No Nukes Is Good Nukes: A Critique of Nuclear Power in the United States
Writer’s comment: Over the past decade or so, I have become increasingly concerned about the hazards of nuclear power and (more importantly) the widespread ignorance and indifference regarding the subject. Even though there has been a general increase in awareness about the environment, nuclear power issues seem to have been swept under the rug, something we cannot afford to have happen. The week I was assigned this paper, a Time magazine article (which I quote in the paper) came out in favor of nuclear power by dismissing most of the problems as easily solvable. After reading the article, I made up my mind to write a piece showing that major dangers still exist—and will only grow worse unless addressed immediately. I also wrote the piece to help organize and express my opposition to nuclear power in a logical manner, so as not to be accused of basing my argument on emotionalism. Although I considered myself fairly well informed about the dangers of nuclear power, I was startled by the truly alarming statistics I encountered in my research, many of which were included in the final draft. If readers agree with my arguments, I hope they will act on their feelings; nuclear power will continue to proliferate unless people speak out against it.
Instructor’s comment: It may be unusual to assign a research paper in English 20, but since the class often contains students with little experience in this type of academic writing, I felt that everyone could benefit by going through the process carefully. The final draft was to be about 2500 words.
Philip produced this paper, a policy argument against nuclear power. He makes it clear from the beginning, even from the title, what his position is; by the end of the first page, the reader also knows what basic arguments he will make. He then clearly and engagingly substantiates his point with solid research.
One of the things I liked most about the paper was Philip's use of summary both to give the reader the necessary background and to further his argument. Philip also has a knack, after he presents his evidence, for driving his point home, so that the reader can see how it fits into the argument against nuclear power. The linkage between sentences, paragraphs and thoughts makes the technical information accessible, even for an audience that might not know much about the topic.
—Jared Haynes, English Department
As the United States approaches the twenty-first century, it must re-examine many policies previously accepted as reasonable, especially its own national energy policy. As the largest overall and per capita energy consumer in the world, the U.S. needs to decide upon a reasonable source of energy for the foreseeable future, especially since its energy needs will increase dramatically during that time. With political instability likely to remain the norm in the Middle East, oil continues to be an energy source of questionable reliability; in addition, current estimates of worldwide reserves suggest we may in fact run out of oil entirely in the next fifty years. Natural gas reserves are in fairly short supply too, and costs limit its uses as well. Another major alternative, coal, has become the nation’s leading energy source (providing more than 55% of the country’s electricity), and projected supplies could last for hundreds of years (Sweet 49). However, the tremendous output by coal-fired plants of CO2—the major “greenhouse” gas—along with other atmospheric pollutants makes it equally as undesirable as oil.
The final major source of energy on which the U.S. currently depends is nuclear power, and many (including the author of a Time magazine article in the April 29, 1991 issue) see it as a viable alternative, provided solutions are found to a few “minor” difficulties. Once the facts are known, though, it becomes clear that nuclear power (both fission and fusion) is not the answer to our current U. S. energy dilemma, primarily because it presents great risks and creates tremendous pollution hazards, and, further, because it also will continue to support the status quo of huge multi-national corporations dominating energy supplies. The history of nuclear power shows that it is an expensive and unreliable source of power under the control of companies that have disgraceful safety records and that alternative (renewable) energy sources and conservation are the only long term answers.
The origins of nuclear power, in fact, should be enough to give one pause; fission reactions (albeit uncontrolled ones) were originally intended to be used as weapons: the weapon, of course, being the atomic bomb. The nuclear program began in earnest when Einstein himself, afraid that Hitler had a team working on such a weapon, wrote to President Roosevelt to inform him that such a weapon might be possible to build (Shrader-Frechette 7). The development of the A-bomb by the Manhattan Project, its use in Japan and the effect on World War II are all well-documented. (After the initial test at Alamagordo, New Mexico, one of the bomb’s major developers, J. Robert Oppenheimer, was rumored to whisper: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” when he saw the level of destruction his new creation had achieved.) Less well known are the recommendations made by a panel of Manhattan Project scientists about the post-war uses of nuclear energy. The panel’s report concluded, “The development of fission piles solely for the production of power for ordinary commercial use does not appear economically sound nor advisable from the point of view of preserving natural resources”; in other words, the first panel of experts on commercial nuclear energy and its resources felt uranium was too expensive to waste on everyday power generation (Stoler 24).
