The Case Against Nuclear Power: A Primer
A version of the following was presented at Socialism 2022, sponsored by Haymarket Books, which is publishing Joshua Frank’s forthcoming Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America.
Thanks everyone for showing up for this talk. I think it’s a vitally important topic, but I’ll admit, it’s a bit disheartening that it’s now a subject of debate on the Left.
I’ve long believed that we ought to build on the successes that came before us, not tear them down. Sadly, with the wrath of climate change impacting every corner of the earth, that is exactly what some are attempting to do. Last week a friend sent me an NPR story, “When Even Environmentalists Support Nuclear Power.” I read it, it’s awful propaganda that distorts the reality of how many of us view nuclear power and will continue to fight against it.
While opposition to nuclear power and weapons existed as far back as the 1940s, it wasn’t until the 1970s that anti-nuclear activism gained prominence. The most significant of these early protests against atomic energy took place in Seabrook, New Hampshire, where a nuclear plant was set to be constructed. After the town voted against the construction of the facility on three different occasions, their voices were ignored, and the building of the plant moved forward.
When citizens weren’t able to curtail the plant’s building through the ballot box, they decided to adopt more radical tactics. In April 1977, an adhoc group of locals called the Clamshell Alliance, held a civil disobedience protest at the site’s location. Nearly 1,500 were arrested, and news of the action spread quickly as it was one of the largest civil disobedience actions since the Vietnam era.
Across the country, more protests soon erupted. In California, the same year as the action in New Hampshire, a group called Abalone Alliance formed in an effort to stop the final phase of construction for the Diablo Canyon nuclear facility in San Louis Obisbo. Over a two-week period in September 1981, nearly 2,000 protestors were arrested when they successfully blocked workers from entering the construction site. Following the Diablo Canyon protests, PGE, the plant’s operator, vowed to abandon all future nuclear projects in the state, and Diablo was the last nuclear plant to go online in California, which it did in 1985.
By the time the protestors were rounded up at Diablo, the movement against nuclear power had evolved dramatically, with the meltdown at Three Mile Island in March of 1978, validating their concerns. Three Mile Island acted as a catalyst for more protests around the country, even making its way across the Pacific to Japan, where survivors of Hiroshima gathered in Tokyo to oppose nuclear technologies. Ultimately, these actions culminated in the single largest anti-nuclear protest ever, which took place in New York City in September 1979 when an estimated 200,000 people rallied in Battery Park, calling for an immediate shut down of Three Mile Island and an end to nuclear power proliferation globally.
These envigorating actions, along with the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl, put a halt to the construction of new nuclear plants in the United States. Plans for dozens of plants were shelved. By the mid-1980s the anti-nuclear power movement shifted its focus, joining the rapidly growing nuclear freeze movement, which was working to put the breaks on the global nuclear arms race. In retrospect, the anti-nuclear power movement was one of the most successful social movements to take hold in the United States in the last 40 years.
Yet now, in the name of fighting our burning climate, some are trying to undo this monumental success by prescribing nukes as a remedy for climate change.
There are many reasons to oppose nuclear power, and I will address seven of them: Why nuclear energy is not carbon neutral, mining impacts, nuclear power’s ties to atomic weapons, waste issues, the risks of accidents, and costs. I will generally focus on the United States, as we still have the largest nuclear power fleet in the world. Nonetheless, these issues are largely universal. Currently, the US has 55 nuclear plants and 93 operating reactors in 28 states.
First, let’s address a major misconception about nuclear energy. It is not now and has never been, a carbon-free fuel source. So don’t believe the hype. Advocates often cite industry-funded PR data claiming that nuke power will reduce CO2 emissions by upwards of 50 percent. This is blatant misinformation.
When each cycle of energy development is taken into account, nuclear falls well behind solar and wind with regard to CO2 emissions. These life cycle analyses (LCA) find that nuclear power, when every stage is taken into account, actually has a larger carbon footprint than natural gas plants, and almost double that of wind energy and a significant amount more than solar. How is this even possible if nuclear energy itself does not produce CO2 emissions? It’s because there are carbon dioxide emissions at every stage of the nuclear fuel chain. In fact, according to Mark Z Jacobsen, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, when you look at the 100-year life-cycle of CO2 emissions from different energy sources, nuclear is near the bottom of the ladder.
From plant and reactor construction, uranium mining, milling, and fuel fabrication to the transport of waste, emissions aren’t far behind.
Physicist Keith Barnham points out that proponents of nuclear power flagrantly ignore this reality and brush aside the fact that uranium mining is extremely carbon-intensive. “Nuclear fuel preparation begins with the mining of uranium-containing ores, followed by the crushing of the ore then extraction of the uranium from the powdered ore chemically. All three stages take a lot of energy, most of which comes from fossil fuels. The inescapable fact is that the lower the concentration of uranium in the ore, the higher the fossil fuel energy required to extract uranium.”
