There’s Nothing Energy Independent (and sustainable) about Nuclear Energy

Nuclear Shelter sign on Department of Agriculture, Washington DCSuppose we suspend our “precautionary principle” and understanding about the Three Mile Island crisis. You know, that 1979 national emergency caused by a partial meltdown triggered by a loss of reactor cooling water. Unfortunately, over the last three decades, neither plant owners nor the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) have adequately addressed the basic flaws in U.S. nuclear safety that led to the Three Mile Island accident, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

And suppose we just forget about what to do with the nuclear waste from the reactors, lethal to all life for more than 10,000 years. Even if we can contain the nuclear waste (a big “if” for many of us to swallow in these days of unforeseen financial market meltdowns), why pass this waste on to future generations, on to our great, great, great grandchildren?

That we’ve been unable to agree politically on a safe place to store nuclear waste (in Yucca Mountain, Nevada) masks the fact that we still need to move this toxic waste from as many as 104 currently operating nuclear reactors scattered throughout the continental U.S. Nice targets for those terrorists we’ve been unable to locate or perhaps for the swelling homegrown terrorist types as of late, folks who have come on hard times and can think of better things to do with a $700 billion bailout package and don’t like the way things are headed in Washington D.C. By the way, these nuclear reactors with a 40 year lifespan aren’t cheap, therefore they’ve been partially subsidized by American taxpayers for years.

What Senator McCain and Senator Obama seem to leave out in all their debates and public discourse is that America is no more energy independent with nuclear power than it is with oil. A key rationale for expanding nuclear power generation touted by those concerned about climate change – including both Presidential candidates: Nuclear power plants generate energy by splitting uranium atoms, resulting in no carbon dioxide emissions, standing in stark contrast to those CO2 emissions created by burning coal or oil. But the U.S., as it turns out, has even less uranium than oil as a percentage of domestic production.

According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the United States uses about 53 million pounds of uranium oxide each year, of which only 10 percent is from domestic sources. The US imported about 90 percent of its uranium from foreign sources like the increasingly unstable and belligerent Russia. Other sources of imported uranium include Kazakhstan, Niger, Namibia, Uzbekistan, Canada and Australia. Together, Australia and Canada account for about fifty percent of the world’s total primary uranium production as of 2004, according to the Uranium Producers of America. However, the Bush Administration has recently inked a deal to boost Russian, not Canadian or Australian, uranium imports to supply the US nuclear industry, according to the US Commerce Department. The agreement allows Russia to supply 20 percent of U.S. reactor fuel, quota-free, until 2020. So now, we need to transport it from Russia to the U.S. (safely?).

According to the USA Uranium Corp, “a typical pellet of uranium weighs 7 grams (0.24 ounces), and can generate as much energy as 3.5 barrels of oil, 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas or 1,780 pounds of coal. This makes it a clean and efficient source of natural energy.” But there’s more to nuclear than simply the efficiency of the “clean energy” story.

“Dig, baby, dig” or “pump, baby, pump” will be the new slogan if new nuclear power plants are fired up in a big way. But akin to the off-shore drilling buzz around oil, United States has only about 6% of the recoverable uranium resources worldwide. According to the Uranium Producers of America, “20% of America’s electricity that is currently supplied by nuclear power requires about 57 million pounds of uranium each year; yet America’s uranium industry produced only 2.6 million pounds U3O8 in 2005.” Securing more domestic sources uranium quickly seems as poorly conceived as off-shore oil developments. Plus, it continues along the depletion-mode of a global economy, rather than thriving in a restoration economy I write about in ECOpreneuring where we focus our energy and governmental policies on renewable sources of energy.

Energy efficiency and conservation continues to offer the biggest – and quickest – bang for our investment in energy independence, if we want to tackle energy needs and climate change at the same time. We also need a different approach to our more-based and debt-based economy. It’s time we develop a long term energy strategy that will be fair and work for all Americans, not just trade one energy source dependency for another (read: benefit one energy goliath over another).

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live with a nuclear reactor in my community any more than I want to live in a nuclear fallout shelter. We need an energy policy and plan that is based on the abundant availability of renewable energy. We cannot drill, or dig, or pump our way out of energy dependency.

