Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Reality of a Nuclear Fueled Economy

by Donnie Safer
Chairman of the Tennessee Environmental Council

First Published in the Green Living Journal | May 22, 2008

Why bring “low-level” nuclear waste all the way from Italy to Oak Ridge for processing? Why dispose of domestic nuclear waste from states like Michigan and California in landfills across Tennessee? What about TVA receiving four million dollars from the U.S. Dept. of Energy to design a small scale nuclear waste reprocessing plant as part of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP)? And if the proposed two unit TVA nuclear power plant is built at Bellefonte, Alabama did you know the Tennessee River will be used to cool nine reactors from Watts Bar to Brown’s Ferry?

Tennessee has had a special role in the birth, growth and development of the nuclear industry since the “Secret City” of Oak Ridge was born to help create the world’s first nuclear bomb. The nuclear industry has found fertile ground in the Tennessee Valley and we figure prominently in its current efforts to revive and grow to monstrous proportions.

Long lasting, incredibly toxic mutation and cancer inducing waste has been the nuclear industry’s legacy and conundrum since Madame Curie first started fooling around with radioactive elements. She ended up dying of radiation induced anemia. The Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) study “Out of Control - On Purpose” identifies Tennessee as a national leader in nuclear waste processing and disposal. The study says: “Tennessee is one of the few states to license the commercial incineration and thermal treatment of nuclear waste. It is the only state in which DOE is burning radioactive waste.”

Tennessee’s Bulk Survey for Release program has permitted the disposal of low level nuclear waste in up to five landfills in Tennessee. This program provides a relatively low cost but high risk solution which attracts the waste from great distances. Middle Point, near Murfreesboro along the Stone’s River, no longer accepts this waste, but this landfill designed for home garbage accepted large quantities of radioactive materials without the knowledge of local residents until the shroud of secrecy on this practice was lifted and public outrage followed.

We are on the verge of becoming a world-wide, international leader in a dubious category if we continue down our current path. Many of the players in Tennessee’s nuclear waste industry are international companies looking for the lowest cost ways to dispose of their problems. EnergySolutions has applied to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to bring 20,000 tons of nuclear waste from Italy to Oak Ridge for processing. The waste will be burned, melted or otherwise magically reduced to a projected 1600 tons. Processing is the trickiest part, with the most risk of unplanned radioactive releases. The original plan was for the 1600 tons to be shipped for disposal in Utah, but they don’t want it and are refusing to take it. Do they know something we don’t? Representative Bart Gordon is co-sponsoring a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives to ban the importation of this waste.

GNEP is a proposal to reprocess spent nuclear fuel from all over the world into plutonium fuel for use in new generation reactors still in development. Oak Ridge is one of about eleven sites in the U.S. being considered for the first full-sized plant. TVA’s announcement of a $4 million DOE grant to design a small pilot plant to do this in Oak Ridge is a possible indication of front runner status in the GNEP decision. The spent fuel is insanely radioactive and very tricky to handle. The resulting plutonium is incredibly toxic, long lasting and is easily fashioned into nuclear weapons.

TVA has made the decision that nuclear power is the biggest part (in sheer dollar investment) of their response to carbon induced climate change with virtually no public debate or input. Out of the frying pan and into the fire! This is astonishing when you consider the costs: they (we) still owe $25 BILLION for the first go-round of nuclear construction in the 1970’s and 80’s. The bill for the proposed 2,000 mega-watts at Bellefonte is currently estimated at between 14 and 16 BILLION.

Nuclear power offers unique challenges to all who are working toward a clean, sustainable energy future on a healthy planet earth. The reality of a nuclear fueled economy is totally inconsistent with that vision. The legacy of nuclear power is waste remaining dangerous for 100,000 or more years, a world with widespread proliferation of nuclear weapons and a biosphere increasingly contaminated with dangerous radiation. It is crucial to create the green alternative but unfortunately we have to directly confront the beast that is the nuclear industry before it renders all our efforts futile.

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