Nuke power not so clean or green

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

Elsa Wenzel
10 min read
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.

Three, they're talking about fast reactors. Now what they would plan to do is all implicit in a plan called Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, being mooted by the Department of Energy, which is incredibly dangerous.

They plan to make uranium fuel rods, export these to other countries, then re-import the intensely radioactive waste from those countries encased in the fuel rods, and melt them down in concentrated nitric acid. This is called reprocessing. From that witches' cauldron of radioactive liquids is removed plutonium 239, which has a half life of 24,000 years and is a fuel for nuclear weapons.

These fast reactors are cooled with liquid sodium, an extraordinarily dangerous material. If there's a crack in the pipe, liquid sodium exposed to air either burns or explodes. You lose your coolant. Ten pounds of plutonium is critical mass. There would be a massive meltdown, but not just that a huge, huge nuclear explosion, scattering 10 to 15 tons of plutonium to the four winds. It's worse than any science fiction book ever written, because hypothetically 1 or 2 pounds evenly distributed throughout the world could kill most people on Earth with lung cancer.

So if nuclear power is not the answer, then what is the answer for the future of our energy?
Caldicott: My institute, the Nuclear Policy Research Institute, held a conference in Washington, D.C., called Nuclear Power and Global Warming. I raised the money, and Dr. Arjun Makhijani has just completed a study which we call Roadmap for a Zero-CO2 Energy Future.

All our electricity can now be generated by renewables, in which Silicon Valley is investing. This could occur by 2040 actually, and if you eliminate massive government subsidies for nuclear power, it dies of its own accord. Here we have a blueprint for all electricity production for the United States, which currently produces 25 percent of the global (carbon dioxide), without any CO2 or nuclear power.

The people who would call me alarmist are nuclear engineers, physicists or businessmen who know nothing about medicine. Once you know about biology and genetics and medicine, there's absolutely no debate.

How likely do you think it is that a study like this would get traction politically?
Caldicott: The current administration is running out of steam, so to speak. Almost certainly a Democrat will be elected president. The Democratic Congress now is totally open to this road map. I've visited Barbara Boxer. Her Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works is very interested, as is Ed Markey's committee set up by Nancy Pelosi to advise (John) Dingell's House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

Do you think nuclear power has a green face right now, that people have forgotten about things that may have been more in the public's mind, say, 20 years ago?
Caldicott: You mean meltdown? I think subliminally everyone is deeply concerned, that they all know a terrorist could melt a nuclear power plant down...They don't know that nuclear power plants continually emit radioactive material into the air and water.

What people need to know is if the Second World War was fought today, Europe would be uninhabitable for the rest of time, because all the reactors on the European landmass would have melted down because they would have been attacked...In fact, Sweden got within two minutes of a meltdown like Chernobyl last July. Now if that had happened, that would signal the end of nuclear power .

You've spoken about your work as being a sort of physician for the planet.
Caldicott: I was on the faculty at the Harvard Medical School in the cystic fibrosis clinic and I miss medicine terribly, but I comfort myself with the knowledge that I'm practicing global preventive medicine. Because the waste from nuclear power will induce epidemics and malignancies in children for the rest of time--congenital deformities and genetic disease.

What motivates you?
Caldicott: I took the Hippocratic oath. My vocation is medicine. I'm obliged therefore to practice it; that's why I was born, to practice medicine and save lives. Period.

Some people have accused you of alarmism or inflating the dangers.
Caldicott: I would say that I can't speak enough to inflate the dangers. In fact, I under-inflate the dangers. I spoke recently to my alma mater at Harvard Medical School to the best pediatricians in the world, and they were absolutely astonished and alarmed. There is no debate about the medical consequences.

The people who would call me alarmist are nuclear engineers, physicists or businessmen who know nothing about medicine. Once you know about biology and genetics and medicine, there's absolutely no debate. Our job as doctors is to teach those people and the general public what those dangers are, as we taught them in the past.

What do you think is potentially more destructive: global warming or massive nuclear catastrophe?
Caldicott: Well, it's sort of like going from tobacco to crack. You don't cure one evil by inserting another evil...The answers are all there, and the people in Silicon Valley know that because they're making millions of dollars. They call green energy green not because it's green but because it makes lots of greenbacks.

Do you see so much attention to green business, both in the sense of making money and being ecologically sound, as a positive sign?
Caldicott: It's enormously exciting, and 31 U.S. states now are taking the lead and moving on green energy. It's happening despite the White House and the administration, despite the nuclear and coal companies, but not fast enough.

The output of CO2 increased 3 percent in the last four years...Normally it would be 1 percent. That's because of China and India. Things are in a state of high crisis. If America wakes up, it can take the lead. If it doesn't, one-third of the species on Earth could be extinct in 50 or 100 years.

The answers are all there, and the people in Silicon Valley know that because they're making millions of dollars. They call green energy green not because it's green but because it makes lots of greenbacks.

Do you think such a massive extinction could be prevented?
Caldicott: Only if we stop driving cars and burning coal. If you look at it clearly, we have to stop creating CO2 now. People think, oh well, 10, 20 years. It's now. Things are so urgent. And that means no more SUVs, it means covering the parking lots of America with solar panels, creating electric cars powered only by solar?

Are there practices you've changed personally in the past several years or decade for keeping your carbon output in line?
Caldicott: I've got a Prius car. I've got a solar hot water energy system. I've switched to green energy with my electricity bills...I'm about to plant a vegetable garden and try to live on the vegetables. I'm going to be living near a river with lots of fish in it...I've got a pontoon and am going to be eating fish for dinner at night. I turn off every single light in the house except the room in which I'm in.

Are there any political or cultural leaders who are getting some of your points across?
Caldicott: Al Gore should run for president...I don't see anyone else sticking their necks out and speaking the truth in broad, pungent terms the way he is...There are 30,000 H-bombs in the world, and Russia and America own 97 percent. We need someone to step up and say we've got to disarm bilaterally. The precedent is set because Reagan and Gorbachev almost did it...I don't know if Gore would do this, but he might.

When you spoke with Ronald Reagan, did you find him receptive to what you were saying?
Caldicott: No, he wasn't...He didn't understand what I was saying. But he had no knowledge of his own...He was a nice old man, I have to say; he did have a heart. And I think retrospectively I did influence him. He started to say nuclear war must never be fought and can never be won. And he did then work cooperatively with Gorbachev to end the Cold War.

Can you talk about your new book, War in Heaven?
Caldicott: It was written with Craig Eisendrath. It's about the history of outer space, how when Sputnik first went up and the Americans became paranoid thinking Russia was ahead, and the space race began, it was seen from two perspectives, one from a peaceful perspective. Now we know that all our global communications, our cell phones, ATM machines, global commerce, GPS systems, are totally dependent on space and satellites. And on one hand, it's been wonderful the way we've explored the universe.

On the other hand, the military simultaneously, all the way along, has been interested in using space for war...It's called full spectrum dominance and it's the most frightening thing I've ever read about. That's what the book is about.

You've said you talked with scientists from the Manhattan Project who later regretted their work.
Caldicott: They felt extraordinary guilt about vaporizing 220,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and they thought they could harness atoms for peace using nuclear power. But they knew deep in their hearts that plutonium was manufactured in these reactors, as are 200 other radioactive elements, all of which are carcinogenic.

So they tried to salve their guilt by instigating nuclear power... Oppenheimer put it best when he said, at the end of the Manhattan Project..."the physicists have known sin." And in truth, they've been sinning ever since in the nuclear area.