The Clean, Green Nuclear Machine?


We are a world of some 192 separate nations. Yet, increasingly the notion of independent nation is irrelevant. In this World United, where economic, political, and environmental crises fester and erupt in local and globalized ways, we all “feel the pain” – though some experience more than their fair share. The inequitable experience of human and environmental crisis is most painfully obvious when considering what we humans do to secure and maintain access to the critical resources that feed our increasing addiction to consumption. And, when we confront the devastating consequences of feeding that habit.

Ulcerating consequences become crises that feed the political debates of our time. While the competition to win the hearts and minds of the US electorate has involved almost artistic efforts to paint a caricature of character, there is occasional attention to governance and agenda setting: What to do in the face of economic disaster? War? New national security threats? And, how to respond to the challenge of transforming our resource and energy dependencies?

Today I read that it is the development of clean, green energies that may be the global salvation to our current economic woes, our oil dependencies, and thus reduce the militarism fueled by the desire to get, to keep, and to return to our former glorious age of ever-expanding consumption. According to some, including the current US administration, the European Union, Russia, India, China, and both of the major candidates for US President, nuclear energy may be the ultimate salvation, the cost-effective strategy best suited to cut-carbon emissions while powering us along into a new age of consumption. And governments have taken action to smooth the way for this energy transition. Thus, in 2007, following the U.S. lead with its 2006 Advanced Energy Initiative and the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, the European Union adopted legislation labeling nuclear power as an approved strategy for reducing greenhouse emissions.

As in other countries, the American nuclear power industry is gearing up to build 34 new nuclear plants (adding to the current stock of 103 commercial reactors) and factories are being built to fabricate the parts for these facilities. To fuel this boom uranium tailings are being re-mined and new claims dot the southwest landscape, including mining claims in many of our major national Parks: the Grand Canyon, Moab, Arches National Monument. This is a global phenomena: the escalating value of uranium ore has prompted expansion, recommissioning of existing mining, and new contracts for uranium mining in the United States, Canada, Australia, Guatemala, Argentina, Brazil, India, Armenia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Finland, Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, Niger, Namibia, Malawi, Zambia, and South Africa.

Because nuclear energy was been redefined by the Bush administration as a national security concern, social and environmental safeguards can be legally ignored. Thus, as one example of many recent rulings, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission under its enhanced authority to dismiss environmental and social safeguard legislation recently ruled that onsite above ground dry cask storage of PG&E’s radioactive waste at Diablo Canyon in California can go forward without further study of whether such storage is safe from terror attacks or adequately protects the health of nearby residents. The NRC’s ruling overturns a federal court order to consider these concerns.

Is nuclear energy truly the clean, green machine that the Nuclear Energy Institute and its proponents make it out to be? Is it truly cost-effective? Will nuclear power finally prove to be a “safely-harnessed” source of sustaining energy? Or, will we once again, be lured into what many folks see to be a dance with the devil?

The answer to these questions depends upon how you define “clean” and what you define as an acceptable “cost.”

The average cost to build a nuclear power plant is reportedly some 2 billion dollars, though a 2007 estimate including costs to generate power by Lew Hay, chairman and CEO of Florida Power and Light, suggests that “the cost of a two-unit plant will be on the order of magnitude of $13 to $14 billion.” Actual flow of energy will not occur for years. Technological innovation has reduced the time it takes to build a nuclear reactor, it will still take some 7 – 12 years after plans are approved for energy to flow.

For those communities and workers that host the nuclear fuel chain — uranium mining, milling, enrichment, energy and military use, and storage of wastes — the label of “clean” and the notion of a “cost-effective” energy system is, simply and sadly, ludicrous. The no-emissions carbon footprint label assigned by the Nuclear Energy Institute ignores the significant environmental impact resulting from mining, transportation, processing fuel, using water as energy and coolant, and building nuclear power facilities. Cost-effective energy becomes an even more problematic label when you factor in the short-term and long-term health consequences of absorbing toxic heavy metals and the radioactive nature of these exposures, and the health care costs of treating such illness and disease.

