Is Nuclear Energy Sustainable? (Guest Post)

nuke.jpgBy Nathan Shedroff
Like the, now mythical, debate about Hummers vs Priuses, nuclear power is an issue who’s pros and cons largely can’t be addressed without an LCA (Life Cycle Analysis). Sure, Nuclear reactors, without a doubt, produce fewer carbon emissions than coal and other traditional power plants in their use phase – (actually, natural gas and hydro, both of which can be considered “traditional” as well, probably beat nuclear, not to mention renewable energy sources like solar and wind). But coal is the big, dirty source of power that makes nuclear look good so let’s stick with it, for now.
What this view of nuclear power doesn’t show us, however, is the massive impacts on the environment that nuclear has before and after its use phase. From the mining of the uranium and it’s sad, continuing legacy of heart-breaking heath effects and irresponsible history of safe-guarding local communities, to the refining and transportation of the fuel, to the building of the power plants themselves to the lack of viable, long-term options to deal with the waste – stretching into the thousands of years – nuclear powers’ impact vastly outweighs coal and dwarfs the impact of most other energy sources.


This isn’t an issue of engineering or safety. Undoubtedly, you’ve heard about “new nuclear technologies” that are vastly safer and more efficient. Yes, nuclear reactors can be run safely, whether pebble, breeder, or any other type. Simply one of these dirty little truths, however, is that there aren’t any running reactors with any of these promising new technologies – anywhere in the world. Why is that? If they’re so promising why isn’t a single reactor running somewhere in the world that uses one of them? Pro-nuclear pundits will point to a variety of research studies of new technologies but there are no reactors anywhere that currently use them. Even if these new technologies are safer, this isn’t even the real since just because a car can be driven safely doesn’t mean it will. More appropriately, in terms of safety, it would be better to look into how the nuclear power industry manages safety – if safety were the biggest challenge.
The issue isn’t so much whether nuclear energy and uranium mining can’t be done safely (though that’s still a question). Instead, the issue is will it be and if it is, can it possibly be financially advantageous (because the extra costs involved with reliable safety measures, including adequate bonds that protect against bankruptcy). Nuclear’s track record is terrible in this regard and there is little to indicate that it would take these responsibilities and concerns any more seriously this time around.
Instead, the nuclear debate is really about money. As with any other issue, those in favor (energy, engineering, and construction companies), stand to make a lot of money from nuclear power advancing. The problem is that they’re myopic, hypocritical, and aren’t honest about the fact that the only way to make money in nuclear power is to have your hand out for government subsidies, loan guarantees, risk coverage, and a host of other financial incentives that push the risk and costs onto the government (make that, you and me) instead of the companies who will be reaping the rewards (so much for free markets, “letting business do what it’s good at,” and laisse faire economics). Those opposed to nuclear power come from a variety of backgrounds, of course, some worried about safety, others about jobs and the economy, many about the environment, some about social issues like tribal and native rights.
What’s new to the debate, however, is the environmental angle. The nuclear energy companies have latched onto climate change as their latest hope to crack the blockade of opposition to nuclear power in this country. Even Patrick Moore, former head of Greenpeace, famously changed his mind to support nuclear energy three years ago.
The challenge is both in the definition of the problem and in the analysis of the solution. Forgetting nuclear power’s embarrassing track-record of abuses, when we look at the entire life cycle of the issue, climate concerns can’t be alleviated with nuclear power. In fact, they’re probably worse. In addition, the long litany of other problems makes nuclear an option not even worth considering. These include:
* Risk Mitigation
* Financial Viability/Profitability
* Jobs and the economy
* Safety
* Nuclear materials falling into terrorist’s hands
* Alternatives (like renewable forms of energy)
* Social issues
The top four or five of these issues are widely discussed routinely, so I’ll leave them out for this article. A great, in-depth discussion of the safety, risk, and economic issues can be found in KQED’s Forum with Michael Krasney’s April 10th, 2007 episode on the subject: –especially the comments by Ralph Cavanaugh from the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Aside from the economic issues, one of the most important social issues rarely brought-up is that the majority of known uranium sources lie under native lands – and the tribes don’t want to sell access to their land for mining. On a walk through the Marin Headlands, my friend, an engineer, had an easy fix to this problem: pay the native tribes market rate for their land and resources. There. Easy. Done.
