposal of waste products – the public wasn’t buying. The people knew that U235 has a half life of 700 million years (4.5 billion for U238). Along the way to decaying to ordinary toxic lead, uranium formed a few other scary elements: polonium, radium, thorium, and radon, for starters. No, thanks.

Some of the nuclear plants, in collusion with the Nuclear Regulatory commission, are now proposing a 20 year extension for reactors that are approaching the retirement age of 40 years. Forty years old for a reactor is like eighty for a human being. A nuclear plant is subject to heat, pressure, and radiation and, in addition, has moving parts. Corrosion, brittleness, and just plain wearing out would be expected just like a very senior citizen is likely to break down. Even some of the proteans worry that renewing a forty year old reactor for twenty years more would be asking for trouble. They are “concerned that relying on aging reactors like Oyster Creek [NJ] and Indian Point [NY] is eventually going to lead to an accident which will kill nuclear power in this country forever.” To say nothing of thousands of lives. We are already, as Pete Seeger sings, “Waist Deep In the Big Muddy.”

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