Nuke power not so clean or green

Longtime activist Helen Caldicott sees no silver lining in a nuclear energy renaissance.

Cold War-era nuclear fears have eased in recent decades, replaced by anxieties over global warming.

Lately, in some circles, nuclear power has gained a new reputation as a pollution-free cure-all for a world starved for clean energy.

But the nuclear industry hasn't cleaned up its act, according to Helen Caldicott, who spearheaded the nuclear disarmament movement in the 1980s. (Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling nominated Caldicott for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.) Caldicott, a pediatrician by training, has devoted 35 years to an international campaign to educate the public about the health hazards of nuclear power.

Not only is atomic energy inefficient, but it adds to greenhouse gas emissions while releasing deadly radiation for countless generations, argues Caldicott. Her recent work is summed up by the title of her book Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer.

She is working with the Nuclear Policy Research Institute, which she founded, to convince Congress that solar and wind power instead can mitigate global warming.

Caldicott is known for courting controversy, whether by debating with world leaders, marching naked in the streets of San Francisco, or implying that Hershey sold radioactive chocolates containing milk produced near the Three Mile Island disaster. While she no longer receives death threats as she did in the 1980s, Caldicott told CNET that just proves that her voice hasn't been loud enough lately.

Q: There's been a lot of talk lately about a nuclear renaissance, particularly with concerns over global warming getting so much attention, as something that environmentalists are starting to support.
Caldicott: The nuclear power industry was moribund after Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, but what they saw was a tremendous opportunity when global warming entered the headlines, and Al Gore did his film and all of his work.

They then decided to conduct this propaganda exercise to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, virtually telling mistruths, that nuclear power is free of emissions and green and clean. Nuclear power's main emission, of course, is massive quantities of radioactive waste that pollute food chains and cause cancer for hundreds of millions of years.

If you take the whole fuel chain as one piece, nuclear power produces large quantities of global warming gases because millions of tons of rock and ore need to be mined to get the uranium out of the ground. And it has to be crushed, using more fossil fuels.

At the moment, uranium is enriched at Paducah, Ky., where they have two 1,500-megawatt filthy, old, coal-fired plants to produce the electricity to enrich the uranium. Also, 93 percent of the CFC 114 gas released in the United States is through leaking pipes at that plant in Paducah. CFC not only destroys the ozone (layer) and is banned under the Montreal Protocol--and the nuclear industry is being grandfathered from that--but it also is a potent global warmer 10,000 to 20,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide. There are other such gases released during the production of uranium fuel.

When uranium is mined, millions of tons of uranium tailings, emitting radioactive gas, radon and other such elements, are left lying on the ground. That material should be placed back in the ground from whence it came and the whole area reconstituted. That would take up huge amounts of fossil fuel as well, and also cost the industry so much it would almost not be worth producing the fuel in the first place.

What about new technologies making nuclear power safer, cleaner and more efficient. Is that possible?
Caldicott: That's another fabric of lies. The...reactors they're planning...one (is) the AP-1000 by Westinghouse, which is essentially the same as the light water reactors that operate today, but cheaper to build because it has less concrete and steel. It's been nicknamed the eggshell reactor and, as such, it's very dangerous and could incur a major accident or meltdown.

A pebble bed reactor has millions of tennis ball-sized spheres of graphite embedded in which is enriched uranium, and they continually circulate. The whole thing is cooled by helium gas. If there's a leak of gas, it will be incredibly radioactive, one. Two, what burned at Chernobyl was graphite moderating rods, just carbon, the same stuff you put in pencils. It's very flammable. Already there has been an accident in a pebble bed reactor in Germany during the time that Chernobyl melted down.

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