Using nuclear energy presents similar problems to fossil fuels. On December 2, 1942, the world’s first nuclear reactor was tested on the floor of an abandoned handball court beneath the University of Chicago. At 3:25 that afternoon, the fission chain reaction inside what was known as Chicago Pile-1 became self-sustaining and the possibility of powering cities from the energy locked safely inside the atom became a reality.
And so an optimistic age began when electric companies, in their eagerness to promote this new resource, assured the public that power would be so cheap to produce that there would be no need to even meter it. The optimism and excitement were soon tarnished, however, as the hazards, environmental costs, and the dangers of what was released along with energy from inside the uranium atom became apparent.
The environmental impact of nuclear fuels has proven to be much greater than the original estimates of the fledgling industry. The solution to the problem of how to safely store tons and tons of nuclear waste, which remains extremely dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years, has still not been discovered after 5 decades of nuclear research.
Underscoring this reality is the fact that the nuclear industry in the United States has asked the federal government for protection from liabilities from potential nuclear disasters, and help dealing with the constantly increasing amounts of high-level nuclear waste.
Dangers of Mining Uranium
The mining of uranium inflicts great damage on local ecology and greatly increases the rates of cancer among miners. Uranium is a radioactive element. As it decays it creates a plethora of highly dangerous by-products, thorium-230, radium-226, radon-222, and the extremely dangerous elements lead-210 and polonium-210. In the course of digging up the ore, the miners fill the air in the mineshafts with these deadly substances and breathe them in.
These radioactive elements settle in the miners’ lungs delivering a strong dose of alpha radiation directly to the lung tissue. In a study published in 1980, the British Columbia Medical Association published a report entitled “The Health Dangers of Uranium Mining.” This report made it clear that the BCMA believed that ever-increasing incidences of lung cancer among Canadian miners would be the result of continued mining of Uranium in Canada.
Once the rock containing the ore is brought to the surface, it is crushed and the useful uranium is extracted. The leftover material, including 85% of the total radioactivity, litters the ground in the form of uranium “tailings,” which are simply stockpiled, often above ground, where they continue to emit dangerous radon gas. Canada alone has 200 million pounds of tailings.
A report delivered to the British Columbia Royal Commission of Inquiry declared that the failure to properly handle uranium tailings has led to internal lung doses calculated to be 100 rems per year to the local public. Calculations show that the public in areas near uranium tailings will receive 25 percent higher radon daughter radiation over the course of their lifetimes than populations living at a safe distance from the tailings.
The quantity of nuclear reserves is as finite and limited as that of fossil fuels. Uranium Institute figures estimate the total world recoverable resources of uranium at 3,256,000 tons. Existing power plants operational worldwide require 75,000 tons of uranium a year to produce roughly 17% of the total world power requirements. The total resources will be sufficient to meet current and anticipated demand for only 42 years.
It might be argued that the so-called breeder reactors create, in the process of their operation, abundant fuel. That fuel, however, is plutonium, and there is great concern that a world plutonium market would make cheap, weapons-grade plutonium a common commodity, increasing the risks to non-proliferation of nuclear arms and terrorist theft. In addition, breeder reactors are the most dangerous of all the reactors in terms of environmental hazards, and the extra dangers imposed by the handling of extremely toxic plutonium make the breeder reactors very costly.
When you combine these arguments with the fact that fissionable elements can be better applied to a myriad of other uses such as nuclear medicine and materials testing, it is clear that consuming them simply to heat water is a waste of a limited resource.
Generating nuclear power appears to be an effective way to create dangerous waste garbage that cannot be safely thrown away, though often is. Past operations have resulted in contamination and fatalities throughout almost every step of the mining, refining, and disposal process. Even now we have no idea how to safeguard future generations from radioactive material used to produce today’s electricity. And yet, we continue to rely on it to provide over 17% of our world’s energy.
Uranium is distributed unevenly throughout the world. About 80% is located in six countries with only 9 companies accounting for 82% of uranium production. Canada and Australia supply 34% and over 15%, respectively, of the world’s supply. Over 440 reactors worldwide process the uranium for electricity.
The process begins in the mines. To supply an average plant (1000 MWe) with one year’s worth of uranium, 45,000-90,000 tons of low-grade uranium ore are dug from the surface or underground mines to extract a meager 25 tons of enriched uranium to be used in a nuclear reactor core. Uranium usually composes less than 1% of the total material mined, so the rock that encases it winds up littering the landscape in the form of radioactive tailings. In the US, radioactive tailings make up “over 95 percent of the volume of all radioactive waste from all stages of the nuclear weapons and power production” process.
