[Sust-mar] reactors NOT emissions free: global perspective

Roger Davies daisies at chebucto.ns.ca
Mon Jun 19 07:55:24 EDT 2006

   Helen Caldicott:

 The Bush administration [include Ontario gov't] and the nuclear industry 
embarking on an ill-conceived "renaissance" of nuclear
power, deploying the spurious message that it is
emissions-free, green, safe, and will save the world from
the effects of global warming. Wrong, on all counts!

      Carbon dioxide gas-the increase of which is tied to
global warming-is released at every stage of the nuclear
fuel cycle: uranium mining and milling, uranium enrichment,
construction of huge concrete reactors, and the
transportation and long-term storage of intensely
radioactive waste. Nuclear power plants currently generate
"only" one-third as much carbon dioxide as a similar-sized
energy plant fired by natural gas. But because the supply of
highly concentrated uranium ore is limited, the energy
eventually required to mine and enrich uranium will greatly
increase. If global electricity production were converted to
nuclear power, there only would be a three-year supply of
accessible uranium to fuel the reactors.

      Nuclear reactors routinely emit radioactive materials,
including the fat-soluble noble gases xenon, krypton, and
argon. Although not chemically reacting with biological
compounds, they are inhaled by populations near reactors,
absorbed into the blood, and concentrated in the fat pads of
the abdomen and upper thighs, which exposes ovaries and
testicles to mutagenic gamma radiation.

      Tritium, a form of radioactive hydrogen, is also
regularly discharged by reactors. Combining with oxygen to
form tritiated water, it absorbs readily through skin,
lungs, and gut. Tritium is a dangerous carcinogen that
produces congenital malformations and genetic deformities in
low doses in animals and, by extrapolation, in humans.

      ADDITIONALLY, NUCLEAR reactors are potential terrorist
targets. Reactor meltdowns could be induced by severing the
external electricity supply, disrupting the
1-million-gallons-per-minute intake of cooling water,
infiltrating the control room, or by a well-coordinated
attack. Surprisingly, since Sept. 11 the U.S. Nuclear
Regulatory Commission has failed to upgrade security at the
nation's 103 nuclear reactors. A meltdown at the Indian
Point reactors, located 35 miles from Manhattan, could
render the region uninhabitable for thousands of years.

      Nuclear waste is the industry's Achilles' heel.
Currently 60,000 tons of radioactive waste are stored
temporarily in cooling pools beside nuclear reactors,
awaiting final disposal. In 2002, Congress voted that the
final repository for nuclear waste would be Yucca Mountain
in Nevada, which is transected by 32 earthquake faults and
consists largely of permeable pumice, and thus is unsuitable
as a radioactive geological waste receptacle. The U.S. now
has nowhere to deposit its expanding nuclear waste

      In countries with nuclear reactors, radioactive
elements are leaking into underground water systems, rivers,
and oceans, progressively concentrating at each level of the
food chain. Carcinogens including Strontium-90, recently
found in the groundwater at the Indian Point reactors, and
Cesium-137 are radioactive for 600 years. Food and human
breast milk will become increasingly radioactive near waste
sites. Inevitably cancers will increase in frequency within
exposed populations, as will genetic diseases such as cystic

      Each 1000-megawatt reactor produces some 500 pounds of
plutonium each year in spent fuel rods. Plutonium is
carcinogenic in amounts smaller than one-millionth of a gram
and can cause liver cancer, lung cancer, bone cancer, and
leukemia. It can cross the placenta to induce congenital
deformities, and it has a predilection for the testicles
where it may cause genetic abnormalities. Once released in
the ecosphere, plutonium-with a half-life of tens of
thousands of years-will affect biological systems
essentially forever.

      Critical mass for a nuclear explosion requires only 10
pounds of plutonium. Countries with nuclear reactors could
therefore use radioactive waste to manufacture many nuclear
bombs per year. The under-resourced International Atomic
Energy Agency admits that it is physically impossible to
prevent a determined country-whether a signatory to the
Non-Proliferation Treaty of Nuclear Weapons or not-from
using imported uranium or plutonium to make nuclear weapons.

      Time is short. A truly informed national debate about
the efficacy of nuclear power is long overdue.

      Dr. Helen Caldicott is founder of Physicians for
Social Responsibility and founder and president of the
Nuclear Policy Research Institute. Her book Nuclear Power is
Not the Answer will be published in September 2006. 

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