Time to Dust Off that Old "No Nukes!" Button

It’s time to dust off your “No Nukes!” button — or grab that old one out of your Mom’s top bureau drawer. You may need it soon.

The “powers that be” have begun a new campaign to convince us that we must have dozens or hundreds — worldwide, thousands — of new nuclear power plants to avert the threat of global warming.

Three groups have teamed up for the campaign: the Cheney-Bush administration, the nuclear power corporations, and most recently the New York Times. The campaign has two official mascots — Christine Todd Whitman, the failed former head of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Patrick Moore, the widely-mistrusted former head of Greenpeace International.

Each of the three campaign partners has a different agenda, but they all want you to believe that building hundreds or thousands of new nuclear power plants is the best way to meet the world’s need for electricity — that nuclear power is safer, cleaner and cheaper than all the many alternatives.

Electricity can be generated by >many kinds of machines. Commercial- scale electric plants exist now based on wind turbines, photovoltaic panels that turn sunlight directly into electricity, geothermal plants that draw their heat from the deep earth (one to two miles below ground), turbines powered by natural gas, coal-fired dinosaurs, and nuclear power plants. There are other ways to make electricity but these are the main ones in commercial use today.

Nuclear power plants are by far the most complicated way to make electricity. Nuclear power starts by mining radioactive uranium out of the ground, then “enriching” it in a centrifuge that can make nuclear fuel but can also make fuel for an A-bomb. (Iran’s current plan to operate its own centrifuges is what all the wrangling is about with Tehran.) The enriched uranium is then stuffed into a nuclear power plant where it undergoes a controlled fission reaction, splitting atoms to release tremendous quantities of heat, which is used to boil water to turn a turbine to make electricity.

In contrast, a wind turbine uses the wind to turn a turbine to make electricity.

But of course the electricity from a wind turbine must be stored in some form to provide power when the wind is not blowing. Nuclear plants produce electricity more-or-less steadily unless there is mishap such as a leak or spill or other glitch. Hydrogen is the leading candidate for energy storage.

So now let’s listen to the New York Times editorial staff as it tries to convince us that nuclear power is the best way for the nation and the world to meet its electricity needs:

New York Times: “Not so many years ago, nuclear energy was a hobgoblin to environmentalists, who feared the potential for catastrophic accidents and long-term radiation contamination. But this is a new era, dominated by fears of tight energy supplies and global warming. Suddenly nuclear power is looking better.”

PM: Yes, big accidents and routine radioactive releases are two valid concerns about nuclear power, but the biggest concern by far has always been the unbreakable link between nuclear power plants and A- bombs. Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea all built A-bomb arsenals by first building nuclear power plants, so this is not merely a theoretical concern. As we speak, Iran is shuffling down this well- trodden path.

New York Times: “More important, nuclear energy can replace fossil- fuel power plants for generating electricity, reducing the carbon dioxide emissions that contribute heavily to global warming. That could be important in large developing economies like China’s and India’s, which would otherwise rely heavily on burning large quantities of dirty coal and oil.”

PM Yes — even after taking into consideration the large quantities of fossil fuels required for mining, processing, and enriching fuel, and in plant construction, operation, waste disposal and plant decommissioning, nuclear power could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by some amount while generating electricity. The question is, are there better ways to achieve the same result? But the Times fails to address this question.

New York Times: “As nuclear expertise and technologies spread around the world, so does the risk that they might be used to make bombs. Unfortunately, the Bush administration erred badly when it signed a nuclear pact with India that would undercut the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the cornerstone of international efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. That misguided deal needs to be repudiated by the Senate. We can only hope that it does not undercut a more promising administration plan to keep the most dangerous fuel- making technologies out of circulation by supplying developing nations with uranium and taking the spent fuel rods back.”

PM: In that paragraph, the Times’ first sentence should be rewritten as follows: “As nuclear expertise and technologies spread around the world, so does the near-certainty that they will be used to make bombs.” Since this has already happened several times, we know it can (will) happen again. The connection between nuclear power and nuclear bombs simply cannot be broken.

The rest of the Time’s paragraph makes it seem as though President Bush is to blame for this problem, and that if he would just uphold the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, no one would be able to make bombs from the ingredients in a nuclear power plant. Tell it to India. Tell it to Pakistan. Tell it to Israel. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty was in full force when these nations joined the “nuclear club” of A-bomb-wielding nations. Nuclear power is simply an unmanageable technology. If you have a nuclear power plant and you are committed to making an A-bomb, you can almost certainly do it, sooner or later.

New York Times: “There remains the unsolved problem of what to do with the radioactive waste generated by nuclear plants. Many people are unwilling to see a resurgence in nuclear power without some assurance that the spent fuel can be handled safely. The Energy Department’s repeated setbacks in efforts to open an underground waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada do not inspire confidence, but there is no reason why the spent fuel rods can’t be stored safely at surface sites for the next 50 to 100 years.”

PM: Perhaps the radioactive waste problem can be resolved in 50 to 100 years. But what if it cannot? Some of the smartest scientists in the world, with essentially unlimited budgets, have been working on this problem for more than 50 years. They have devised the highest of high-tech solutions, all of which have turned out to be dead ends. Fifty years of study and experiment have yielded no useful solutions. Meanwhile, we keep making this stuff with a hazardous lifetime that far exceeds the time that humans have walked the earth. Perhaps it would be prudent to assume that this problem cannot be solved, and that further deployment of nuclear power should be delayed until solutions have been demonstrated.

