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
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
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
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
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.