And then there are the stewardship costs of protecting, storing, and (maybe some day) remediating nuclear waste. The cleanup for the 680-acre site of the Uravan uranium and vanadium mine and processing facility in Colorado completed in September 2008 reportedly cost $120 million. Cleanup costs from mining, milling, and the inevitable spills and releases associated with Manhattan Project research and Cold War militarism at 17 nuclear weapons plants have been projected in reports to Congress to reach between $100 billion to $200 billion dollars — and this estimate does not include the clean-up costs associated with nuclear weapons detonation, nor the cleanup of dumped waste from nuclear submarines. The eventual decommissioning of an aged nuclear power plant is currently priced at $300 million or more per plant. The costs to create, build, monitor and secure a safe storage facility for substances that pose a threat for tens of thousands of years to come are harder to estimate, given the many unknowns in the future.

What might be the costs of failure for future generations when our reliance upon human ingenuity proves woefully misplaced and we fail to develop the technologies for transmutation and detoxification of medium and high-level wastes?

What are the costs of failing to put the power of the atom back into Pandora’s Box?

Such talk of the economic costs is typically met with an industry or government response that urges a fearful public to place their trust in science. The placating mantra includes in one form or another the message that: Innovative nuclear power technology and responsible occupational health and safety procedures means that modern nuclear facilities are safe facilities. When the very rare error in operations and the release of radiation occurs, such incidents pose no threat to human health. Tritium, strontium-90, cesium-137, radioiodine, radon, and other radiogenic materials may find their way into the rivers, aquifers, soils, atmosphere, the food chain, and the human body, but science has shown that these relatively low-level exposures pose no deadly threat.

China, for example, announced in an October 24, 2008 news release the results of a government-funded long-term study on nuclear plant operations, proclaiming that over the course of a 25-year period nuclear power was generated with no adverse health impact on area residents. These findings reflect a study of health records for people living within 80 kilometers of a nuclear power station in Shenzen, Guangdong Province, which examined the death rate of infants and children, malignant tumor deaths, birth defects, and radiation levels in food and drinking water.

Deconstruct the press release and unsettling questions come to the surface. It is unclear from the report what isotopes were released, and at what levels. And, it is unclear if measured health outcomes were limited to the typical focus on deadly cancers and birth defects, rather than the many chronic and degenerative illnesses we now know to be associated with radiation exposure (for example, metabolic, cardiovascular, pulmonary, and immune system disorders), the incidence of treatable cancers (such as thyroid and prostate cancer), or the occurrence of cancers that take decades to emerge (lung cancers may not develop for 20 or more years following exposure to uranium and its radionuclides).

While singular studies of a facet of the nuclear cycle and selected aspects of human health– the operation of one nuclear power plant and deadly cancer or birth defect health records — produce comforting “cherry-picked” findings there are many other studies that offer contradictory conclusions on the long-term health outcomes from low-level exposures. Studies, for example, found in the once-classified archives of the US Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, the Atomic Energy Commission, and it’s eventual predecessor the Department of Energy.

Some of these studies explored the health and mortality of uranium miners. Cold War-era studies of Navajo miners and mill workers, for example, found acute and chronic health effects resulting from exposure to the low-level emissions of uranium and its radioisotopes: Lung cancer, nonmalignant respiratory diseases, lymphatic and hematopoietic cancers other than leukemia, kidney disease, miscarriage, and cleft palate and other birth defects.
Others studies considered the long-term consequences of living in a radioactive environment. The United States government, for example, monitored over a forty-year period the movement of radionuclides from nuclear weapons testing fallout concentrated in the marine and terrestrial environment of the Marshall Islands studying how radiation moved through the ecosystem, foodchain, and the bodies of the people of Rongelap, Utrik, Majuro, and other Marshallese communities. Some of the many health problems documented by the Marshall Islands long-term study include changes in fertility, increased rates of birth defect, increased rates of cancers, physical and mental retardation, metabolic disorders, premature aging, and an array of cancers. These problems have been confirmed by the Nuclear Claims Tribunal in the Marshall Islands, which has issued personal injury compensation awards for 36 radiogenic medical conditions (http://www.nuclearclaimstribunal.com/).