These scientists, unfortunately, held a minority opinion, and were also rather politically näive: the U.S. government needed plutonium to continue to build larger and larger nuclear weapons—primarily to counter the U.S.S.R., which exploded its own A-bomb in 1949. Nuclear power plants provided this plutonium as a by-product, since reactors create it from non-weapons-grade (non-fissionable) uranium-238, which makes up over 99% of natural uranium deposits. Thus began a long-standing relationship between the fledgling nuclear industry and the military-industrial complex and other large multi-national corporations. (The largest builders of nuclear reactors are still General Electric and Westinghouse, two of the top ten defense contractors in the nation, while Gulf Oil, Shell Oil and Exxon control major uranium deposits.)
In a move that further cemented this relationship, the U.S. government in 1946 created the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), a unique body in that, in addition to being charged with regulating the nuclear industry, it also was responsible for promoting it; in the post-war nuclear fervor, no one in the position to object forcefully saw this as a conflict of interest. Despite all the physicists’ dreams of “peaceful uses for the atom,” the government’s need for nuclear experts during the early stages of the Cold War and numerous economic factors conspired to keep the commercial applications of nuclear power to a minimum until the late fifties, when Congress passed legislation removing what public utility companies saw as a major obstacle to their operation of nuclear power plants. The Price-Anderson Act of 1957 set a utility’s maximum liability for any one reactor accident at $560 million so that private insurance companies would charge utilities reasonable premiums; any excess damages up to $7 billion would be covered by the government from a special fund. The source of this damage figure was a report commissioned from Brookhaven National Laboratory by the AEC, numbered WASH-740, estimating the worst-case scenario would cost $7 billion (which, in 1957 dollars, was an even more considerable sum than today); more pointedly, though, it would cause 3,400 deaths and over 43,000 injuries, a statistic which seemed to bother the utilities and the government not at all (Stoler 52). All this came at a time when the American public still had little concept of the realities of nuclear power; the phrase that politicians and utilities liked to bandy about told of nuclear power that would be “too cheap to meter.” Far more frightening, however, was the 1964 update to the report also made by Brookhaven, which detailed a new worst-case scenario based on a by-then typical 1,000 MW (megawatt) reactor, instead of the initial report’s smaller 150 MW plant. The new report, which the AEC hastily barred from publication (proving once again their conflict of interest), estimated that an accident at such a plant could kill more than 45,000 people, pollute an area the size of Pennsylvania and cost more than forty times the original estimate of $7 billion to clean up (Sweet 90-91). The most recent report given in 1983 to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (or NRC, which replaced the AEC in 1975) put the possible immediate death toll at 100,000 and damages at well over $300 billion; or a total exceeding the entire 1991 defense budget by ten percent (Croall 131). According to the 1975 Rasmussen report, or WASH-1400, a major reactor disaster will occur every 20,000 years, statistically speaking, or once every century in a country with 200 reactors running; the U.S. currently has approximately 140 on-line (Stoler 74).
