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Sierra Magazine
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Ways & Means: Fantasy Nuclear
"Make a wish and hope for the best" as energy policy
By Carl Pope

Carl Pope This spring, the nuclear industry and its promoters were urging Americans--once again--to "take another look at nuclear power." It doesn't rely on foreign oil, they argued, it produces no greenhouse gases, and there hasn't been a major accident for a long time.

At the same time, the United States was threatening military action--even a nuclear first strike--to prevent Iran from developing its own atomic industry. Iran insists its intentions are purely peaceful, but the enrichment process it is developing could be used to make weapons as well as electricity. (The country's know-how comes courtesy of renegade engineer A. Q. Khan, who stole the weapons secrets that made Pakistan a nuclear power, which he later sold to Iran and North Korea. See "Dangerous Liaisons," May/June 2005.) It doesn't take sophisticated reprocessing of the sort the Iranians are attempting to create a grave threat; even waste material from a peaceful power plant could be used in "dirty bombs" that could render entire cities uninhabitable.

Nuclear power and nuclear weapons go hand in hand. What were touted as "peaceful atoms" in India and Pakistan soon found their way into bombs; now Brazil is preparing to open a uranium-enrichment facility and denying inspectors full access. For nuclear power to slow global warming, it would have to be widely employed, not just domestically and among our friends but in developing nations where energy is desperately needed and the desire to join the atomic club is great. How secure would a nuclear industry be in the Congo?

"Just because nuclear technology can be put to evil purposes is not an argument to ban its use," argues Patrick Moore, the Greenpeace cofounder turned nuke cheerleader. His solution is to "use diplomacy and, where necessary, force to prevent countries or terrorists from using nuclear materials for destructive ends." That means endless Iraq-like confrontations--a hellish price to pay to boil water, which is all a reactor does.

Most nuclear boosters ignore proliferation and terrorism altogether. They prefer to contemplate "fantasy nuclear." In this world, reactors can't melt down or leak, fuel is contained in small, harmless pellets, and massive subsidies are unnecessary. International agreements (or, failing that, secret agents) ensure that fantasy-nuclear materials and technology never fall into the wrong hands. Fantasy waste can be safely stored someplace. Fantasy nuclear is cheaper than anything else we could substitute for fossil fuel.

By now, Americans ought to be wary of policies so thoroughly unmoored from reality. In the real world, accidents could easily happen. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission doesn't even require nuclear power plants to protect themselves against rocket-propelled grenades--available for as low as $10 in the world's arms bazaars. In every country where nuclear energy flourishes, it does so only because of enormous public subsidies. In the United States, even with lavish federal grants, loan guarantees, and risk insurance, only three applications to build new nuclear plants are currently pending--possibly because Standard & Poor's declared in January that "an electric utility with nuclear exposure has weaker credit than without" and that any such rash company would likely see its credit rating downgraded. And no one has yet solved the problem of how to safely dispose of radioactive waste.

Even so, nuclear boosters are still talking about building as many as 15 new reactors in the United States. Will they be the "intrinsically safe" reactors we hear so much about? Well, no. Apparently, these designs are just phantasms. Why else would the industry continue to build nothing but the inferior and dangerous variety?

True, nuclear reactors do not emit carbon dioxide. Neither do double-paned windows, solar cells, wind turbines, and insulated ceilings. Sure, we could build hundreds of nuclear plants, and global warming would be reduced. But we could get the same results, faster and more safely, by developing hybrid trucks, more-efficient gas turbines, and biofuels. For half the money we are likely to spend in Iraq, we could retrofit the entire U.S. auto industry for high-efficiency vehicles. Just think what we could do with the money we'd spend on a similar confrontation with Iran--a confrontation that may come thanks to the deadly contradictions of the actual nuclear world.

Carl Pope is the Sierra Club's executive director. E-mail carl.pope@sierraclub.org.


Photo by Lori Eanes; used with permission

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