U.S. Energy Problems

Nuclear Power Not the Answer to U. S. Energy Needs
Guest Column By David Kyler
Executive Director Center for a Sustainable Coast
Savannah Morning News July 4, 2001

In these times of rising energy costs, it may seem difficult to argue against nuclear power as a supposedly inexpensive,"clean" energy alternative. Like many claims about technological fixes, closer examination of nuclear energy reveals far different conclusions than what may be suggested by conventional wisdom.

Nuclear fuels and related radioactive materials are extremely dangerous if leaked into the environment, even in minuscule amounts especially because they last so long. Forms of uranium most commonly used as fuel have a life of many hundreds of years. Plutonium, another radioactive material proposed as nuclear plant fuel, remains hazardous for thousands of years.

All radioactive materials threaten the health of humans and wildlife that are exposed to them, producing symptoms ranging from severe and persistent nausea to nervous system dysfunction, cancer, reproductive abnormalities, birth defects and death.

Most troubling, because of their longevity, these materials can build up in the systems of animals, plants and habitats (water bodies and land areas). At exceptionally low levels, a single dose may not produce any significant adverse health risks, but continued or accumulating exposure can be deadly.

Because these materials can be moved by wind, evaporation and rain and can wash off land areas into rivers and ground water, radioactive substances travel great distances. Dispersion of radioactive materials through air and water can introduce threats downwind and downstream for thousands of miles.

This issue should be of particular interest to the people of coastal Georgia. Plant Hatch in Baxley near the Altamaha River is being relicensed. Although there has never been a terrible catastrophe at this facility, the aging condition and defective design of Plant Hatch make it ripe for a serious incident of contamination.

Even more threatening is a proposal at the Savannah River Site near Augusta, now under review, for processing plutonium from decommissioned nuclear bomb warheads into fuel to be used at nuclear power plants in other locations. The SRS site is already known to be dangerously contaminated, with over 50 unlined"seepage ponds" believed to be releasing radioactive contaminants into the area's groundwater systems. Introducing the proposal for plutonium processing greatly adds to SRS's prospective threats to human health and the environment.

Since plutonium is a more persistent form of radioactivity, and arguably the most toxic substance known, it represents an even greater threat than conventional uranium fuel. A single incident, whether caused by human operator error, an engineering or processing failure, natural catastrophe or act of terrorism, could produce far-reaching health hazards for any generations and essentially shut down all contaminated ecosystems.

Considering the huge potential costs of these risks, it is highly doubtful that nuclear power or fuel processing is truly practical. Efforts to demonstrate the acceptability of this form of energy production are, in effect, attempts to seize short-term benefits at serious long-term risk to human health and critically important environmental balance.

Perhaps the public may seem to gain in the short term from energy produced, but clearly the most notable benefits would be in the form of private profits. There are safer ways to produce energy at a profit, and to improve energy conservation, without severely jeopardizing the public.

Improving the efficiency of lighting, appliances and various industrial processes, as well as making further headway in solar, wind, tidal and hydrogen-cell technologies come to mind. Ironically, the Bush administration is proposing to cut funding for such research by 47 percent.

On the cost side, it is likely that communities whose health or business and employment interests are endangered by radioactive contamination would incur a substantial burden of using nuclear materials. Over hundreds of years, these costs could be cumulatively immense, unless safeguards were unfailingly ideal in every respect.

The history of technology and human limitations do not substantiate belief in the flawless design and operation of such facilities. Nuclear energy is perhaps the most dangerous application of blind faith as a tool of public policy. Misleading economic and environmental assessments that portray nuclear power as practical rest upon willfully naive assumptions that are nothing short of science fiction. We accept such fantasies at our own risk and, worse, at the peril of future generations.

David Kyler is executive director for the Center for a Sustainable Coast, based at St. Simons Island.
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