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.