The people who work at these uranium mines and plants live with the constant threat of radioactive contamination in their clothes, their skin, and the air they breathe. Even alpha radiation, the least dangerous of the three types (alpha, beta, and gamma), can eventually kill someone if they inhale particles containing it. Improper disposal of radioactive tailings is also an issue that affects nearby communities. Mill tailings have been responsible for most of the radioactive environmental contamination that has occurred in the last few decades.
In the US, “nearly one-third of all mill tailings from abandoned mill operations are on lands of the Navajo nation alone. Many Native Americans have died of lung cancers linked to their work in uranium mines. Others continue to suffer the effects of land and water contamination due to seepage and spills from tailings piles.” This radioactivity will likely affect other people who go near the area for hundreds or thousands of years.
Nuclear power, therefore, concerns everyone since the poison it leaves behind does not just go away in a few months.
Once rock containing uranium has been whittled down to 25 tons and the tailings discarded, it must be enriched for use in modern reactors. The naturally occurring 0.7% ratio of the isotope uranium-235 must be increased to about 3.5%. First, it is converted into a gas. Then the isotope uranium-238 is extracted, wasting 87% of the material in order to retrieve the desired 13% of U-235-enriched uranium. This uranium dioxide is converted into powder and compacted into pellets, which are put into fuel rods and inserted into the reactor.
In the recent past, some of the 87% of the so-called “depleted” uranium “was used by the US military to fabricate armor-piercing conventional weapons and tank armor plating.” Armed forces personnel were not informed of their exposure to radioactive material, nor were there procedures for measuring doses.
The enriched 13% that enters the nuclear reactor core undergoes fission and causes a chain reaction. Heat boils water and steam drives a turbine and an electric generator capable of providing about 7 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually.
After the enriched uranium is used, 97% of it goes back into the reactor to be reprocessed with fresh uranium. About 200 tons of enriched uranium is needed to keep a plant going but only 25 tons of fresh fuel are added each year. “The remaining 3%, about 700 kg, is high-level radioactive waste which is potentially hazardous and needs to be isolated from the environment for a very long time.”
While in the reactor, some of the U-238 turns into plutonium and fission products. These are even more dangerous and deadly than the original uranium that went into the reactor. A person would quite literally drop dead by getting too close.
The storage of this high-level waste is a serious concern for the nuclear power industry, governments, and people in general. One option is to heat the waste to the point that it turns into a dry powder that can be immobilized in Pyrex glass and stored in stainless steel canisters. This process is called vitrification. Another storage option was developed in Australia. “SYNROC” is the incorporation of radioactive wastes “in the crystal lattices of the naturally-stable minerals in a synthetic rock. In other words, copying what happens in nature.” But neither of these techniques solves the problem of final disposal.
“Final disposal” is the most controversial issue of all because the only solution receiving serious consideration is “deep geological disposal” – the burial of radioactive waste in stable rock structures or bentonite clay that inhibits groundwater movement.
This is only a temporary answer to the radioactive problem. No material used to encase the waste can withstand the continuous assault of heat, helium, and hydrogen that the spent fuels produce. The nuclear industry frankly admits that such a “solution” carries the risk of contamination to underground water tables.
Eventually, the unstable material will reenter the ground and poison the groundwater. Consider this the longest any language has continuously been spoken is 4,000 years. This spent fuel will remain lethal for more than 10,000 years. What language will be used to make the signs warning people of the distant future away from the site?
“Some countries believe that the final disposal of high-level radioactive wastes and/or spent fuel should be delayed as long as possible.” But in an effort to get this dangerous material out of sight and out of mind, the nuclear industry has identified possible dumpsites.
In 1987, Yucca Mountain, Nevada, was selected as a potential repository for the 77,000 tons of nuclear waste awaiting disposal from the US’s 110 nuclear plants. Thousands of researchers and scientists have been testing the region’s rock formations, climate, and groundwater flows.
Nuclear Waste Policy Act
According to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, “If, at any time, Yucca Mountain is found unsuitable, studies will be stopped immediately. If that happens, the site will be restored and DOE will seek new direction from Congress.” The entire project from start to finish, that is if it goes, is estimated to cost $18.7 billion.
Apparently, the 621 earthquakes of a 2.5 rating or greater that have occurred within a 50-mile radius of Yucca Mountain since 1976 have not proven the site “unsuitable.” Hundreds of these earthquakes have happened during DOE’s site evaluation. According to Nevada’s Nuclear Waste Project Office (NWPO), Yucca Mountain itself is “a result of millions of years of intense faulting and volcanism.
Records of recent events indicate that faulting is an ongoing process in the vicinity of Yucca Mountain that is expected to continue long into the future. Thirty-three faults are known to exist within and adjacent to the Yucca Mountain site.” The NWPO as well as two-thirds of Nevadans oppose the project altogether.
