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US Nuclear Power Dangers

A truly informed national debate about the efficacy of nuclear power is long over-due. Time is short. As the waste is produced its legacy will impact all future generations.
by Helen Caldicott
UPI Outside View Commentator
Washington (UPI) Apr 18, 2006
The noted American writer Mary McCarthy once famously observed of the equally noted but politically discredited playwright Lillian Hellman - 'every word she utters is a lie, including "and" and but".

As we have seen over the last 10 years, the same can be said of the Bush government -- from "yes, there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq" to the premature victory declaration, from the hubristic social security reform "I've earned political capital and I'm going to use it" to the adulation for the failed FEMA head Michael "You've done a heckuva job, Brownie" Brown.

Now President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, the nuclear industry and scientists who should know better are embarking on an ill-conceived "renaissance of nuclear power deploying as a rhetorical fig-leaf the spurious message that it is emissions free, green, and safe and will save the world -- from the effects of global warming. Let's pull away that tattered fig-leaf and look at the actual facts of the matter.

The global warming carbon dioxide, or CO2, gas is released at every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle -- from uranium mining and milling, from uranium enrichment, from construction of huge concrete reactors, and from the transport and long-term storage of intensely radioactive waste. Nuclear power plants currently generate "only" one-third as much CO2 as a similar sized gas fired plant.

But because the supply of highly concentrated uranium ore -- which is relatively easy to mine and enrich --is limited, the energy eventually required to mine and enrich uranium will greatly increase. If today's global electricity production was converted to nuclear power there would only be three years supply of accessible, uranium to fuel the reactors. Uranium is therefore a finite commodity:

CO2 is not the only global-warming gas emitted by nuclear power. The U.S. Paducah, Kentucky enrichment plant which processes uranium from many countries annually leaks 93 percent of the CFC 114 gas released by the United States. Banned under the Montreal Protocol, CFC is a prodigious destroyer of the ozone layer and it also is a potent global warming agent.

Furthermore, nuclear reactors routinely emit large amounts of radioactive materials, including the fat-soluble noble gases xenon, krypton and argon.

Deemed "inert" by the nuclear industry, they are readily inhaled by populations near reactors and absorbed into the blood stream where they concentrate in the fat pads of the abdomen and upper thighs, exposing ovaries and testicles to mutagenic gamma radiation like X-rays.

Tritium, radioactive hydrogen, is also regularly discharged from reactors. Combining with oxygen, it forms tritiated water which passes readily through skin, lungs and gut. Contrary to industry propaganda, tritium is a dangerous carcinogenic element producing cancers, congenital malformations and genetic deformities in low doses in animals, and by extrapolation in humans.

In the age of terrorism, nuclear reactors are inviting targets. It is relatively easy to induce a reactor melt-down by either severing the external electricity supply, by disrupting the one-million-gallons per minute intake of cooling water, by infiltrating the control room, or by a well-coordinated terrorist attack. Surprisingly the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has failed to significantly upgrade security at the 103 nuclear reactors since the Sept. 11, 2001 attack. A meltdown at the Indian Point nuclear power plant 35 miles from Manhattan could render that city uninhabitable for thousands of years if prevailing winds blow in the right direction.

Above all, nuclear waste is the industry's Achilles heel. The United States has no currently viable solution for radioactive waste storage. 60,000 tons are temporarily stored in so called "swimming pools" beside nuclear reactors, awaiting final disposal. Yucca Mountain in Nevada, transected by 32 earthquake faults, has been identified as the final geological repository.

Made of permeable pumice, it is unsuitable as a radioactive geological waste receptacle and recent fraudulent projections of the mountain's ability to retard leakage by the United States Geological Services have rendered this project to be almost untenable.

Already, radioactive elements in many nuclear powered countries are leaking into underground water systems, rivers, and oceans, progressively concentrating at each level of the food chain. Strontium 90, which causes bone cancer and leukemia, and cesium 137, which induces rare muscle and brain cancers, are radioactive for 600 years. Food and human breast milk will become increasingly radioactive near numerous waste sites. Cancers will inevitably increase in frequency in exposed populations, as will genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis in their descendents.

Each typical 1,000 megawatt reactor makes some 200 kilograms, or 440 pounds, of plutonium per year. Less than one millionth of a gram is carcinogenic. Handled like iron by the body, it causes liver, lung and bone cancer and leukemia. Crossing the placenta to induce congential deformities, it has a predilection for the testicle where inevitably it will cause genetic abnormalities. With a radiological life of 240,000 years, once released in the ecosphere it will affect biological systems for ever.

Because only five kilos, or 11 pounds, of plutonium is critical mass, countries building new nuclear reactors could, theoretically, manufacture plutonium for many nuclear bombs per year. The under-resourced International Atomic Energy Agency admits that it is physically impossible to prevent a determined country -- whether a signatory to the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty or not -- from using imported uranium or its by-product, plutonium, to make nuclear weapons.

A truly informed national debate about the efficacy of nuclear power is long over-due. Time is short. As the waste is produced its legacy will impact all future generations.

Dr. Helen Caldicott is president of the Washington-based Nuclear Policy Research Institute and author of "Nuclear Power is not the Answer", shortly to be published by The New Press. She was a founder of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, the organization that won the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize. United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.

Source: United Press International

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