That brings us to the topic of mining. The existing uranium mines currently operating around the world are nearing the end of their life spans.
Andrea Wallner of the Austrian Institute of Technology writes that:
“Newly constructed nuclear power plants are supposed to have an operational lifetime of 60 years and a lead time between planning and operation of a facility of 10 to 19 years. Nuclear power plants which are currently being planned would reach their end of expected lifetime in the period of 2080—2090; power plants now starting to operate, would be shut-down at the end of 2070 . . . [Estimates assume that the] currently operated uranium mines would be exhausted between 2043 and 2055. If we assume this scenario to occur, it would not be possible to supply a nuclear power plant built now with uranium until the end of its lifetime.”
Uranium mining is an energy-demanding, brutal process and in the United States, it is also a neocolonial practice and one of the most toxic forms of mining in the world. Uranium has a half-life of 4.5 billion years, meaning it sticks around for a long, long time, even by geological standards, and paints a picture of the earliest days on planet Earth.
The largest uranium deposits in the United States are located on the Colorado Plateau, the ancestral home of the Diné (Navajo) people. During the height of the country’s nuclear weapons program, the government extracted 250,000 metric tons of usable uranium from one hundred million tons of uranium ore. The mines, which were full of radioactivity, were largely worked by Indigenous Diné. During the height of the country’s uranium craze of the 1970s, there were twelve thousand miners employed in the United States, and a disproportionate number, upwards of five thousand, were of Diné descent.
Paid very little, at times less than minimum wage, these miners would enter deep uranium shafts and chip away at the walls, often 1,500 feet below the earth’s crust. They filled their wheelbarrows with this uranium ore, all while choking on soot and dust particles. It was dark. There was no ventilation. It was tremendously difficult, perilous work.
Radon exposure in these gruesome mines causes lung diseases, the dangers of which were well-known to scientists and the medical community. But the Diné and other miners were deemed expendable. Many developed lung cancers as a result; one estimate put the risk at thirty times greater for those who worked the mines as opposed to those who did not. The government later recognized their afflictions, and with the 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, paid out $100,000 per victim and issued a formal apology.
But the damage was done.
In addition to the impact on Diné health, their land, too, was ravaged. Upwards of three billion metric tons of waste were created as a result of uranium extraction on Diné lands, a dizzying amount that continues to poison Native communities throughout the Southwest to this day. Any call for new nuclear power development, especially from advocates on the Left, mustn’t ignore these past horrors or the potential that this ugly imperialistic past would repeat itself.
Today, the United States imports most of the uranium it uses in nuclear processes. Many reports note the same deleterious impact this extraction has on those who mine it and the land that contains it. Uranium mines are notoriously poisonous operations, no matter how they are managed or regulated. Heap-leach mining, which uses sulphuric acid and cyanic salts in its processes, poisons water supplies.
Underground mines produce uranium yellowcake, which often ends up in large, toxic dumps. Surface and open-pit mining, often deemed the best method, has plenty of risks aside from the blatant landscape alteration. As with utilizing mountaintop removal to extract coal in Appalachia, open pit uranium mines increase erosion and have the potential to kill entire waterways during landslide events. Such an incident occurred in 1979 on Diné land, when a dam broke, flooding the Puerco River near Church Rock, New Mexico with ninety-four million gallons of radioactive waste.
CO2 emissions aside, uranium mining is a nasty, destructive enterprise, yet it’s vital to nuclear power generation.
Which leads me to ask: if you support the Land Back movement, if you care about Indigenous lands, if you care about the environment, how could you ever support the mining of uranium?
The ends, even if you are to believe the propaganda put forward by the nuclear power industry and their allies, do not justify the means.
Now, let’s talk about nuclear power’s ties to nuclear weapons.
First, I think it’s important to understand that nuclear power was born out of government weapons programs. In particular, the US and France, which has the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in Europe, both were conceived through government-back industries, and both continue to be tied to the country’s nuclear weapons programs, financially and also when it comes to the fuels they both utilize.
As the Center for Strategic and International Studies notes, the “dual-use [civilian and military] nature of nuclear technology is unavoidable. For the five nuclear-weapons states, commercial nuclear power was a spinoff from weapons programs; for later proliferators, the civilian sector has served as a convenient avenue and cover for weapons programs.”
In Britain, the country’s nuclear power program was used as a cover for military activities. In France, to this day, the country’s robust nuclear power industry is intricately linked to its nuclear weapons program.
In 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron was clear about his government’s dual interests in nuclear power and weapons. “Without civilian nuclear energy there is no military use of this technology – and without military use there is no civilian nuclear energy.”
