Nuclear Waste Risks Can be “Minimized” and Other Myths

Photograph Source: I G – CC BY 2.0

There are geniuses amongst us. We just didn’t know it. They are the supporters of nuclear power, who, according to the Associated Press, “say the risks can be minimized” when it comes to the perpetual and unsolved problem of long-lived, high-level radioactive waste — the main by-product of generating electricity using nuclear power.

This observation comes within an AP story headlined: “Majority of US states pursue nuclear power for emission cuts”, and which has garnered significant pickup in numerous media outlets(However, we never do learn the secret to precisely how nuclear waste risks can be “minimized”.)

The agency surveyed “the energy policies in all 50 states and the District of Columbia,” finding that “about two-thirds” plan to use nuclear power to replace fossil fuels.

The mantra about solving the nuclear waste problem has been repeated since the dawn of the Nuclear Age, coming up on 80 years this December. That was when, on December 2, 1942, the first cupful of radioactive waste was generated, a result of the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction achieved at the Chicago Pile-1 by Enrico Fermi and his team.

At that time, scientists knew that radioactive waste was a problem, but assumed it would be solved later. Well, here we are at “later” and it’s still unsolved. Now, “minimizing” rather than solving the problem is apparently justification enough to keep using this dangerous technology.

The AP reporters chose Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) President and CEO, Jeff Lash (no vested interest there), as the spokesperson for the continued use of nuclear power and says he,“puts it simply” when stating: “You can’t significantly reduce carbon emissions without nuclear power.”

But, of course, it’s not that simple. It’s also arguably dead wrong. As Stanford University’s Amory Lovins and others have demonstrated repeatedly:

To protect the climate, we must save the most carbon at the least cost and in the least time, counting all three variables – carbon and cost and time.

Costly options save less carbon per dollar than cheaper options. Slow options save less carbon per year than faster options. Thus even a low- or no-carbon option that is too costly or too slow will reduce and retard achievable climate protection. Being carbon-free does not establish climate-effectiveness.

To compare nuclear power with other potential climate solutions we should start with two criteria – cost and speed – because if nuclear power has no business case or takes too long, we need not address its other merits or drawbacks.

What AP does say, all too “simply”, in order to credential Lash’s expertise, is that TVA “operates three nuclear plants” without describing how long they took to get here and what they actually do.

The three TVA plants are at Browns Ferry in Alabama, and Sequoyah and Watts Bar, both in Tennessee. The two Watts Bar reactors produce tritium for the nuclear weapons sector — a clear crossing of the supposedly inviolable line between the civilian and military nuclear sectors.

Sequoyah 1 and 2 have also been licensed to produce tritium but, so far, TVA has chosen not to use them for that purpose.

TVA is also, right now, pushing federal regulators to allow it to increase its output of tritium, an essential radioisotope used in thermonuclear warheads to boost the explosive power of an atomic bomb.

As Tom Clements, executive director of the Savannah River Site Watch, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

“Using commercial nuclear reactors to produce nuclear weapons materials is a violation of the international nonproliferation agreements.”

Watts Bar 1 has been involved in tritium production for close to 20 years. Meanwhile, Watts Bar 2 holds the unenviable record of taking the longest time ever — a staggering 42 years — between the start of construction and actual operation. It is the poster child for the argument against trying to deliver new nuclear plants as some sort of answer to an urgent climate crisis already upon us that must be addressed today.

Nevertheless, when Watts Bar 2 came on line in October 2016, TVA actually heralded it as “the first new nuclear generation in 20 years.” If a 42-year old reactor is the definition of “new”, then maybe we should all go back to driving Chevrolet Monte Carlos.

The unnamed survey respondents from the state of Georgia apparently told AP that their “nuclear reactor expansion will provide ‘ample clean energy’ for 60 to 80 years”.

But again, there is no context to this bold prediction. In reality, that “expansion” consists of the only two survivors of another nuclear myth, the U.S. “Nuclear Renaissance”, always an aspiration and never a reality.

The Georgia reactors, Vogtle 3 and 4, have now been under construction since 2013. Their completion dates have been repeatedly pushed into the future — 2024 is the current, optimistic prediction, but it’s equally possible that both reactors will never achieve operational status.

Meanwhile, the costs for Vogtle 3 and 4 are predicted to balloon to $30 billion, while ratepayers, already paying more to cover these excesses, will see their monthly bills double if and when the reactors come on line. Imagine the “ample clean energy” that might have already been producing electricity in Georgia, if a renewable energy program had been initiated in 2013 instead of the nuclear boondoggle.

Majority support for nuclear energy — which does not appear to be the case publicly, even if it is so politically — is a clear testament to the power of well-funded propaganda campaigns and the deep pockets of lobbyists. None of us engaged on this subject have missed the saturation media campaign, on-going now for months if not years, that sows the erroneous notion in the heads of politicians that nuclear power is an answer — even the answer — to climate change.

Repeat a lie often enough and people will believe it. Today’s media has become especially guilty of this. I recently had to correct a Financial Times reporter who, in an otherwise perfectly good article, described nuclear power as having “no carbon footprint.” There is no stop-and-think going on here. After all, even renewable energy does not have “no” carbon footprint.

As John Le Carré wrote in his 1996 book, The Tailor of Panama, paraphrased from the mouth of one of his more cynical characters:

“Nothing is more predictable than the media’s parroting of its own fictions and the terror of each competitor that it will be scooped by the others, whether or not the story is true, because quite frankly dears, in the news game these days, we don’t have the staff, time, interest, energy, literacy or minimal sense of responsibility to check our facts by any means except calling up whatever has been written by other hacks on the same subject and repeating it as gospel”.

Fortunately, there remain some good investigative reporters amongst the lapdogs. But our task is made all the harder by that constant parroting of nuclear propaganda as if it is gospel. We have an uphill climb to change it, but we must keep climbing.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the editor and curator of and the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear.