"If these facts haven't dissuaded this person sitting next to you, try 
telling him or her that most mined uranium-about 99.28 percent-is fairly 
low-radiation uranium-238, which is still a highly toxic heavy metal. To 
make nuclear fuel, the ore must be "enriched," an energy-intensive process 
that increases the .72 percent of highly fissionable, highly radioactive 
U-235 up to 3 to 5 percent."

U-235 is not "highly radioactive".  It has a half-life of over 700 million 
yy.  Significantly shorter than the 4.5 billion yy for U-238, but still very 
long.  Enriching natural uranium to fuel-grade (5% U-235) increases the 
radioactivity by about 22%.

I may be old-fashioned, but I feel it is important for antinuclear activists 
to have their facts straight.  Did she not have the article proofed by a 

----Original Message Follows----
From: Phil Gasper <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To: Science for the People Discussion List              
<[log in to unmask]>
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Reasons Not to Glow
Date: Tue, 10 Jul 2007 12:32:22 -0500

From the Faraway Nearby

Reasons Not to Glow

On not jumping out of the frying pan into the eternal fires

by Rebecca Solnit
Published in the July/August 2007 issue of Orion magazine

Chances are good, gentle reader, that you are going to have to sit next to 
someone in the coming year who will assert that nuclear power is the 
solution to climate change. What will you tell them? There's so much to say. 
You could be sitting next to someone who hasn't really considered the 
evidence yet. Or you could be sitting next to scientist and Gaia theorist 
James Lovelock, a supporter of Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy, which 
quotes him saying, "We have no time to experiment with visionary energy 
sources; civilisation is in imminent danger and has to use nuclear-the one 
safe, available, energy source-now or suffer the pain soon to be inflicted 
by our outraged planet."

If you sit next to Lovelock, you might start by mentioning that half the 
farms in this country had windmills before Marie Curie figured out anything 
about radiation or Lise Meitner surmised that atoms could be split. Wind 
power is not visionary in the sense of experimental. Neither is solar, which 
is already widely used. Nor are nukes safe, and they take far too long to 
build to be considered readily available. Yet Stewart Brand, of Whole Earth 
Catalog fame, has jumped on the nuclear bandwagon, and so has Greenpeace 
founding member turned PR flack Patrick Moore. So you must be prepared.

Of course the first problem is that nuclear power is often nothing more than 
a way to avoid changing anything. A bicycle is a better answer to a 
Chevrolet Suburban than a Prius is, and so is a train, or your feet, or 
staying home, or a mix of all those things. Nuclear power plants, like 
coal-burning power plants, are about retaining the big infrastructure of 
centralized power production and, often, the habits of obscene consumption 
that rely on big power. But this may be too complicated to get into while 
your proradiation interlocutor suggests that letting a thousand nuclear 
power plants bloom would solve everything.

Instead, you may be able to derail the conversation by asking whether they'd 
like to have a nuclear power plant or waste repository in their backyard, 
which mostly they would rather not, though they'd happily have it in your 
backyard. This is why the populous regions of the eastern U.S. keep trying 
to dump their nuclear garbage in the less-populous regions of the West. My 
friend Chip Ward (from nuclear-waste-threatened Utah) reports, "To make a 
difference in global climate change, we would have to immediately build as 
many nuclear power plants as we already have in the U.S. (about 100) and at 
least as many as 2,000 worldwide." Chip goes on to say that "Wall Street 
won't invest in nuclear power because it is too risky. . . . The partial 
meltdown at Three Mile Island taught investment bankers how a 
two-billion-dollar investment can turn into a billion-dollar clean-up in 
under two hours." So we, the people, would have to foot the bill.

Nuclear power proponents like to picture a bunch of clean plants humming 
away like beehives across the landscape. Yet when it comes to the mining of 
uranium, which mostly takes place on indigenous lands from northern Canada 
to central Australia, you need to picture fossil-fuel-intensive 
carbon-emitting vehicles, and lots of them-big disgusting diesel-belching 
ones. But that's the least of it. The Navajo are fighting right now to 
prevent uranium mining from resuming on their land, which was severely 
contaminated by the postwar uranium boom of the 1940s and 1950s. The miners 
got lung cancer. The children in the area got birth defects and a 1,500 
percent increase in ovarian and testicular cancer. And the slag heaps and 
contaminated pools that were left behind will be radioactive for millennia.

