Photo of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, Units 1 and 2 by Nuclear Regulatory Commission via Flickr Creative Commons

Nuclear Power Is in Need of a Three-Strikes Law:

Too Dangerous, Too Inefficient, Too Expensive

“It is useless. If we are in hell now, all we can do is crawl toward heaven.”—Heroic Japanese worker

Dangers and Inefficiencies

If nuclear power was a person, rather than a resource, it would be subject to a three-strikes law: Too dangerous. Too wasteful. And too expensive.

After Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and now Fukushima, it is obvious to most Americans, there is no such thing as a peaceful atom. Instead, it’s a disaster waiting to happen. Yet the nuclear industry is willing to play nuclear roulette, despite proven catastrophes. Like any addict, or in this case, one addicted to money, the nuclear industry is willing to gamble away the quality of future generations for a resource that is a disaster waiting to happen.

And it isn’t out of desperation they pursue uranium. It’s because it isn’t profitable for corporations to pursue benign renewable energy alternatives, such as wind, solar and ocean thermal. You see, you can’t control supply and demand or run up prices with natural resources that are always with us.

And you can’t create fictitious reasons to go to war for stuff that doesn’t belong to us, when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing right above us here at home 24/7. Energy lobby-cons market nuclear as “clean, safe energy” that will “reduce our carbon footprint.” But I challenge anyone to simply Google “uranium mining.” What you will learn is the tremendous amount of fossil fuels it takes just to mine the uranium ore.

A PR utility guy let me put the equivalent of a nuclear “pellet” in my hand, a black disk about the size of an auto fuse. “Harmless,” he says. “But that little guy’ll heat up half a city.”

What he doesn’t say is that it takes an acre of uranium ore to make that “pellet.” And that there are 36 pellets per fuel rod. And there are about 30,000 fuel rods in 200 fuel rod assemblies in a nuclear power plant, that have to go into fuel ponds as nuclear waste every three years. Now, how much land does it really take to get that harmless “pellet”? Or, how many truck loads to haul it back and forth? Or, how many Indians on reservations will be contaminated, to get us that cute, harmless little lie?

And it’s not just the mining. It’s the milling, the conversion, the fabrication, the transportation, the reprocessing, the turbines, the generating. The enrichment phase alone uses 25% of all the energy the nuclear industry produces. Just one step. Should we mention the waste we still can’t store for some 10,000 years and all the security required every step of the fuel cycle?

And to do what? Boil water. It’s like using a chainsaw to pick your teeth or, in the words of John Goffman, one of the inventors of nuclear power, who became one of its strongest opponents, “It’s like using a cannon to kill the fly in the room.”

Many insist that nuclear power is competitive with other fossil fuels. Oh no, it’s not. It only competes with other energy resources because it is 80% funded by we the taxpayers.

In fact, nuclear power plants aren’t even insurable. So Congress created a law that limits utility liability. In other words, the industry isn’t responsible if there is a major accident. We are. If just the spent fuel rods caught fire at Diablo Canyon (about 60 Hiroshima bombs), it would cost $59 billion, cause 28,000 cancers and contaminate 200 square miles. That’s not me saying it. It’s Robert Alvarez, this March, who was both assistant and deputy director of the Department of Energy for about eight years.

And those fuel ponds are just sitting ducks, out in the open, waiting for some plane to crash into them.

Limited liability means that in the case of a “minor catastrophe” the utility is responsible for $1.2 billion or about 2% of the damages. That means “We the People” get to make up the rest.

The initial cost for Diablo Canyon was just under $1 billion. The plant ended up costing close to $6 billion. To build a plant today, $10 billion is the projected cost.

But that’s not the end of it. Nuclear power plants only last 40 years. “Decommissioning” costs are close to another billion dollars. And on top of that, about 10 miles around the plant requires top security, and the land is rendered permanently uninhabitable. After it is embedded in truckloads of concrete, we can just add it to the price tag of boiling water. And don’t forget, uranium is a finite resource, and its price is rising as it gets harder and harder to mine.

Nuclear Power in the Valley

A nuclear reactor is in the planning stages for western Fresno County and supported by the Madera County Board of Supervisors. There will be pressure to build a plant there, as legislation passed this year has guaranteed a $30 billion slush fund for the nuclear industry.

Besides its dangers, waste problems and extravagance, the biggest problem in the Valley is where to get the water. According to studies by Friends of the Earth, nuclear power plants use one-third of the California aqueduct every year just to cool one reactor. That’s if everything goes well. Now that spent fuel will be stored onsite, and it will require additional water resources to cool it.

