Answering Nuclear Industry Talking Points

Some of you may have already read Kelly Taylor’s comments below, and thought “Hey, Jeff. Pointing out her affiliation with the NEI is helpful, but doesn’t answer her claims.” Of course, you’d be right. Since we’ve had a number of NEI folks posting comments here for some time now (most courteously, I might add — Kelly could take lessons in tone from some of her colleagues), and since I’ve posted things here and there in response to the nuclear energy’s recent campaign to green their product, I thought I’d devote a post to answering, as much as I can, the claims that Kelly and other nuke supporters raise. Of course, you’re additions to the debate are most welcome.

Nuclear energy is “the industry that sequesters all the waste it produces.” My first response to this was “Then why do we need Yucca Mountain?” But, that’s just the meanderings of a mere English professor. The Nuclear Information and Resource Service (in PDF) and Public Citizen (scroll down to “Speaking of Wastes…”) disagree. NIRS also has a run-down of specific waterways used to transport high-level radioactive wastes.

Nuclear energy “includes the expense for [waste sequestration efforts] in its lower-than-average production expenses.” Obviously, there are a couple of arguments here — the inclusion of waste sequestration in costs, and the costs themselves. On the inclusion of costs, I found some interesting facts in a press release from Citizens Against Government Wastes (hardly a progressive/left-leaning organization):

Because spent nuclear fuel from commercial power plants and government defense activities was being stored throughout the country at sites that were not designed for that purpose, Congress enacted the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) in 1982. The law mandated that the Department of Energy (DOE) begin to take custody of spent nuclear fuel and delivering it to a permanent national nuclear waste repository no later than January of 1998.

NWPA also created the Nuclear Waste Trust Fund to pay for the construction of the permanent repository. Customers who purchase electricity generated from nuclear power have been assessed a fee for that purpose and have so far deposited more than $22 billion into a trust fund…

[The Department of Energy] has lost every court battle in its effort to dodge responsibility for taking the fuel. In 1996, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the department must proceed with nuclear waste removal and storage. In January 1997, a court ruled that DOE could not claim it lacked authorization to take the fuel. The federal courts also found that the federal government (read: taxpayers) is now liable for paying for the on-site storage at nuclear facilities across the country. Those costs range from $34 to $56 billion, with some estimates as high as $80 billion. Then, in September, 2000, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit gave three of the utilities the green light to pursue further legal action against DOE for failing to dispose of the nuclear waste that had been produced at the utilities’ nuclear power plants.

Citizens Against Governement Wastes, interestingly enough, seems to side with the nuclear industry. If the industry wants to promote itself as paying for its own wastes, though, it certainly doesn’t need any more friends like this…

On production expenses, here’s a interesting article by Amory Lovins addressing nuclear power’s ability to compete in a truly free market (I posted about this). Here’s a transcript of PIRG’s Ann Aurilio’s testimony before Congress on the Price-Anderson Act. Great Britain’s New Economics Foundation claims that the UK’s nuclear industry has undestimated costs “by almost a factor of three.” Dr. Helen Caldicott of the Nuclear Power Research Institute claims:

The true economies of the nuclear industry are never fully accounted for. The cost of uranium enrichment is subsidized by the U.S. government. The true cost of the industry’s liability in the case of an accident in the United States is estimated to be $560 billion, but the industry pays $9.1 billion — 98 percent of the insurance liability is covered by the federal government. The cost of decommissioning all the existing U.S. nuclear reactors is estimated to be $33 billion. These costs — plus the enormous expense involved in the storage of radioactive waste for a quarter of a million years — are not included in the economic assessments of nuclear electricity.

The nuclear industry “could recycle up to 95% of its used fuel for more energy, continuing the environmental benefits.” Here’s some basic information on recycling radioactive materials from Public Citizen. Here’s NIRS’ fact sheet on radioactive waste recycling. Here’s another NIRS page on nuclear waste reprocessing.

Some other ways the nuclear industry tries to put on a “clean, green face”:

Here’s Corpwatch’s take on a 2001 advertising campaign by NEI. Corpwatch awarded the Institute it’s Summer Greenwash Award.

I’ve seen Dr. Patrick Moore trotted out as an advocate for nuclear power. In the seventies, Moore cofounded Greenpeace. In more recent years, though, he’s spent his time shilling for industry.

Dr. James Lovelock has also been presented as an environmentalist in favor of nuclear power. While it doesn’t look like Lovelock has taken to ‘ho’in’ out his green credentials like Dr. Moore, a conversation on WorldChanging raises some important questions about his claim that nuclear power is “the only green solution.”

And, some background on the Nuclear Energy Institute itself.

My conclusion:
I don’t have nearly enough of a scientific background to claim with certainty that nuclear power can’t ever be safe and affordable. But I do know that there’s plenty of credible information out there that flies directly in the face of the claims the nuclear energy industry makes. I don’t think the industry presents its product honestly, and that makes it very hard for me to believe that nuclear power is a safe, affordable and “green” source of power. As always, I welcome your comments…

UPDATE: After re-reading this, I realized I sounded a bit cranky at points — I apologize. This is an important discussion that will probably raise tempers, but as I am your host, I should act a bit more hospitably…

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