If these facts haven't dissuaded this person sitting next to you, try 
telling him or her that most mined uranium-about 99.28 percent-is fairly 
low-radiation uranium-238, which is still a highly toxic heavy metal. To 
make nuclear fuel, the ore must be "enriched," an energy-intensive process 
that increases the .72 percent of highly fissionable, highly radioactive 
U-235 up to 3 to 5 percent. As Chip points out, four dirty-coal-fired plants 
were operated in Kentucky just to operate two uranium enrichment plants. 
What's left over is a huge quantity of U-238, known as depleted uranium, 
which the U.S. government classifies as low-level nuclear waste, except when 
it uses the stuff to make armoring and projectiles that are the source of so 
much contamination in Iraq from our first war there, and our second.

Reprocessing spent nuclear fuel was supposed to be one alternative to lots 
and lots of mining forever and forever. The biggest experiment in 
reprocessing was at Sellafield in Britain. In 2005, after decades of 
contamination and leaks and general spewing of horrible matter into the 
ocean, air, and land around the reprocessing plant, Sellafield was shut down 
because a bigger-than-usual leak of fuel dissolved in nitric acid-some tens 
of thousands of gallons-was discovered. It contained enough plutonium to 
make about twenty nuclear bombs. Gentle reader, this has always been one of 
the prime problems of nuclear energy: the same general processes that 
produce fuel for power can produce it for bombs. In India. Or Pakistan. Or 
Iran. The waste from nuclear plants is now the subject of much fretting 
about terrorists obtaining it for dirty bombs-and with a few hundred 
thousand tons of high-level waste in the form of spent fuel and a whole lot 
more low-level waste in the U.S. alone, there's plenty to go around.

By now the facts should be on your side, but do ask how your neighbor feels 
about nuclear bombs, just to keep things lively.

The truth is, there may not be enough uranium out there to fuel two thousand 
more nuclear power plants worldwide. Besides, before a nuke plant goes 
online, a huge amount of fossil fuel must be expended just to build the 
thing. Still, the biggest stumbling block, where climate change is 
concerned, is that it takes a decade or more to construct a nuclear plant, 
even if the permitting process goes smoothly, which it often does not. So a 
bunch of nuclear power plants that go online in 2017 at the earliest are not 
even terribly relevant to turning around our carbon emissions in the next 
decade-which is the time frame we have before it's too late.

If you're not, at this point, chasing your poor formerly pronuclear 
companion down the hallway, mention that every stage of the nuclear fuel 
cycle is murderously filthy, imparting long-lasting contamination on an epic 
scale; that a certain degree of radioactive pollution is standard at each of 
these stages, but the accidents are now so many in number that they have to 
be factored in as part of the environmental cost; that the plants themselves 
generate lots of radioactive waste, which we still don't know what to do 
with-because the stuff is deadly . . . anywhere . . . and almost forever. 
And no, tell them, this nuclear colonialism is not an acceptable sacrifice, 
since it is not one the power consumers themselves are making. It's a 
sacrifice they're imposing on people far away and others not yet born, a 
debt they're racking up at the expense of people they will never meet.

Sure, you can say nuclear power is somewhat less carbon-intensive than 
burning fossil fuels for energy; beating your children to death with a club 
will prevent them from getting hit by a car. Ravaging the Earth by one 
irreparable means is not a sensible way to prevent it from being destroyed 
by another. There are alternatives. We should choose them and use them.

An antinuclear activist in Nevada from 1988 to 2002, Rebecca Solnit just put 
up a clothesline in the backyard and will get around to installing the solar 
panels any day now. National Book Critics Circle award-winner Solnit's most 
recent book is Storming the Gates of Paradise.