Despite the lack of a dependable solution for disposing of the radioactive waste, nuclear power plants are still being constructed. 2 million tons of coal is burned to produce the same amount of electricity that 21 tons of spent uranium fuel produces.
That is almost 10,000 times more, not to mention the 5.4 million tons of CO 2, 120,000 tons of ash, and 50,000 tons of SO 2 that are emitted in the coal-burning process. But people tend to forget that the radioactive materials discarded in the nuclear fuel process cannot be filtered out of the environment in a blink of geologic time.
Nuclear operations are especially harmful to indigenous people who will be affected by a plant but whose refusals go unheeded. Jabiluka (Djabulukku), Australia is home to one of the biggest and highest-grade uranium deposits in the world, an estimated 212,400 tons of uranium oxide. It also happens to be in the middle of a national park in a beautiful floodplain that the Mirrar people call home.
Although the Mirrar clan leaders “have clearly stated that they are opposed to any mining operations at the site,” the Jabiluka Uranium Mine proposal may become a reality. Sometime in 1999, a tunnel will be dug “toward the uranium orebody, without a clear plan for where the ore will be milled or what will happen to 19 million tonnes of powdered radioactive waste rock produced by the mine. What is clear is that mining, far from providing benefits to the local community, is instead destroying them.”
The Mirrar fear this mine “will push their culture past the point of cultural exhaustion to genocidal decay.”
The limited supply of nuclear fuels is surprising. Uranium is the key fuel in the nuclear power industry and uranium, like oil, gas, and coal, is a finite and limited resource.
There is already concern by professionals in the nuclear power industry that demand may outpace supply in the first decade of the 21st century. Predictions for the future availability of uranium are guardedly optimistic but rely heavily on conditions for uranium demand to rise only slightly.
A market report published by the Uranium Institute for its twenty-first Annual Symposium in 1996 noted that in recent years the “shortfall in supply has been met from inventories that are considered to have now reached near minimum strategic reserve levels.”
The report concludes that “only with the combination of the lowest requirement scenario and the highest supply scenario will uranium production be sufficient to meet demand, and then only until 2002.” Otherwise, demand may exceed estimated supply by as much as 15,000 tons of uranium per year.
Estimated western world resources of three million tons of uranium at under $60,000 per ton are sufficient to satisfy demand for only 42 years. There is another 1.5 million available at $100,000 per ton. The total of 4.5 million tons is sufficient to meet demand for a mere 60 years.
Gerald Grandey, senior vice president of marketing and corporate development for Cameco, told the Nuclear Energy Institutes fuel cycle conference in 1996 that as of 2005, “using somewhat optimistic supply assumptions, including the less traditional supply sources, the market appears to be in balance or slightly short of supplies.”
Are there reasons to be optimistic? Figures estimate the total world recoverable resources of uranium at 3,256,000 tons. Existing power plants operational worldwide require 75,000 tons of uranium a year to produce roughly 17% of the total world power requirements.
Current recoverable resources will only power existing reactors for four or five decades. Replacing power generated from fossil fuel with nuclear power would require a six-fold increase in the amount of recoverable uranium simply to provide the world with energy for half a century at the most.
The Future of Nuclear Energy
What does the future of nuclear energy look like? An ideal solution for dealing with radioactive waste is in the works. Paul Brown of International Fission Fuels, Inc., recommends the transmutation of spent fuels into “short lived or stable products.”
This could be done with an accelerator-driven reactor that “may be used to ‘burn up’ spent fuel from fission reactors.” It would speed up electrons directed onto a metal such as tungsten in order to create gamma rays capable of disintegrating radioactive materials. This reaction would require about 1 MW of power and produce about 20 MW of power, so the use of multiple reactors would provide “a relatively cheap and safe source of power at the same time.”
The fuel to generate this power is obviously abundant. All that needs doing is constructing an experimental prototype.
Until such reactors are made a reality, nuclear power will remain a threat to the global community for thousands of generations. Common sense has been lost somewhere along the line and current regulations in the US only cover the next 1,000 years.
Yet, we continue to depend on a form of electrical generation that produces many times more radioactive waste and spent fuel than it uses, even though we are not sure how to dispose of the waste products. In fact, the production of nuclear energy would be more aptly called the production of lethal, uncontainable waste whose existence shatters the significance of our present electrical needs.
The nuclear power industry is focusing on ways to more efficiently generate power from uranium, and some hope that the answer lies in using breeder reactors. But so far the breeder reactor has proven too costly and dangerous a venture to offer much hope for a solution to our looming energy problem.
Assuming, momentarily, that scientists will discover more efficient ways of generating power from uranium, or that the breeder reactors become economically viable. Perhaps, vast new resources of uranium will be discovered. There are yet more compelling reasons for the world to think carefully before relying too heavily on nuclear power as the answer to the next century’s power problems.