Nuclear power rears its dangerous head


Nuclear power is back with a vengeance. The Bush Administration is aggressively moving forward to re-establish the nuclear industry as a major component of "energy independence." The Administration would re-initiate uranium mining, particularly on Navajo lands with government funds to assist private research and development companies. The Administration would also provide new and huge subsidies to facilitate the building of more nuclear power plants.

It would do all this in the name of "Securing America's Future Energy," as one piece of supportive legislation in the controversial Energy Act.

This is the energy bill criticized across the board for the secrecy with which Vice President Dick Cheney formulated it. Critics contend that it was largely written by the energy multi-nationals, and it is one of the major reasons environmentalists and advocates of energy efficiency and other proven energy alternatives are outraged that the path not taken ? for clean and safe and sustainable technologies ? is now thoroughly excluded as a national policy.

We share the sense of outrage. We think America's huge need for energy is at the root of many of its problems ? both political and environmental. We believe that intense programs to curtail waste and aggressive subsidy of research and development for fuel cells, solar and wind and other forms of renewable energy production are the way to go. The Administration's overriding push for oil and nuclear energy, we believe, is wrong. Given their now clearly known dangers to environment and health, such an emphasis is increasingly difficult to justify.

Nuclear power is the outgrowth of the Nuclear Bomb. In the 1950s, it was touted as the Wonder Bread of energy for peaceful purposes. There was little knowledge, outside of insider circles, about the ultimate dangers of nuclear radiation. By and large the public was not told the full context of contamination, yet had to suffer its many effects. The legacy of lung and other cancers and diseases associated with radiation has plagued uranium miners and "down winders," including many Native peoples, for decades. Water contamination is also a major source of complaint.

At Navajo, uranium mining threatens to come back in full swing. A proposed $30 million government subsidy is slated for support of in-situ leach uranium mining, under an agreement with Hydro Resources, Inc., which has sought approval from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to develop two to four in-situ mines northeast of Gallup. Critics rightfully call it "corporate welfare."

The new mining threatens to further contaminate the primary source of drinking water for more than 15,000 Din? people, non-native teachers and health care workers in Crownpoint, Coyote Canyon, Mariano Lake and Smith Lake. Local activists continue to reiterate that the people of the area under consideration for mining are overwhelmingly against it. Doctors on the Navajo Nation are concerned about health impacts, particularly kidney damage, as a result of higher uranium levels in the drinking water. Already, the Crownpoint aquifer contains more than 200 times the level of uranium than is considered safe by the World Health Organization.

Very little has been done on the Navajo reservation to clean up the landscape of the some 1,000 open mining pits filled with radioactive slurry. Kids play in and houses have been built from piles of tailings left over from the earlier uranium mining era. These are known to contain residues of uranium, radium, arsenic, selenium, molybdenum and other toxic substances. Congress in 2000 mandated payments to uranium miners who were victims of unprotected exposure to toxicity during their years working for the mines, but compensation has been very slow in arriving.

At Yakama and Spokane reservations in Washington State, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, site of military experiments on radioactivity and manufacture of plutonium for nuclear weapons development, substantial toxicity from radioactive isotopes in water used to cool fuel rods has contaminated fish on the Columbia River. A new report prepared for the U.S. government by the Risk Assessment Corp. now considers that the area's Indians, who appear to consume considerably more fish, have likely suffered more than most from the contamination. Boiling fish for soup, the report points out, releases the radioactive strontium, which concentrates particularly in the bones of the fish.

The crippling complaint against production of nuclear materials has been the question of what to do with the waste. The U.S. nuclear industry has already produced more than 30,000 metric tons of radioactive waste, which is intensely toxic, so dangerous to life forms that it has to be isolated for at least 100,000 years. The industry and this Administration want to bury it deep in the Earth, but everyone knows this solution is crude and lacks true technical guarantees. It is not very easy for the human mind even to conceive of methods that will last over 100,000 years, much less guarantee safety. Public reaction against this reality is the reason that the over 1,000 nuclear plants projected by President Richard Nixon in 1974 failed to materialize. And then the liability question came up. Who would pay the damages in the event of an accident?

Enter the Price-Anderson Act. First enacted in 1957, it was meant as a major subsidy for the much-touted yet fledging nuclear industry by limiting its liability in the event of major catastrophe. Whereas a catastrophic nuclear accident is calculated to cost some $600 billion in today's dollars, Price-Anderson caps liability at $10 billion to $12 billion per accident. Otherwise, since professional risk assessors calculated that the dangers of nuclear accident were too extensive to insure, the industry could not have developed at all. The limited liability formula, which would leave affected victims without protection, amounts to a subsidy of several billion dollars a year. No other industry has ever received such a huge subsidy. The public, when it understands the risks involved, including the fact that under a universal "nuclear exclusion clause" individuals can not insure themselves against a nuclear accident, clearly doesn't like it.

The Administration points to the dangers of terrorism as it argues for swift passage of its energy package, including the re-authorization of the Price-Anderson Act, by the U.S. Senate. The Administration argues that America's long-term security from terrorism depends on its energy independence. We would agree, but there is no evidence of this war having impaired world-wide oil extraction and delivery. However, it is doubtful that, in the interests of our Seventh Generation, where the evidence of global warming compounds daily, real security will be found in the increased use of fossil fuels. Nor is it likely to be found in the inherently dangerous new turn toward nuclear energy.

The U.S. Senate should take a detailed and critical look at re-authorization of the Price-Anderson Act. The question needs to be raised whether it is wise to subsidize an element so dangerous that it cannot be freely insured in the open market. Pushing nuclear as a parallel solution only adds fuel to a fire that will also turn and burn us.