Reactors by their very design, though, were (and are) highly susceptible to a wide variety of disasters, and a serious one would almost certainly exceed the ceiling set by the Price Anderson Act (which is still in effect, though the utilities’ liability ceiling was raised in 1988 to $7 billion) and could easily exceed the government’s limit as well. In theory, a typical American LWR (light water reactor) is only a huge steam generator—heat from the radioactive core causes water to boil, and the resulting steam drives a turbine which in turn produces electricity. In practice, however, things are not so simple: the reaction is mediated by both control rods (which absorb neutrons to slow the chain-reaction) and by coolants (usually water, which keeps the temperature of the core in a certain range), both of which demand a high level of technology to function properly. If either of these elements malfunctions, the reactor core can overheat, and possibly “meltdown” (or melt through its containment structure) releasing prodigious amounts of highly radioactive substances; at the very least, the plant must be taken off-line, during which time the plant produces no electricity, until expensive and time-consuming repairs are made. Despite continuing promises of “foolproof” powerplants, there exists (and always will exist) the spectre of human error, on which the nuclear industry blames most accidents. The claim that people are ultimately at fault does little to assuage critics’ fears—rightly so, since humans design and control all reactor functions. The final and perhaps most dangerous threat towards nuclear plants can also be considered a “human” one: the possibility of terrorist attack, which the industry seems to have ignored almost entirely. The attack could easily take the form of simple sabotage (nuclear plants are usually ill-guarded) so that the plant ceases to function properly, or could reach the extreme of actual plutonium theft—and the possible creation of a nuclear device, a task that could be accomplished using widely available technology. Since plutonium is the single most toxic substance known to man (a millionth of a gram is sufficient to cause lung cancer), tens of thousands could easily be wiped out even without an explosive device (Shrader-Frechette 51).
Most nuclear industry supporters scoff at both terrorism and serious accidents as not truly credible threats—they seem to treat them as events so unlikely to happen that the odds are almost immeasurable. Yet almost the reverse is true: accidents happen with alarming regularity, and true calamities have been only narrowly averted in a number of instances.
The earliest major accident in a U.S. reactor occurred on January 3, 1961, killing three men in a particularly horrible way, shattering the industry’s widespread claim that “no one has ever died because of a nuclear reactor.” While the ultimate cause of the incident at the SL-1 test reactor in Idaho Falls, Idaho, is still unclear, the effects are all too plain. When emergency crews arrived in response to a radiation alarm at 9:01 P.M., they found radiation levels literally off the scale, one of the three technicians dead and the second just barely alive (he would suffer agonizing radiation sickness briefly and die, mercifully, two hours later). They did not find the third for some time, mostly because he hung a full story above the reactor, pinned to the ceiling by a control rod running through his groin and out his shoulder, his body so radioactive that he could not be retrieved for six days (Stoler 98). The bodies of all three men were so “hot” with radioactivity that they could not be buried until they had cooled down for almost a month in a radiation-proof vault, and even then only in lead-lined boxes; the most heavily contaminated parts, however, had to be dismembered so that they could be buried with the waste (Curtis and Hogan 27). Nuclear apologists argue that this was an experimental reactor, and that new technologies always entail risks.
The “experimental reactor” argument loses ground when addressing accidents that occur at fully operational commercial reactors, and true disasters have been avoided only by the narrowest of margins a number of times. In 1966, coolant failure at the Enrico Fermi Power Plant nearly necessitated the evacuation of Detroit, less than fifteen miles downwind. Since Fermi was a “breeder” reactor (one supposed to almost magically create more fuel than it used), highly volatile liquid sodium, not water, was used as a coolant; even after fixing the coolant failure, technicians did not know for weeks whether the melted uranium on the containment floor might reach critical mass, i.e., enough for the chain reaction to continue uncontrollably (Curtis and Hogan 28). In 1970, the Hanford Nuclear Facility in Washington also lost its main and secondary cooling systems, as well as its primary SCRAM system (a system for total reactor shutoff in emergencies); only the fact that government reactors (such as Hanford) require a totally independent secondary emergency shutoff system—unlike commercial designs—prevented a total meltdown (Stoler 101). In 1975, the Browns Ferry nuclear plant near Decatur, Alabama, ran uncontrolled for hours after a fire destroyed crucial control room wiring because a worker used a candle to check for drafts. Perhaps the most infamous U.S. reactor incident occurred in 1979 at Three Mile Island (TMI), near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, when, once again, cooling system problems brought the plant near to meltdown. At TMI, unlike in previous cases, large amounts of radioactive materials were released into the surrounding countryside: over 40,000 gallons of radioactive water were drained into the Susquehanna River, and huge clouds of xenon-133 wafted into the air (Cook 83-84). Yet government and utility authorities continue to disregard this ongoing string of mishaps as almost nonexistent, like some sort of statistical anomaly in an otherwise perfect record.