The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind. Even T. Boone Pickens seems to think so. View our latest production with a 10kW Bergey wind turbine.

  1. Bobby B.

    How many people died as a result of the Three Mile Island (TMI) incident? I think the count nearly 30 years later remains at zero. How many other “close calls” have the United States nuclear power generating industry had since its inception in the 50’s? I believe that number also stands at zero. I will admit that I could be wrong, but I imagine it would have been big news and been turned into a big green talking point just like TMI; maybe even a movie.

    As far as the transporting and the storage of nuclear wastes, here we have another success story. The container used to store the wastes is called a “pill” and it is nearly indestructible. Video footage from destructive testing of pills even found its way onto the television show “Destroyed In Seconds”. The pill survived direct impacts from cars, trucks, tractor trailers, and locomotives during its testing phases. It even survived point blank explosive tests. So, moving it really is not too big a hazard. Sequestering the wastes in a deep hole under a mountain in a desolate area may not be a perfect solution, but given other potential sites it seems like a reasonable solution.

    The lethality of nuclear wastes to “all life” is also debatable. The radioactivity of nuclear wastes comprises the entire scope of its effects on health. A one-time exposure to the moderately low radiation levels of spent nuclear material is not going to kill anyone. It is really not much riskier than having routine X-rays. Continuous exposure could shorten one’s life (the same is true for X-rays), but by how much depends on the individual. Oh, and by the way, there are places on Earth where natural radiation levels exceed the levels present in manmade nuclear wastes, but no one seems to be worried about them.

    And lastly, I am pro-wind power. First, we need the windmills to help keep protected species of birds on the endagerered list. If they go off list, it may affect the donations to animal rights groups. Second, I think the environmentalists have done themselves a major disservice by siding with elitists to block the Cape Wind project. If you are pro-wind, then you should be pro-wind; regardless of the scenery or your political affiliations. Last (but definitely not least), it bothers me that the T. Boone Pickens’ wind energy plan only exists because of his desire to privatize and sell water to large cities. His newfound friendship with Carl Pope of the Sierra Club is no more than a “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” relationship. Mr. Pope wants more wind power and Pickens has the money to make it happen. Pickens wants to sell water and Pope can sway his minions to change their opinions about a commodity that they never wanted to see privatized; call it a blessing from the leader of the green faithful. Hey, it is sort of ironic that his last name is Pope.

  2. john

    For all the reasons that you have both talked about. this is why solar is the only way to go. it will not provide all the energy we need right now but it will decrease dependance on other sources like coal and oil. If only the solar industry could see some federal and private boost in funds they could make it happen. As a result we can use it as a stepping stone towards Space Solar Power or Space Based Solar. This will supply the entire world with free, clean, fully renuable and available 24/7 365. other sources of energy and there are a lot of them, sould only be used as short term stepping stones. SPACE BASED SOLAR IS THE SOLUTION!!!! Its not sci fi anymore. All they need is support from ignorant citizens and politicians and ofcourse the $$$$.

  3. Frank Stallone

    This is why we need to reprocess this fuel and construct fast breeder reactors with passively safe design. Breeder reactors produce more fuel than they consume. It is absolutely stupid to use a small percentage of enriched U-2335 and then consider it “waste”.

    And yes, I would want one ‘in my back yard’. Where are all these electric cars going to get their magic electricity? I’m not saying wind is a horrible idea, but I sure as hell wouldn’t want that deafining thop-thop-thop 24 hours a day within earshot of me. I’d never get any sleep.

  4. Nezhac

    I agree with Bobby B., but for different reasons. One of the things I see anyone fail to mention here is where are we going to find the energy to be able to built the infrastructure for these clean sources of energy. In our current world, where the supply of oil is volatile, our capacity of production is hampered. And to be able to produce wind mills, wind turbines, solar panels or any other forms of harvesting clean energy, we are going to need a form amount of capacity of production, and the more we have the cheaper these normally expensive and high-tech items will be.

    Nuclear power should be used, but also only as a stepping stone, to supply ourselves with energy until we can build the other cleaner means of harvesting energy

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