With farming being the main revenue in western Fresno County, salinization is also an issue. The reactor will discharge salt for a five-mile radius around the plant, as salts are a by-product of producing nuclear energy.

And using wastewater to cool nuclear power plants could pose additional problems. So it likely will not be used. The wastewater treatment plant is targeted in western Fresno County as a ploy, so the Fresno Nuclear Energy Group can evade California law that states no nuclear power plants can be built in California until there is a way to dispose of the nuclear waste. Building the plant under wastewater treatment slickly diverts the law.

Alternatives Available

There are benign energy alternatives available, such as energy efficiency, cogeneration, solar hot water, solar voltaic, wind generation, ocean thermal and geothermal—all available to us in California today and every day. There are other choices, and good choices, to nuclear power.

In the 1980s, the Energy Research and Development Agency suggested we try “energy efficiency.” It would “save 50% of our overall energy use.” Nuclear power provides only 12% of our energy needs. In other words, energy efficiency alone would provide four times the energy that all 104 nuclear power plants produce across the United States.

There is also solar, wind and geothermal, all clean, renewable energy sources in unlimited supply that will be here with us as long as generations exist to thrive and survive. These benign sources pose little, if any, threat to the environment, and they do not contribute to global warming.

And there is cogeneration, which captures existing heat from operating plants, transferring it into electrical energy and returning it to the grid, again, saving energy.

When I talk with people about solar energy, many reply, “I’d go solar if it was feasible, but it requires too much land. We don’t have the technology to harness it.” So I tell them about the Smith Solar Voltaic System not being used.

The Smith collector, designed in the 1980s, would take advantage of the easement requirements of existing transmission lines. The solar collectors simply make use of the land beneath the lines that cannot be used for anything else, transferring the electricity back into the existing grid. There is literally hundreds of miles of land in California under transmission lines, getting 76% sun, that can be put to good use, solar power. So, where’s the land issue now?

Wind generation is now a successful industry, both large scale and small scale. Farmers in California will put a windmill on their farms to run electrical equipment and the household. With new laws in effect in California, they can resell their extra electrical supply back to the utility at a fair market price.

It seems that ocean thermal is a far better way to get our energy than deep-water oil drilling, which lacks the technology to clean up its too frequent mistakes. And geothermal is alive and well just outside Sacramento.

If benign energy alternatives are so feasible, why aren’t we using them to a greater degree? I think it is because the coal, oil and nuclear industries have a powerful Washington lobby that dictates our energy policy, one that ensures these industries make the largest amount of profit.

Power companies want to control the supply and demand of energy. But with solar and wind, constantly with us each and every day, they can’t do that. And energy companies don’t make money saving energy, they make money selling it, and the more they sell—and waste—the more profitable it is for these mining industries, utilities and their shareholders.

And these powerful energy companies will no longer be able to manipulate us into fictitious wars, so they can steal resources from other countries. Not when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing at home.

So while you wait for another nuclear accident to happen, spewing thousands of years’ worth of contamination around the globe, remember this, there are legitimate and realistic alternatives. And considering that every scientist agrees, “There is no safe dose of radiation,” and it is cumulative, why take the risk with a dangerous industry when we have sound alternatives available now to replace it?

“God provides,” mom used to say. There are no greater examples of that statement than wind generation and solar energy.

After three occupations of Diablo Canyon, the Bluesteins were a catalyst in sending many to occupy the nuclear power plant one more time. They wrote a song that hit the airwaves: “That’s one thing a nuke just won’t do / It won’t squeeze and hold you tight / It won’t call you honey dumplin’ / That’s one thing a nuke just won’t do.”

Isn’t it time to finally recognize there is no such thing as a “peaceful atom” and apply the three-strikes law to nuclear power? Let’s put it away for life, or before Fukushima is San Onofre or Diablo Canyon. Or the disaster being planned for western Fresno County.

Sources of information for this article the Union of Concerned Scientists’ daily updates, March 14‒March 31, 2011; an interview with Helen Caldecott of Physicians for Social Responsibility; Friends of the Earth; CNN; Democracy Now! (reports/interviews with environmentalists, physicists and nuclear engineers); the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; the International Nuclear Energy Agency; Nuclear Free World; National Geographic; the Energy Research & Development Administration (ERDA); the San Francisco Chronicle; the Sierra Club; Reuters News Service; and the Los Angeles Times.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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