Nuclear proponents often suggest that the safety benefits resulting from standardized reactor design would safeguard against many possible hazards, yet they fail to address two other overwhelming problems with nuclear power: costs and waste disposal.
Contrary to early claims that nuclear-generated electricity would be “too cheap to meter,” nuclear plants today have become the single most expensive way to produce energy. The tremendous costs stem primarily from the technology necessary to build and maintain plants, but the rapidly escalating price of uranium and the excessive down-times of many reactors (during which utilities are often forced to purchase electricity from others with a surplus), as well as the enormous cost of waste disposal, contribute to nuclear-generated electricity being 25% more expensive than coal, according to a 1984 estimate (Stoler 145). Sacramento’s Rancho Seco shut down permanently, not because of the 1978 and 1985 accidents, but because of excessive down-time, which cost its operator, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, tens of millions of dollars over its fourteen-year lifespan. Other utilities have fared even worse: the Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO) watched the cost of its Shoreham, New York, plant skyrocket from a 1977 estimate of $350 million to over $1.5 billion by 1984, at which time the plant still did not function. A 1988 settlement distributed the final $5.3 billion loss among LILCO’s investors, of which LILCO was allowed to write off $2.5 billion, and so paid no taxes for the following two years (Sweet 58-62). Similarly, Consumers’ Power Company of Michigan was losing over $1 million per day on its uncompleted $3.4 billion Midland plant, which it later abandoned as the company slid towards bankruptcy (Stoler 7).
Uranium in itself contributes heavily to the upward-spiralling costs of nuclear plant operation, too. In the decade between 1970 and 1980, the price per pound of unenriched uranium jumped from $8.00 to $43.00, a 550% increase which far outstripped inflation (Curtis and Hogan 220). The raw uranium must then be enriched, an extremely energy intensive procedure: the three U.S. plants in Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee consume 3% of this nation’s electricity. As reserves shrink, the price of uranium will continue to escalate, possibly to over $200 per pound, and while there are an estimated 690,000 tons of known reserves, usable uranium makes up such a small percent that a generous estimate states that this amount could power only 62 reactors for their projected forty-year lifespan.
True pro-nuclear diehards will at this point refer to “fast-breeder” reactors and fusion reactors as potential problem solvers. At the outset of their development, breeder reactors were supposed to solve any shortages of uranium and create a “virtually limitless” supply of fuel by making more fuel than they used. Once again the theoretical operation is quite simple: cores of plutonium (P-239) are surrounded with U-238; the uranium absorbs the excess neutrons and transforms into P-239, creating more fuel than had originally been present. In actual practice, however, breeders present great problems, primarily involving doubling time, or the time necessary to double the amount of fuel: original estimates spoke of a few years; more recent practical research has suggested something on the order of four decades. It is doubtful that breeders will ever become economically feasible. The same holds true for fusion reactors: since most current designs depend on fission reactions in one way or another, all the same risks that apply to fission also apply to fusion. Since increases in technology create comparable increases in costs, the quantum leap in technology necessary to maintain a functioning fusion reactor will make the costs, and therefore fusion itself, virtually untenable.