What isn’t so easy, of course, is that most native tribes (whether here in the USA or elsewhere in the world) don’t want to give over their land for any price! To many native cultures, the Earth is a deity. Nature itself is a source of not only physical but spiritual sustenance. They’re not interested in having their land scarred for any reason and at any price. In other words, despite how much we may want what they have, if they don’t want to sell it to us, it’s not ours to take – not that that hasn’t stopped us in the past but it won’t be so easy to decry “private property” and “market economics” as sacred to capitalism when the reality becomes clear that, really, we just take whatever we need from whomever has it and don’t look back.
There is a cultural war brewing, both between tribes (now joined by ranchers) and the outside world as well as sparking conflict between members within tribes. More on that here.
Largely, the nuclear industry sees tribes and their members as “poor” citizens outside the American ideal. They have astronomical unemployment, often low literacy, and don’t have the “modern” conveniences of American life today. To be sure, these tribes could use better jobs and better healthcare and some better infrastructure. However, they don’t see themselves as impoverished people, somehow less “American” for not participating in the materialism arms race of their neighbors. They may want a few more conveniences but they aren’t looking to become SUV-driving sub-urbanites living the Desperate Housewives lifestyle. The already have a deep, rich culture they aren’t willing to give up in trade for merely money. This is what the business world doesn’t see.
Lastly, as if the above issues weren’t enough, what makes the debate truly and terrifyingly laughable is the fact that we already have technologies that are better investments, with better returns, that can be implemented now, with no further development, for a fraction of the price, and that will help build a strong, resilient economy for many, not just one industry. These include efficiency technologies pioneered and in use in California since the 70s as well as new standards and technologies that can, right now, cut the energy demands of the USA by 30%. Add in the promotion and support of solar and wind and other renewables and we can get to 50% in the same amount of years it would take to design, approve, build, and service even one new nuclear power plant. It doesn’t take an economist to see the better investment? Or does it?
Nuclear energy, like the mythical “hydrogen economy” is a centralized solution proposed by centralized companies bent on maintaining their influence of the energy industry. This isn’t surprising since every industry tries to accomplish the same thing. What’s different is that this industry, which has been fighting the entire idea of climate change for 30 years or more is suddenly using it as its latest PR campaign to scare the public and public officials into accepting nuclear power as the only viable solution. It’s cynical, ironic, comical, and sad. Worse still, they’re proposing massive subsidies, public investment, and limitation of liabilities in order to make it feasible. That should be evidence enough that it’s not the right solution.
Should Microsoft be subsidized by the US government when it cries foul that UNIX is destroying its server market? Should IBM have gotten the government to take on the risks of its operations in order to make its portable computer business viable? The energy industry asking the public and government to support its ability to make money on a disastrous technology is like Google petitioning the US for support and indemnification to launch its own television network and infrastructure throughout the US just so they can expand into a new market and make gazillions more dollars.
BTW, if you want to truly understand the depth of trouble our economy is in due to lobbyist-promoted corporate welfare consisting of subsidies, rebates, and tax-incentives, just read the horrifyingly illuminating new book, Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You with the Bill), by David Cay Johnson. If you ever wondered why it’s getting more and more difficult to make a living in this country, despite two-income families and a rising GDP, and if you ever noticed that the middle class is dwindling, this book will clearly explain why. Not all industries or companies are bad, but when business puts its hands in your pockets, via the government, it’s pretty clear that it’s not good for you, the economy, or the country. The founding fathers knew this and built careful safeguards that have almost entirely been destroyed or bypassed. Everyone needs to how this works so that we don’t allow the nuclear power industry to simply fleece the nation like so many other companies and industries have already.
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From Guest Blogger Nathan Shedroff:
Nathan is an entrepreneur, experience designer, and sustainability expert. He is the Program Chair of the groundbreaking MBA in Design Strategy program at California Center for the Arts and the author of numerous books on design, meaning, and business. You can learn more about him at www.nathan.com. You can reach him at nathan at nathan dot com.

Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of TriplePundit.com

TriplePundit.com has since grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He was instrumental in the creation of TreeHugger.com, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years as well as an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.