Still, other studies are emerging from European research on Chernobyl and the consequences of living in its’ fallout-zone. Not only is their widespread occurrence of thyroid cancers and disease (by some estimates, 200,000 children have or will develop thyroid cancer as a result of the exposure to radioiodine), post-Chernobyl studies confirm increased metabolic disorders and demonstrate that small doses of radiation produce genetic effects on human populations. In a May 2001 study published in the British medical journal Lancet, children born to Chernobyl clean-up teams were discovered to have an unexpectedly high genetic mutation rate when compared with siblings born before the accident. Researchers compared children born to clean-up workers now living either in the Ukraine or Israel using a using multi-site DNA fingerprinting procedure. Siblings conceived before exposure served as internal controls. External controls (non-exposed families) were also included in the study. A sevenfold increase in the number of new mutations in DNA was found for children born after their parents Chernobyl exposure – demonstrating that low doses of radiation can induce multiple changes in human germline DNA.

When we consider the costs of an energy policy that relies upon nuclear power, we must consider the “cradle to grave” health care costs as well as the economic costs. And, we must also factor in those lesser quantifiable, but very real, costs associated with life in a radioactive setting.

For example, the aforementioned Marshallese not only live in an isolated, contaminated setting, but they struggle with the fear and anxiety of additional exposures, the sociocultural and economic damages resulting from the loss of access to radioactive lands that sustained a traditional way of life, and, the traumas of living with radiogenic illnesses. In a nation that lacks a single oncologist or cancer treatment facility, the Marshallese experience extremely high rates of cancer; degenerative conditions associated with radiation exposure; miscarriage and infertility; and, the birth of congenitally deformed children. They endure the problems associated with raising physically disabled children, caring for increasingly feeble elderly, suffering from the fear and anxiety of additional exposures, and confronting the reality of intergenerational effects.

The Marshallese medical studies declassified in the 1990s include documents demonstrating that Atomic Energy Commission scientists fully expected adverse health effects to not only occur in the first generation of people exposed to fallout, but in the subsequent generations of people who live in a contaminated setting. The Marshallese health records bear out these expectations. Radiogenic disease in acute and chronic forms not only occur from acute exposure to ionizing radiation, but also develop following repeated exposure to low-level radiation, and are evident in the subsequent generations who inherit mutations resulting from parental exposures.
Move outside the local, and consider the global ramifications of massive numbers of people suffering the health care consequences of radiogenic disease, not only as a result of uranium fuel production and nuclear power plant operations, but the increased ways in which power plant waste is incorporated in military and police actions.

Depleted uranium, the uranium remaining after its use as nuclear reactor fuel, is a low-level emitting heavy metal (60% of the radioactivity of natural purified uranium). Due to its high density it is used as counterweights in aircraft, and radiation shields in medical radiation therapy machines. It is also used in military and police operations as defensive armor and armor-penetrating ordnance. According to the World Health Organization the behavior of depleted uranium in the body is identical to that of natural uranium. Many of the world’s citizens and soldiers have absorbed through inhalation or penetration fragments of depleted uranium. A toxic heavy metal that emits low-level radiation, depleted uranium can be carried to and damage the lymph tissues and thus the immune system, kidneys, and developing fetuses. It can affect the bones, the reproductive organs, and the function of the brain and neurological system.

To our leaders, I plead. As you consider the relative costs and benefits of various energy strategies with an eye towards the skies and a concern for the security of our nations, ask yourself: What do these findings mean to me, to my children, and, to a world seemingly hell-bent on this path towards nuclear dependency?

Energy, at what cost?

BARBARA ROSE JOHNSTON is an anthropologist and senior research fellow at the Center for Political Ecology, and a member of the expert advisory group for UNESCO’s Water and Cultural Diversity Project.  She is the co-author of The Consequential Dangers of Nuclear War: the Rongelap Report. Her documentation of dam legacy issues in Guatemala is available in Spanish and English at http://www.centerforpoliticalecology.org/chixoy.html. She can be reached at: bjohnston@igc.org

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Barbara Rose Johnston is an environmental anthropologist and Senior Fellow at the Center for Political Ecology, an independent environment, health and human rights research institute based in Santa Cruz, California.  

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