Imagine a source of electrical power that could:
- Totally destroy an area the size of Pennsylvania, according to a government report.
- Require 65 percent of all government energy subsidies.
- Increase our susceptibility to terrorism.
- Alter the genetic makeup of all living things on the planet.
- Destroy our homes and health, yet be immune from lawsuits.
There is no need to imagine; nuclear power is here today and is capable of doing much more than that.
UW emeritus Professor Max Carbon and his colleagues argued in this newspaper on Oct. 8 for ending Wisconsin's moratorium on nuclear power plants. Quite the opposite, we think that a national moratorium on nuclear power makes both economic and safety sense. Instead of nuclear power, we should use distributed (stand-alone) electrical sources, such as onsite solar thermal and onsite wind, and develop solar photovoltaics.
Here we focus on the exorbitant costs of nuclear-generated electricity, the alleged safety of nuclear waste disposal, and the human impacts of even minor nuclear accidents.
Economics: No new U.S. nuclear plants have been ordered since 1974 because they are too expensive. According to 2001 U.S. Department of Energy data, nuclear fission is more expensive, per kilowatt hour, than (in order of ascending cost) large hydroelectric, natural gas, geothermal, biomass, coal, small hydroelectric, wind, solar thermal with gas backup, and solar thermal. Only solar photovoltaic is currently more expensive than nuclear fission.
Nuclear waste: The DOE admits that the biggest risk from Yucca Mountain is transporting dozens of rail cars or truckloads of lethal waste daily across the United States for the next 30 years. Terrorist assault on any one of these shipments would be enough to wipe out populations in several states.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission says existing waste can be stored safely, at each reactor site, for at least 100 years. Let's do that, and find a better plan for dealing with the waste.
The DOE, in alleging that Yucca Mountain is safe, did not confirm its radiation exposure estimates with standard methods. A peer review by the pro-nuclear International Atomic Energy Agency showed the DOE conclusions about radiation doses to the public could be wrong by a factor of anywhere from 100 million to 1 trillion.
Yet even if the DOE were wrong by a much lesser factor, say a thousand, it still means millions of people could die, even without a waste accident. Besides, if nuclear power and nuclear waste disposal are so safe, then why did the nuclear industry demand the Price-Anderson Act, which makes nuclear power plant owners liable for only about 1 percent of the worst accident damages they cause? (Homeowners, check your insurance polices: They all have nuclear-exclusion clauses.)
Three Mile Island: Carbon et al. repeated initial government claims that there was no harm from the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania.
The latest epidemiological studies show that Three Mile Island area residents have elevated rates of cancer incidence and mortality. There is no dispute about the elevated cancer rates, only about whether the cancer rates are due to radiation from the accident, or perhaps to altered immune function from the psychological stress of the accident.
Approximately 386,000 people voluntarily evacuated the area within 20 miles of the plant. Residents suffered long-lasting psychological effects from the accident such as chronically higher stress hormones and sleep disorders. Mothers of young children living near the plant still had an elevated rate of depression almost six years after the accident. Yet the government has ignored the mental health effects of this and other nuclear accidents.
The safety of the entire nuclear fuel cycle is in question. Tailings from uranium mining have been mishandled, and miners (mostly American Indians) are more likely to get lung cancer. Criticality accidents (which involve very dangerous self-sustaining nuclear chain reactions that create large amounts of radiation) have occurred throughout the history of the nuclear industry, including one that killed two workers in Japan in 1999. Nuclear engineers are excellent at calculating the conditions under which nuclear materials will "go critical," but 70 percent to 80 percent of all accidents are caused by human error.
Proponents of nuclear energy need to answer at least four questions:
If nuclear plants are so safe, why does the industry demand a liability limit that protects it from 99 percent of total possible damages?
Since the DOE says nuclear power is more expensive than solar thermal, wind or biomass, why not use these safer technologies?
How can thousands-per-year of rail/truck shipments of nuclear waste for the next 30 years be made safe from terrorists?
If Americans want to be safe from terrorists' attacks on centralized electricity-generating facilities, shouldn't the United States use distributed and onsite energy facilities?
Colleen F. Moore is a professor in the UW-Madison psychology department and is the author of "Silent Scourge: Children, pollution, and why scientists disagree" (Oxford University Press, 2003). Kristin Shrader-Frechette is a professor in the departments of biological sciences and philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, a member of many National Academy of Science boards, and author of 15 books and 300 articles, most on quantitative risk assessment, radiobiology or ethics.
Copyright 2003 The Capital Times