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Commentary: Is Nuclear Energy Clean and Safe?

By Beth Wellington, Published on June 6, 2006
Beth Wellington is a Roanoke, Virginia based poet and journalist. She is a contributing editor to the New River Free Press, a book reviewer for the Roanoke Times and a member of the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative (SAWC) and the Appalachian Studies Association. From 1980 to 1997, she was the founding Executive Director of New River Community Sentencing, Inc. in Christiansburg, Virginia and its predecessor, New River Community Action's Community Sentencing Program. She contributes to both SourceWatch.org and Wikipedia.org. Beth's blog on culture and politics is The Writing Corner.

May 17-19, 2006, the Nuclear Energy Institute holds its annual conference, The Nuclear Energy Assembly in San Francisco. It's theme? Buzz2Build: Turning Promise into Power. The promotional information on the website says, "The outlook for nuclear energy in the United States has never been brighter. Nine consortia or companies are preparing licenses for as many as 20 reactors. The number of reactors with renewed licenses continues to rise, and existing nuclear plants are sustaining record levels of safety and performance."

At one time, in its background paper, "Nuclear Energy: No Solution to Climate Change," Greenpeace was predicting the demise of nuclear energy. "The nuclear industry is in near-terminal decline world-wide, following its failure to establish itself as a clean, cheap, safe or reliable energy source. The on-going crisis in nuclear waste management, in safety and in economic costs have severely undermined the industry's credibility." The paper is undated, but the sources cited date back to the late 1990s.What has happened in less than ten year's time? The nuclear energy industry convinced the federal government to establish Nuclear Power 2010 (NP 2010), unveiled in 2002 as a private industry-government "cost-shared effort to identify sites for new nuclear power plants, develop and bring to market advanced nuclear plant technologies, evaluate the business case for building new nuclear power plants, and demonstrate untested regulatory processes leading to an industry decision in the next few years to seek Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approval to build and operate at least one new advanced nuclear power plant in the United States" In February 2004, the Department of energy teamed up with the electric power industry to issue its Strategic Plan for Light Water Reactor Research and Development.

How did I come to learn about all this? A couple of weeks ago I was in Charlottesville, Virginia and read John Borgmeyer's article "The greening of nuclear power" in the May 2-9 C'ville, a weekly culture tabloid.

In his article, Borgmeyer mentioned the April 24 formation of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition. Then I read the April 25 New York Times article, "Ex-Environmentalists Tout Nuclear Power," in which Matthew L. Wald had written that while the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition depicted itself as a grass-roots advocacy group, a spokesman for "the Nuclear Energy Institute, the trade association of reactor operators, acknowledged that it was providing all of the financing, but would not say what the budget was."

The coalition is to be headed by former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), director Christine Todd Whitman and Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore. Not only are these two ex-environmental leaders. Some have argued that they are ex-environmentalists trading their credentials for money to improve the images of known polluters.

After Whitman left the EPA on May 21, 2003, she founded a public relations firm, Whitman Strategy Group. On December 16, 2004, the Washington Post reported, "Whitman actually found herself last month lobbying her former Cabinet colleague Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton on behalf of Citgo Petroleum Corp., which wants federal protection to preserve Petty's Island, N.J., which it owns." But, according to Sourcewatch.org, "the firm's first ongoing client was FMC Corporation, 'a chemical company negotiating with the EPA over the cleanup of arsenic-contaminated soil at a factory near Buffalo, N.Y.' In a May 2005 interview, Whitman said she had not worked directly with FMC, but would likely advise them on 'how to improve their image' and gain 'access to the people they need to speak to.' FMC '"is responsible for 136 Superfund sites across the country ... and has been subject to 47 EPA enforcement actions.'"

But Whitman had always been a market forces kind of "environmentalist." Perhaps that is why his former colleagues are more dismayed with Patrick Moore. After leaving Greenpeace in 1986, Moore founded the public relations firm, Greenspirit Strategies, Ltd. According to its website, Moore has spoken out in favor of pesticides, salmon farming, poly-vinyl chloride (PVC) and genetic engineering. Oh, and of course, nuclear energy. Usually he does, trotting out his role in Greenpeace without mentioning his current status as a paid spokesman for the industries involved. For some of the details, look at his website and at Eco-Traitor, Drake Bennett's March 2004 article in Wired. Also take a look at Sourcewatch.org's article.

Even those who support nuclear power argue that Moore has done the industry no favor by overstating the case. On April 16, in his work for the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, I'd assume, Moore wrote a piece published by the Washington Post, "Going Nuclear: A Green Makes the Case."

In an op-ed, "Wasted Energy," published in the April 18, 2006 New Republic Online, Michael A. Levi responded that Moore had undercut his arguments "with a series of false assertions and slippery arguments. These credibility-damaging tendencies hurt the real case for nuclear power." A fellow for science and technology at the Council on Foreign Relations, his bio there state that Levi's "interests center on the intersection of science, technology, and foreign policy; he is an expert on arms control and nonproliferation, nuclear and radiological weapons, and science and technology in the Islamic world." "Before joining the Council, Dr. Levi was a nonresident science fellow (2004-2006) and a science and technology fellow (2003-2004) in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. Prior to that, he was director (2002-2003) and deputy director (2001) of the Federation of American Scientists' flagship Strategic Security Project."

