The Nuclear Goliath
Lately, many may have heard the affable radio jingles for nuclear energy as a clean and reliable candidate to supplant the U.S.’s reliance on foreign fossil fuels. This is sheer, malignant propaganda. Nuclear energy, along with its requisite mining, is not only unsustainable to a high degree, but is, in all aspects, violently rapacious as it dissolves the planet’s fecundity and ultimately encumbers the creation of life for generations to come. It is imperative that nuclear is removed from the lexicon of domestic energy policy and that we consider alternative energy options while significantly reducing consumption levels.
From its inception through mining processes to enrichment, fission, and post-fission, nuclear energy supplies the human race with more destructive waste than energy. A typical 1,000 megawatt plant produces roughly 500 pounds of plutonium and 20-30 tons of high-level radioactive waste annually. There is no known safe and secure way to dispose of the waste. The rate of decay of a radioactive isotope is called its half-life (e.g., the half-life of Plutonium-239 is 24,000 years). The hazardous life of a radioactive element—that being the amount of time needed before the element stops posing a significant risk to people’s mortal health—is at least 10 half-lives; that means plutonium-239 will remain deadly for at least 240,000 years.
DU (depleted uranium, U-238) has a half-life of 4.5 billion years—its hazardous life is uncertain. Despite there being no known safe and secure riddance of the material, the U.S. has made over 1 billion tons of DU for its own “practical” use. DU is used in armor-piercing incendiaries and has been released over Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Bosnia. According to research by the World Health Organization (WHO), DU emits an ionizing radiation responsible for irreversible genetic damage, and ultimately cancer, an assortment of lethal lung/kidney diseases, and/or death. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghanis have been maimed and infants born with deformed limbs or without heads by the U.S. aerial deployment of DU since the first Gulf War and beyond.
Despite the Nuclear Energy Institute’s (NEI) egregious claim that nuclear energy is safe and “green” with zero emissions, analysis proves otherwise. In fact, the nuclear industry is a large contributor to the greenhouse gas aggregate and global warming. The mining of uranium is especially intensive in emitting CO2, alongside a stringent reliance on diesel fuel to operate the machinery. Combining enrichment and plant construction, the equivalent of 34-60 grams of CO2 are emitted per kilowatt of energy (from each operational facility). In 2007 the U.S.’s total generation of energy from nuclear fission was 806.5 billion kWh (kilowatt hours). That equals anywhere from 27,421 billion to 48,390 billion grams of CO2 released into the atmosphere in that year alone. The global emissions are much starker, ranging anywhere from 90,429 billion to 159,582 billion grams of CO2 released into the atmosphere. Once again, these numbers will only climb drastically with demand. In order to replace the entire world’s fossil fuels, more than 2,000 new nuclear facilities would have to be built—an endeavor that would assail the ecology of the planet and its people.
Additionally, there are the potential concerns surrounding spent fuel cooling pools. According to information attained from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and Union of Concerned Scientists (UCSUSA), these 45-feet deep, 100,000 gallon lead and/or steel-lined concrete pools are necessary for retaining high-level radioactive spent fuel rods that generate intense heat. Powered by diesel generators, the pools are continually cooled while pumps circulate the water from the spent fuel pools to heat exchangers back to the spent fuel pools, and round and round. There is also the monitoring of the air and water in order to prevent radiolysis (the dissociation of molecules) so that hydrogen gas will not escape, threatening explosion. Without cooling, the pool water will heat up and boil. If that water boils away, the spent fuel assemblies will overheat, melt, or catch fire. If this is maintained by diesel generators, then peak-oil presents a more precarious than anticipated situation.
In addition, the deleterious effects of uranium mining imposed on the environment have been felt worldwide—from Saskatchewan to Rum Jungle in Australia, perhaps the world’s worst case of negligent mining. Uranium mining is culpable for radiological contamination of the environment and for impacting groundwater systems. It requires approximately a ton of ore to extract two pounds of uranium. The leftover debris is known as uranium tailings (for each ton of uranium oxide approximately 40,000 tons of tailings remain behind) which contain 85 percent of the original radioactivity of the ore. These tailings are comprised of alpha-emitting substances such as thorium-230 (half-life of 80,000 years), radium-226, radon-222, lead-210, polonium-210, etc. The tailings emit at least 10,000 times more radon gas than does the undisturbed ore. Radon gas can travel 1,000 miles in a day and can deposit on vegetation, soil, and water. The above mentioned radium-226, ubiquitous in uranium tailings, is a highly lethal “bone-seeking” alpha-emitting carcinogen with a half-life of 1,600 years. This element is blown in the wind, washed by the rain, and leached into waterways from the tailings. It concentrates by factors of thousands in aquatic plants and by the hundreds in terra plants. Radon gas from inoperative mines and abandoned tailings can be culpable for radioactive contamination not only on a continental level, but on a global basis as well.
The rate of cancer deaths in Windham County in Vermont, for instance, has risen to 5.7 percent above the national average. Entergy’s Yankee nuclear plant is situated alongside the Connecticut River in Vernon, which is in Windham County. But it is, by far, the indigenous peoples of the world who have most felt the encroaching and damaging effects of the nuclear industry. The aboriginals of Australia, perhaps the oldest human cultures of any still in existence, are threatened daily by the encroachment of uranium mining and the deadly legacy of uranium tailings.
In the U.S., the land surrounding Yucca Mountain (a proposed nuclear waste repository and current weapons testing site) is not in U.S. territory, but legally belongs to the Shoshone Nation. In Canada, ten lakes within the Lake Huron region are now radioactive waste sites due to uranium mining. Uranium mined from Elliot Lake in Ontario was used for U.S. nuclear weapons and the area is now infecund, emitting dangerous levels of radiation, immiserating the Northern Ojibwa peoples.
