Nuclear Energy: Toxic, Expensive and Not Carbon Neutral

04/04/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In his state of the union address, President Obama said:

"But to create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more eficiency, more incentives. And that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country."

Nuclear power plants can never be clean or safe as long as radioactive material is mined and processed and waste is generated. Even some members of Congress with good environmental records are jumping on the nuclear bandwagon under the rationale that it doesn't emit greenhouse gasses and we have to compromise somewhere. That's like saying plastic bullets won't give you lead poisoning. True as far as it goes, but misleading and beside the point.

Nuclear power generates CO2 emissions during mining, milling, conversion, enrichment and fuel fabrication stages. As concentration of uranium in the ores that are mined diminishes, the CO2 emisssions from nuclear power will continue to rise. Substituting nukes for coal plants as opposed to true clean energy sources, will greatly accelarte that process. People, corporations and even some environmental groups want to ignore the carbon emitted from nukes because to do otherwise makes the challenge of reducing carbon harder. Ignoring the facts, however, fixes nothing.

Water, water you need and use, is degraded and poisoned by the fuel cycle for a nuclear power plant. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists water is used to absorb wasted energy which is generated as heat. For every three units of energy produced by the reactor core of a U.S. nuclear power plant, two units are discharged to the environment as waste heat. The impacts on the bodies of water next which most plants are located is considerable. From UCS's excellent report "Got Water? Nuclear Power Plant Cooling Water Needs":

"Nuclear power plants, whether using once-through or closed-cycle cooling, withdraw large amounts of water from nearby lakes, rivers, and oceans. In doing so, aquatic life is adversely affected. A 2005 study, for example, of impacts from 11 coastal power plants in Southern California estimated that the San Onofre nuclear plant impinged nearly 3.5 million fish in 2003 alone - about 32 times more fish than the other 10 plants combined. Untold numbers of fish larvae and other life entrained in the water do not survive journeys through nuclear power plants. The more water the plants use, the more aquatic life we lose."

And by "large amounts" we mean 500,000 to more than 1,000,000 gallons of water per minute when the plant is in operation. That's a lot of water any way you look at it. But look at it in the context of drought, increasing demands for agriculture, development and drinking water and you start to see the scale of the problem.

Uranium mining makes extensive use of water to leach the uranium out of the ore through a chemical process. The water used in that process is discharged back into the environment. For those who do the work of mining, milling, converting and enriching the uranium, there is a greatly increased risk of lung cancer and other disease due to exposure in every step of the process.

Have I mentioned that nuclear power's highly toxic, carcinogenic, deadly radioactive waste, is generated by the megaton worldwide, needs to be stored in secure facilities protected from leakeage and terrorists for thousands of years and, that the technology for doing so does not exist? Not a minor consideration.

Finally, if the only thing you care about is the cost of energy, Nukes fail you there as well. The Nuclear industry could not exist, would not be cost efficient, without massive government subsidies and special protection from liability. According to Daniel J. Weiss of the Center For American Progress, speaking of the President's current budget proposal:

"The budget will seek at total of $54 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear power. This would require a $36 billion increase over the existing $18.5 billion for nuclear loan guarantees, a program created under the Energy Policy Act of 2005 - none of which has been issued yet."

And loan guarantees are just the beginning. The Nuclear industry is heavily subsidized by the Federal Government (i.e. you) for liability insurance. Some estimate the cost as approaching $100,000,000,000 (One Hundred Billion).

If Nukes were required to get their own financing at market rates, completely cover their liability and pay the full costs of protecting ecosystems and human health, the economics of nuclear power would become clear very quickly. Without those artificial price supports, this carbon-emmitting, water-poisoning, cancer-causing, toxic-waste producing technology wouldn't even be under consideration as a rational way to generate power.

Nuclear energy is not a reasonable, medium term, pragmatic compromise to reduce greenhouse gases. It's a dangerous, flawed technology propped up by subsidies and a distorted view of the costs and impacts. It cannot reasonably be considered as anyone's idea of clean and safe energy.