In other words, Levi knows a whole lot more about nuclear energy than I do, and he's not necessarily against it. I think that makes a look at his critique especially instructive, with regard to the claims made by the Clean and Safe Coalition and the Nuclear Energy Institute. For instance, Moore claims that nuclear power is inexpensive. Levi responds, "While literally true, that's a specious claim. The marginal cost of producing an additional kilowatt-hour of nuclear power using existing plants is indeed less than two pennies. But that ignores the capital costs involved in building nuclear power plants, which exceed the costs of building coal-fired facilities. Including those expenses, an MIT report (which made an honest argument for nuclear power) prices nuclear at 6.7 cents per kilowatt-hour, in contrast with only 4.2 cents for coal, nearly 40 percent lower. To be logically consistent, Moore would also have to believe that buying a house is always cheaper than renting (because property taxes and maintenance cost less than rent) and that owning a car is always cheaper than riding a bus (because gas costs less than bus fare). "Regarding Moore's implications that nuclear waste becomes safe, Levi writes, "even that reduced radioactivity still makes waste disposal difficult and costly."

Greenpeace goes further. In the previously mentioned background paper, the group says that in "even the most perfunctory examination of the issue shows that nuclear power has no role whatever in tackling global climate change. In fact quite the opposite is true; any resources expended on attempting to advance nuclear power as a viable solution would inevitably detract from genuine measures to reduce the threat of global warming."So, is nuclear energy clean and safe? As recently as May 9, the Nuclear Energy Institute agreed to voluntarily monitor radiation leaks into groundwater after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) had formed a task force to study the issue at the urging of David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists and leaders of 32 other environmental groups.

On January 25, they filed a petition accepted by the NRC, to require nuclear reactor operators to provide information on their programs to detect the potential release of water contaminated with radioactive materials. On March 16, the State of Illinois sued Briarwood nuclear plant for repeated leaks that polluted water. "Faulty maintenance led to this situation and to this lawsuit," said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

The usage of "clean and safe" in the naming of the coalition mirrors language used in 1989 by the International Solar Energy Society, as well as that in Bush's 2006 State of the Union message in announcing the Advanced Energy Initiative, "a 22-percent increase in clean-energy research -- at the Department of Energy, to push for breakthroughs in two vital areas. To change how we power our homes and offices, we will invest more in zero-emission coal-fired plants, revolutionary solar and wind technologies, and clean, safe nuclear energy."Actually, according to an preliminary analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the nuclear research portion of that initiative would reflect a 40% increase. The Department of Energy's section in the 2007 budget includes $54 million in 2007 for the previously mentioned Nuclear Power 2010 (NP 2010).

Ironically, the launch of the Clean and Safe Energy coalition came as an international conference, Chernobyl + 20 convened April 22-25 in Kyiv, Ukraine. The April 26, 1986 Chernobyl disaster reminded people of the dangers of nuclear power, as had the Three Mile Island melt down about 100 miles west of Philadelphia on March 28, 1979. And there have been lesser known problems which led to the aforementioned petition. In his C'ville article, Borgmeyer writes, "The public relations blitz comes as the Bush Administration plans to jump-start America's nuclear industry.

In August 2005, Bush signed an energy bill that kicks the nuclear power industry a reported $12 million to add to the 103 nuclear plants currently operating in the United States. Around the same time, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission changed its rules to streamline the approval process for new nuclear plants."

"Richmond-based Dominion Energy, Inc. is the first company to take advantage of these recent federal incentives. As Dominion seeks approval for two new nuclear reactors on Lake Anna in Louisa County-just 30 miles east of Charlottesville-the company is trying to recast nukes as the healthy choice for an eco-conscious America."

Ironically, and I use that term to place the administration in its best light, the federal government's official information site reports that while the Bush administration has supported nuclear expansion, as of "October 31, 2005, however, no U.S. nuclear company has yet applied for a new construction permit."

To the contrary, the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, in its February 27, 2004 fact sheet, "New Nuclear Power Plants in Virginia? Dominioin Power Plans Expansion at North Anna," reports that Dominion filed an early site permit to construct two or more new nuclear reactors on its site on September 25, 2003.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's licensing review confirms the September 25, 2003 by Dominion Nuclear North Anna, LLC' and adds, "Subsequently, Dominion decided to change the cooling system for postulated Unit 3 and increase the power level for both postulated Units 3 and 4. Revision 6 of the application was submitted on April 13, 2006 to address the change to the cooling system and the increase in power level."

The twentieth anniversary of Chernobyl clearly has returned attention to the disaster. The BBC has posted a haunting remembrance, Chernobyl: 20 Years On. The UK's Observer Magazine published an article of the same name by Adam Higginbotham on March 26, recounting eye witness accounts. The National Geographic posted "Photo Gallery: Chernobyl 20 Years After the Disaster. The International Atomic Energy Agency has posted a feature, "In Focus: Chernobyl." On April 26, Democracy Now aired "Chernobyl 20 Years Later: New Report Finds Death Toll From Nuclear Disaster Close to 100,000."

The nuclear power industry has to come up with some strategy to convince the public of the need for new reactors. In an interview with Borgmeyer, David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists, posits that the coalition is "a reflection of the fact that global warming and climate change is a top message of most environmental groups. This is an attempt to co-opt that message."