At this point, the question we should ask is not, “How do we use our environment to build sustainable communities?” but rather, “How can our communities fit sustainably within our environment?” If energy and capitalism are the progenitors of economy, then industrial-renewables are the progeny of a green-washed zeitgeist. Not to disparage proponents of renewables, but if we were to mollify current energy demands with “green” technologies we would, prima facie, invest in history repeating itself. If we can’t put back into the land that which we take from it, our consumptive actions and extractive vocations will be in vain.
Industrial solar will leave to future generations a legacy of acres replete with batteries (used to harness and transmit solar energy) brimming with acids, lead, cadmium, nickel, and other toxic elements—a fact that does not warrant one to boast, “Going green,” but rather places that individual closer to being a battery collector than ultimately sustainable. We also can’t overlook the fact that the assembly of photovoltaics is very energy intensive. The manufacturing process occurs in sterile facilities where the air is conditioned with diesel generators, managed free of impurities, and the product is then shipped off via freight for the privileged few who can afford such “self-sufficiency.”
One must also consider the amount of energy needed to process silica for the photovoltaics. Silicon dioxide (silica) is ubiquitous in the Earth’s crust, but in order for it to be processed into silicon, oxygen must be removed from the silica through a melting process using intense heats, requiring a lot of energy. The process produces a wafer which is then exposed to photosensitive chemicals—in a process known as photolithography to allow the transfer of circuitry to the wafer. Myriad noxious acids (e.g., hydrofluoric acid) are used to etch the circuitry. Now imagine a solar sector large enough to meet our current demands.
As for the biofuels panacea, the recent pandemic of food-cost inflation and the repercussive food riots in structurally-adjusted Haiti (and elsewhere) should urge caution. The industrial planting of biofuel crops is ravaging the littoral rainforests of Ecuador, home of the Awa peoples, and a tropical bastion boasting one of the world’s finest regions of endemism. Due to indigenous lands being seized by logging and palm-oil plantations, Ecuador has become Latin America’s second largest producer of agridiesel and intends to increase production more than 50 percent over the next 5 years. This is occurring throughout the Southern Hemisphere, transmuting hectares of lush rainforest into vast seas of monocropped corporate biofuel plantations. Will the children of ensuing generations grow up without rainforests? Can they?
Industrial wind power—albeit stringently reliant on fossil fuels for manufacturing and dependent on galvanized steel and exotic alloys—may be a diamond in the rough given sufficient output (contingent on wind activity). Energy generated from wind power is equivalent to the wind speed cubed, e.g. a 12 mph wind will supply 33 percent more energy than an 11 mph wind. Still, even if we go full throttle for wind power—building immense stations—it’s a false hope. We will be throwing away precious time and resources only to discover that even this munificent source of energy cannot sustain current lifestyles.
Lastly, we must recognize that there is no one alternative energy wedge that will produce enough energy to sustain itself. No energy derived exclusively from the system will be enough to power the industry that gives nascence to any particular wedge. This includes all alternative energies, from bio-fuels to anaerobic digestion, from hydro power to nuclear energy. It is delusional to believe that technology will prevail fortuitously, providing us all with answers and solutions to global warming and declining fossil fuels and other “resources.” Realistically, technology of modern proportions cannot exist without an oil-based infrastructure.
Before blindly investing in new energy methods and sources, let’s use pragmatism and master moderation alongside reduction. The true answer to the question of how to solve our energy concerns is through fundamental lifestyle changes. A significant reduction in consumption coupled with conservation, alongside a new tactic for employing our ingenuity—not for industry, but for community—will provide a good start toward pragmatic solutions.
To bring about a sustainable community, on a state level, localization is imperative. Initiatives such as worker and producer cooperatives, neighborhood and community associations, collective kitchens, unemployed worker mutual-aid organizations, and more—all working holistically together—are essential to have in a functional community. If each state can wholly embrace a functional model for cooperation rather than competition in every sector, then immediately everyone on board is working together to build a sustainable community. Eventually, we could even transcend state and sector and be a community again.
Endogenous development—development from within—will provide a solid foundation for negotiating our energy needs. If communities can provide 90 percent of their requirements rather than import them, community members will be more reliant on a localized human-power, rather than an industrial source.
If we want to preserve our lands in a condition suitable to grow and manage our requirements, then it is important that we not only say goodbye to the concept of nuclear energy, but that we embrace responsible methods of harnessing energy while living responsible lives that recognize our integral existence as a part of our natural surroundings. Again, lifestyle changes could be encouraged and supported by the relationships made through practicing solidarity in communal exchange.
When it comes to meeting our basic energy requirements, renewable energy is the answer, as it always has been. We just need to adjust our lives so as to not have consumption determining the energy flow, but rather the other way around. If we pursue wind power, or any other form of energy for that matter (and all that it entails, i.e. manufacturing of parts, construction, transmission, etc.), we must ask: “Where is this coming from? Where is it going? Who and what will it affect, and what will its effects be?” Everything has its source and that source has its own living system and inhabitants.
If we stop objectifying everything (e.g. viewing trees as lumber, mountains as subsidized electricity, innocent Afghanis and Iraqis as “collateral damage,” animals as vivisection victims, land as property) then the world will teach us how to live in peace once again.
Frank Smecker is a student, social-worker, and writer from Richmond, Vermont. He has written for a handful of local publications on energy and industrialism.