Scientists no longer argue whether the "greenhouse effect" will heat up the earth's atmosphere and disrupt climate on a global scale. It now seems certain to happen, and the major remaining question is when the effects will first become visible: was the heat wave last summer an effect? Was the midwest drought? What about the wet spring this year on the east coast?
Ordinarily, sunlight streams in from outer space, strikes the surface of earth, turns into heat and is reradiated back into outer space as heat energy. The energy in the incoming sunlight equals the energy in the outgoing heat, so earth's average temperature remains constant. However, carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse gases" like methane are building up in the atmosphere, primarily because of burning fossil fuels (oil, coal, natural gas). Greenhouse gases have a peculiar property: they let sunlight pass through, but they act as a mirror to radiated heat energy, so sunlight striking the earth is radiated back but strikes the "mirror" of these gases in the atmosphere and can't escape into outer space. As a result, the heat is trapped and the average temperature of the earth is now increasing. (The glass in a greenhouse has the same effect, which is why greenhouses are warmer than the outside air, and why global warming is called the "greenhouse effect.")
The only real solution to the "greenhouse effect" is to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. One way would be to generate electricity by some means other than burning coal, oil and natural gas. (Changing to some other fuel besides gasoline and diesel oil in cars and trucks would be another important step.)
The "greenhouse effect" is fueling a revival of nuclear power because nuclear power doesn't produce any greenhouse gases. Unfortunately, nuclear power produces other problems.
Advocates of nuclear energy are now hoping to convince the American public that the problems of nuclear power have been solved, and that a new generation of "inherently safe" reactors should be built. Respectable publications like the NEW YORK TIMES now use the phrase "inherently safe" nuclear plants as if the "inherent safety" of these new plants had been proven. It has not. The concept of an inherently safe nuclear plant exists only on paper.
Existing nuclear plants have the following problems:
1) Nuclear power plants are exceptionally difficult to operate because they are the most complex machines humans have ever invented; the nation's 88 existing nuclear reactors have only operated at 55% of capacity because of problems with turbine generators, steam generators, pumps, valves, control-rod drives and cracked pipes.
2) The design and construction of nuclear plants has been carried out by humans, with the following kinds of problems resulting: (a) in the Ohio Zimmer plant, the control panel could possibly catch fire because the panel lights were put too close together; (b) at San Onofre, California, the reactor was installed backwards; (d) reactor supports were 45 degrees out of line at Comanche Peak, Texas; (c) some operators at the Peach Bottom plant in Pennsylvania routinely slept at the operating console, while others played video games; (d) the wrong drawings were used in assessing the earthquake response of steel beams at the Diablo Canyon reactor in California. Humans are simply prone to errors, and the humans designing, building and operating nuclear plants are no exception.
3) The federal agency that regulates nuclear was (and is) staffed by people whom it is difficult to trust. A recent history of nuclear power portrays these individuals as blundering, fumbling bureaucrats whose arrogance is surpassed only by their ineptitude. (See Luther Carter, NUCLEAR IMPERATIVES AND PUBLIC TRUST: DEALING WITH RADIOACTIVE WASTE [Baltimore, MD: Resources for the Future, 1987.]) Even this view may be overly optimistic. The revelations of the last six months, about serious coverups at almost every nuclear weapons facility in the country, suggest that those in charge of regulating nuclear operations in the U.S. are not simply arrogant and incompetent; they also seem to be criminals.
4) There is still no way known to handle radioactive wastes safely. In 1985, commercial reactors had produced 12,450 tons of highly radioactive wastes (wastes that would radioactively cook you to a crisp if you stood next to them unshielded for just a few seconds). By the year 2000 the total will have risen to 41,500 tons.
One way to judge the hazard of any waste is to calculate how much water it would take to dilute the waste down to a concentration that meets federal drinking water standards. In the case of the 30 tons of high-level radioactive wastes produced by one year's operation of one typical (1000 megawatt) nuclear power plant, after the wastes had cooled off (through radioactive decay) for 1000 years, it would still take ten times the annual flow of the Hudson River to dilute them down to the level officially regarded as "safe". No one knows what to do with existing radioactive wastes.
5) The production of nuclear fuel requires the mining and processing of large quantities of uranium. The mining of uranium has produced an epidemic of lung cancer among two generations of miners, and it has resulted in mountain-sized piles of uranium "tailings" (radioactive sand) heaped on the desert, left free to blow around, in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and elsewhere.
There are two designs for "inherently safe" nuclear power plants on paper, the HTGR (high temperature gas cooled reactor), and the PIUS (process-inherent ultimate safety). Each of these designs is supposedly better than today's reactors because they would be less subject to catastrophic failure (core meltdown) leading to massive releases of radioactivity. However, both designs would still be subject to human error during design, construction, and operation. Both designs would be regulated by the incompetents and miscreants who oversee today's nuclear plants. Both designs would require mining uranium in the same amounts as today's reactors; both would produce the same amounts of radioactive wastes as today's reactors. Reactors of the new types, like today's reactors, would themselves have to be disposed of as radioactive waste when they were ready for the scrap heap--presenting a disposal problem that the nation has grappled with unsuccessfully since 1943.
Neither of the new reactor designs could be proven safe except by building a lot of them and operating them for many years (in other words, by trial and error)-the same way we learned about the flaws in today's reactors. In short, what we should learn from nuclear power is not that marginally better plant designs deserve to be termed "inherently safe," but that (a) humans have a strictly limited capacity to operate complex machines reliably; and (b) before you make a lot of hazardous materials, you'd better have in mind a safe place to put them, to keep them safely away from living things for the duration of the hazard (in this case, 100,000 years or longer). Inherently safe? Hardly. Inherently uncontrollable seems more correct.
See: Russ Manning, "The Future of Nuclear Power," ENVIRONMENT
Vol. 27 (May, 1985), pgs. 12-17, 31-37. See also: UNION OF
CONCERNED SCIENTISTS, THE NUCLEAR FUEL CYCLE. Revised edition.
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1975).
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.
Descriptor terms: radioactive waste; nuclear power; energy; nrc; doe; greenhouse effect; global environmental problems; atmosphere; uranium;