New York Times: “More problematic is the administration’s long-term solution for waste disposal. It wants to recycle the spent fuel in a new generation of advanced reactors that would use technologies that don’t yet exist, following a timetable that many experts think unrealistic. Its current approach is apt to be costly and would leave dangerous plutonium more accessible to terrorists.”

PM: Our point exactly. The nation’s best scientists have failed, and now political appointees in the Cheney/Bush administration have elbowed the scientists aside and decided to impose their own “solution.” These are the same people who have demonstrated failure in essentially every major decision during the past six years. Now they want to “recycle” nuclear waste into new, untried, and clearly risk- prone and terrorist-prone “solutions” that this nation considered and rejected for compelling reasons 25 years ago.

New York Times: “Nuclear power has a good safety record in this country, and its costs, despite the high initial expense of building the plants, are looking more reasonable now that fossil fuel prices are soaring. How much impact it could really have in slowing carbon emissions has yet to be spelled out, but there is no doubt that nuclear power could serve as a useful bridge to even greener sources of energy.”

PM: Huh? We’re not sure how much nukes can reduce global warming, but we should spend billions more taxpayer dollars to subsidize nukes? This is no basis for national policy. Between 1948 and 1998, civilian nuclear power received at least $77 billion dollars of federal subsidies (in constant 2005 dollars). The insurance industry still won’t touch nuclear power with a ten-foot pole so Congress has to limit the industry’s liability by law — a huge subsidy to the nuclear power corporations. Wall Street won’t touch it either without huge additional federal guarantees and subsidies. This is a technology that falls on its face unless Uncle Sam provides a permanent crutch.

We should ask ourselves, Why aren’t we willing to spend $77 billion to subsidize energy-saving measures, and the development of existing minimally-polluting technologies like wind turbines with hydrogen storage, and hydrogen fuel cells to make electricity and power vehicles? Even Ford and General Motors — not the brightest bulbs on the corporate landscape — say they will offer us hydrogen fuel- cell vehicles in the next few years. These technologies exist now.

Solar technologies such as wind power have an even better safety record than nuclear and they too are looking more affordable as the cost of oil rises.

The time is now for all of us to get behind wind and solar power as solutions to our energy challenges. Together they constitute a highly- desirable and entirely-achievable precautionary energy program. Today the environmental-health-and-justice movement is bogged down bickering over individual projects like Cape Wind on Nantucket Sound. Every day we wait to align solidly behind wind and solar improves the odds that the nuclear cowboys will have their way with us.

A study published in Science magazine concluded that hydrogen-fuel-cell-automobiles would be cheaper to run than today’s gasoline-powered vehicles. Conservation is the cheapest and least polluting option of all, and it available in abundance right now. Conservation, wind, photovoltaics, hydrogen storage (and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles), plus a modicum of ethanol and methanol can provide a far safer and cleaner bridge to even greener sources of energy. It’s time to take a principled stand for conservation, wind and other solar options. They are good for the planet, good for people, and good for local control, good for “local living economies,” and good for self-determination.

These alternative sources of energy don’t fit the divergent agendas of any of the three pro-nuke campaigners. Of all these alternative energy options, only nuclear power offers to create an endless series of international crises (think Iran, think North Korea) requiring macho threats of military showdown at the OK corral. Only nuclear power requires multi-billion-dollar centralized machines that can be controlled by a tiny handful of investors — thus empowering Wall Street elites instead of empowering farmers who would be only too happy to put wind turbines in their corn fields. (A farmer in Colorado is likely to receive $3000 to $5000 per year for hosting a single wind turbine on a quarter-acre of land, instead of producing 40 bushels of corn worth $120 or beef worth perhaps $15 on that same land.)

Of all the available alternatives, only nuclear power relies on machines that require armed guards, anti-terrorist exercises and simulations, evacuation drills and other paramilitary apparatus. Only nukes with their threat of rogue weapons can provide endless excuses to spy on other nations and search through the phone records from every citizen. Only nuclear power with its unbreakable link to A- bombs “requires” the President to declare habeas corpus null and void, and to declare that he and Mr. Rumsfeld will torture anyone they choose to torture any time it suits them, thus commencing the Great Unraveling of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was imposed upon Real Americans by that class traitor Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his commie-loving wife back in 1948.

In sum, none of the available alternative energy sources can match nuclear power’s ability to thwart the nation’s inherent democratic tendencies and stop the nation’s slide toward local control, small- scale enterprise, self-reliance, and a populist political reawakening. Without nuclear power and petroleum to anchor their centralized authority and provide excuses for their military adventures, the “powers that be” will soon seem very much like the little man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz. And that would never do. It simply would never do.

And so I say to you, dust off your protest banners and buttons. That time may be coming around again when we must hit the streets. No blood for oil! Climate justice! No nukes!

PETER MONTAGUE is editor of the indispensable Rachel’s Health and Democracy, where this essay originally appeared. He can be reached at: peter@rachel.org



Peter Montague is a fellow with the Science & Environmental Health Network, living in New Jersey.