While staggeringly high costs remain the strongest economic arguments against nuclear power, they pale in comparison to the problems that nuclear waste presents. The monumentally high levels of toxicity and the time-scales involved are chilling and mind-numbing: for each ton of plutonium extant today, approximately 2.2 grams will still exist five hundred thousand years from now (Curtis and Hogan 162-63). In other words, after a period of time 100 times longer than all of recorded history, enough plutonium will still exist out of every two thousand pounds of waste to kill 2,500,000 people (remember that only one-millionth of a gram is a fatal dose). The average modern nuclear plant produces some 500 pounds of plutonium per year of operation; in just the United States, with about 140 reactors currently in use, that totals 35 tons a year of plutonium alone. And while plutonium by itself certainly creates hazard enough, far greater quantities of waste exist in the form of uranium mining leftovers, or “tailings,” more than 175 million tons of which lie at twenty-seven different sites in the U.S as of 1984. Tailings contain numerous radioactive isotopes, among them radium, radon-222, and thorium-230; the half life of the latter is 80,000 years (a half-life is the time necessary for a radioactive element to decay to half its original mass). Cornell physicist Dr. Robert Pohl estimates that thorium-230 will account for around five million cancer deaths unless it is kept in utter isolation for 1.5 million years (Faulkner 94-95). The likelihood of this isolation occurring is tragically low, especially considering the fact that the major nuclear waste repository in this country (Hanford, Washington) has admitted to leaking over 450,000 gallons of high-level from just one tank. To this date, however, no national nuclear waste policy nor concrete proposal for permanent disposal exists.
The nuclear industry’s stubborn refusal to cope with, or even acknowledge, its overwhelming problems would almost be laughable if the consequences were not so dire for the entire planet. Yet alternatives do exist to nuclear power, contrary to myths that the utilities themselves (and multitudes of corporations with common interests) expound. Well-known alternative sources such as solar and wind power have been proven to work on small-to-medium scales; lack of funding and reluctance on the part of huge utilities to implement renewable (and usually non-monopolizable) resources is the major impediment to large-scale success. Unlike the nuclear industry, alternative energy proponents do not propose one answer for the entire country; on the contrary, renewable energy is based upon flexibility of energy sources, since the sun doesn’t always shine, nor the wind always blow. Even in the world of alternative energy, continual power sources do exist: biomass fuels, hydroelectric, tidal, wave and geothermal powers among others, all of which are proven producers on small scales, but could easily expand to fill much larger roles. One tidal power station, for example, has been providing 240 MW to France for almost twenty years. Norway has estimated that 100 miles of wave-motion-driven units could provide 8,000 MW, or as much as eight large nuclear reactors running at full power, for a fraction of the cost (Croall 126). Perhaps the biggest single source of energy is not truly a source at all: conservation, according to an April 29,1991, Time magazine article, could save more energy in the coming fifty years than two hundred 1,200 MW plants could produce (Greenwald 54-60). In addition to energy gained through conservation is the astronomical amount of money, time and materials saved by not having to build power plants of any kind.
Whatever types of energy the United States uses in the coming decades, one thing is absolutely clear: nuclear energy must not play a part in the final picture. The reasons have been made abundantly clear: costs that are racing upwards, an abysmal industry-wide safety record and, perhaps most important, a total lack of commitment to solving the colossal and terrifying problems of waste. Meanwhile, government and industry giants turn a blind eye to the dangers for fear of losing their monopoly on energy to smaller renewable resources.
The United States faced two energy crises in the seventies, and as the next millennium approaches, so does an energy crisis of a different kind, one in which the answers are not as clear as in the past, when simply obtaining more oil offered a solution. To overcome this crisis, the U.S. must re-examine and restructure its entire energy base, using a variety of power sources except the one it—and the world at large—cannot afford to use on any level: nuclear power.
Cook, Judith. Red Alert: The Worldwide Dangers of Nuclear Power. London: New English Library, 1986.
Croall, Stephen. Nuclear Power for Beginners. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983.
Curtis, Richard, and Elizabeth Hogan with Shel Horowitz. Nuclear Lessons: An Examination of Nuclear Power’s Safety, Economic and Political Record. Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1980.
Faulkner, Peter, ed. The Silent Bomb. New York: Random House, 1977.
Greenwald, John. “Time to Choose,” Time 29 April 1991: 54-62.
Shrader-Frechette, K. S. Nuclear Power and Public Policy: The Social and Ethical Problems of Fission Technology. Boston: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1980.
Stoler, Peter. Decline and Fail: The Ailing Nuclear Power Industry. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company,1985.
Sweet, William. The Nuclear Age: Atomic Energy, Proliferation and the Arms Race. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1988.