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Nuclear Power is not Green or Clean

Wisconsin State Journal, Op-Ed Page 


May 18, 2005

From: Al Gedicks
210 Avon Street # 4
La Crosse, WI  54603
(608) 784-4399

The nuclear industry is now trying to change negative public perceptions of nuclear power by promoting itself as the solution to global climate change. A recent column by Theodore J. Iltis proclaimed "Keep America green: Go nuclear" (WSJ 3/20/05). Iltis says that environmentalists who are concerned about the increase in greenhouse-gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels should embrace nuclear power because it does not produce carbon dioxide and thus does not contribute to global climate change. This commonly held view, endlessly repeated by proponents of nuclear power ignores the fact that without uranium there is no nuclear power. The mining, milling and enrichment of uranium into nuclear fuel are extremely energy-intensive and result in the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels. The most intense mining and milling activity in the United States has been concentrated on the lands of Navajo and Pueblo Indians in the Grants Uranium Belt of northwest New Mexico.

Before uranium can be used in nuclear power plants it must undergo a process of enrichment. Uranium enrichment plants are the largest industrial plants in the world and consume enormous amounts of electricity. Far from being "clean", each 1000 megawatt-electric nuclear plant requires the equivalent of a 45 megawatt-electric coal plant--which annually burns 135,000 tons of coal--to supply its enrichment needs alone. The enrichment plant at Paducah, Kentucky, requires the electrical output of two 1000-megawatt coal-fired plants, which emit large quantities of carbon dioxide, the gas responsible for fifty percent of global warming. During its operation the enrichment plant at Piketon, Ohio consumed 10 percent of Ohio's electricity, more than the entire city of Cleveland. 

Proponents of nuclear power likewise ignore the substantial emissions of radioactive radon gas and other radioactive elements from the mining and milling of uranium ore in underground and open pit mines. The Navajo and Pueblo Indians, along with several thousand white miners were never told of the dangers from exposure to radon gas when they first entered those underground mines in Arizona and New Mexico in the 1950s. At least 450 former uranium miners have already died of lung cancer, five times the national average.

For those communities living next to uranium mines there is the additional problem of   exposures from radioactive tailings,  the waste that remains after the uranium has been extracted from the ore and processed into yellowcake. The thorium in the tailings piles has a radioactive half-life of 80,000 years. In other words, while nuclear power plants will produce power for only about 40 years, the effects of mill tailings will remain for thousands of future generations. There are over 200 million tons of these tailings in large piles around uranium mines and mills and they are emitting radioactive elements into the air and water. Communities near these tailings piles report a high rate of miscarriages, cleft palates and other birth defects, bone, reproductive, and gastric cancers as related health effects of uranium mining and exposure to contaminated air and water.

And what about nuclear waste disposal? A typical nuclear reactor will generate 20 to 30 tons of high-level nuclear waste annually. There is no known way to safely dispose of this waste, which remains dangerously radioactive for a quarter of a million years. Iltis says the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada is an excellent choice for storage. The Western Shoshone Indians strongly disagree. They claim the land on which the federal government tested its atomic weapons and now plans to store 77,000 tons of military and power plant waste still belongs to them under the Ruby Valley Treaty of 1863 . The federal government has tried to force the Western Shoshone to accept payment for the land and thus forfeit their claim to it. The tribe sued the federal government in March 2005, alleging the Yucca Mountain project would violate the treaty. To date, no Western Shoshone members have accepted payment for their land.

The failure of nuclear proponents to address the disproportionate impact of nuclear activities on Native American populations has its origins in an environmental racism which justifies exposing certain groups to hazardous environmental conditions in the name of national security, economic progress or to avoid the perils of global climate change. Nuclear power is not green. It is not clean. And it is a continuation of the environmentally racist policies of the nuclear industry. (Read More)

Al Gedicks is a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and the author of Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations.  


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