Nuclear Power Neither Clean Nor Green
Wisconsin State Journal :: OPINION :: B2
Sunday, May 29, 2005
The nuclear industry is now trying to change negative public
perceptions of nuclear power by promoting itself as the solution to
global climate change. A guest column by Theodore J. Iltis
proclaimed "Keep America green: Go nuclear." Iltis says that
environmentalists who are concerned about the increase in greenhouse-
gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels should embrace nuclear
power because it does not produce carbon dioxide and thus does not
contribute to global climate change.
This commonly held view, endlessly repeated by proponents of nuclear
power, ignores the fact that without uranium there is no nuclear
power. The mining, milling and enrichment of uranium into nuclear
fuel are extremely energy-intensive and result in the emission of
carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels.
The most intense mining and milling activity in the United States has
been concentrated on the lands of Navajo and Pueblo Indians in the
Grants Uranium Belt of northwest New Mexico.
Before uranium can be used in nuclear power plants it must undergo a
process of enrichment. Uranium enrichment plants are the largest
industrial plants in the world and consume enormous amounts of
electricity. Far from being "clean," each 1,000 megawatt-electric
nuclear plant requires the equivalent of a 45 megawatt-electric coal
plant -- which annually burns 135,000 tons of coal -- to supply its
enrichment needs alone. The enrichment plant at Paducah, Ky.,
requires the electrical output of two 1,000-megawatt coal-fired
plants, which emit large quantities of carbon dioxide, the gas
responsible for 50 percent of global warming. During its operation
the enrichment plant at Piketon, Ohio, consumed 10 percent of Ohio's
electricity, more than the entire city of Cleveland.
Proponents of nuclear power likewise ignore the substantial emissions
of radioactive radon gas and other radioactive elements from the
mining and milling of uranium ore in underground and open pit mines.
The Navajo and Pueblo Indians, along with several thousand white
miners, were never told of the dangers from exposure to radon gas
when they first entered those underground mines in Arizona and New
Mexico in the 1950s. At least 450 former uranium miners have already
died of lung cancer, five times the national average.
For those communities living next to uranium mines there is the
additional problem of exposures from radioactive tailings, the waste
that remains after the uranium has been extracted from the ore and
processed into yellowcake. The thorium in the tailings piles has a
radioactive half-life of 80,000 years. In other words, while nuclear
power plants will produce power for only about 40 years, the effects
of mill tailings will remain for thousands of future generations.
There are more than 200 million tons of these tailings in large piles
around uranium mines and mills and they are emitting radioactive
elements into the air and water. Communities near these tailings
piles report a high rate of miscarriages, cleft palates and other
birth defects, bone, reproductive, and gastric cancers as related
health effects of uranium mining and exposure to contaminated air and
And what about nuclear waste disposal? A typical nuclear reactor will
generate 20 to 30 tons of high-level nuclear waste annually. There is
no known way to safely dispose of this waste, which remains
dangerously radioactive for a quarter of a million years. Iltis says
the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada is an excellent choice for storage.
The Western Shoshone Indians strongly disagree.
They claim the land on which the federal government tested its atomic
weapons and now plans to store 77,000 tons of military and power
plant waste still belongs to them under the Ruby Valley Treaty of
1863 . The federal government has tried to force the Western Shoshone
to accept payment for the land and thus forfeit their claim to it.
The tribe sued the federal government in March 2005, alleging the
Yucca Mountain project would violate the treaty. To date, no Western
Shoshone members have accepted payment for their land.
The failure of nuclear proponents to address the disproportionate
impact of nuclear activities on Native American populations has its
origins in an environmental racism which justifies exposing certain
groups to hazardous environmental conditions in the name of national
security, economic progress or to avoid the perils of global climate
change. Nuclear power is not green. It is not clean. And it is a
continuation of the environmentally racist policies of the nuclear