It’s clear what Macron’s message was: Without government funding and support for nuclear power, France would not have a healthy and robust nuclear weapons program.
It’s the same here in the United States and has been since the early days of the Manhattan Project. To this day, every process in the nuclear fuel cycle, from uranium ore mining, uranium ore milling, uranium ore refining, and enrichment is still used for both power and military purposes and is tightly controlled by state governments. For starters, nuclear reactors are used to create the radioactive isotope of hydrogen, known as tritium, which is necessary for nuclear weapons.
Secondly, plutonium is a by-product of the nuclear fuel cycle and is still used by some countries to make nuclear weapons. This will never change. Governments, rightly so I’d argue, will always be fearful of other countries or terror organizations getting their hands on nuclear fuels that could be used for atomic bombs.
With all of this in mind, how could anyone who opposes nuclear weapons, support nuclear power? This would be like opposing the War on Terror but supporting Pentagon spending.
Then there’s the issue of what to do with all the waste that atomic energy produces, a problem that does not have an easy fix, or any fix at all.
The radioactive leftovers have to go somewhere, but they can’t just go anywhere. The Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, which is currently closed, remains on the shortlist for atomic dump sites in the US. But it’s a dangerous gambit. Geological faults run through the proposed site, which would include a one-thousand-foot shaft, dug deep into the mountain. Yucca is also a sacred site to the Western Shoshone, who vigorously oppose the use of Yucca as a nuclear repository, and have thus far been victorious.
Nuclear power proponents like to pretend future nuke plants won’t produce as much waste as the rickety old ones, that the amounts are small and manageable. Yet the reality is that they will still produce waste, and nobody knows exactly how much. Where will it all go? You can’t have nuclear power without nuclear waste. It would be like burning coal without there being any CO2 emissions. We know the poor and disadvantaged, and often Indigenous will end up dealing with the consequences. Currently, the United States produces almost two thousand metric tons of radioactive waste every year.
It’s my opinion, and many others, that no energy source that produces radioactive waste that lasts millennia ought to be part of the climate solution. We can’t save the planet, or mankind for that matter, by destroying it.
Here’s the reality. Plutonium, as I mentioned, is a byproduct of the nuclear fission process. Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years. There are hundreds of pounds of this stuff made every year by every reactor in operation. Taking into account Plutonium’s half-life, in order for it to be safely stored, until it is no longer radioactive, it would have to be kept safe for 250,000 years.
What could possibly go wrong over that amount of time? Even if there were a way to make the storage of plutonium safe for 1,000 years, what about the next 249,000? Throw on top of that this stuff can be used for nuclear weapons fuel, you have a very serious problem on your hands, and on the hands of so many more generations to come. To put this in perspective, modern humans have only been roaming the Earth for 200,000 years.
It’s not difficult to fathom what could possibly go wrong over this amount of time, as Nation-states vie for power, as the Earth erodes, shakes, and contorts. As rivers flood, as storms intensify. It’s just too risky.
Plutonium, despite the idea it could be used as a time travel fuel as depicted in Back to the Future – poses insurmountable risks. There are very serious by-products of nuclear power production, like cesium and strontium, but none pose the type of long-term risks as plutonium.
Knowing that plutonium is a natural by-product of nuclear power production, how could anyone ever claim nuclear energy is a safe, viable energy choice for the future of the planet?
Naturally, this leads us to discuss the potential for nuclear accidents.
If you were to believe the risk assessments put out by the nuclear power industry, as well as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the risks are extremely low. They put the risk of an accident is around 1 in 1,000,000. Sounds pretty safe, right? Nothing to worry about.
With 400 nuclear plants operating in the world, that would mean we’d only see a meltdown of a nuclear reactor one time every 2,000 years. Well, policymakers at the NRC can’t do math apparently, because, even though nuclear power reactors have only been in operation for 80 years or so, we have witnessed 5 meltdowns of nuclear reactors in the past 40 years: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and three reactors at Fukushima. If you do that math, the risk of an accident at a nuclear power plant is 1 in 7. There have been many other accidents as well.
In 1961, an explosion at the Nuclear Reactor Testing Station in Idaho Falls killed three people, their bodies were found laced with radiation. Michigan’s Enrico Fermi Nuclear Generating Station, which sits on the banks of Lake Erie, experienced a partial meltdown in 1966, leaking radioactive material. Critics argue a major incident at the site was narrowly avoided, which could have destroyed the entire city of Detroit.
There was the 1986 accident at the Surry Nuclear Plant in Virginia that killed four workers. In 1989, a fire broke out at Spain’s Vandellòs nuclear power plant, damaging the cooling system, and the plant nearly experienced a full meltdown. In 1992, Russia’s Sosnovy Bor nuclear plant released radioactive iodine into the air, the extent of which is hard to gauge. Japan’s Tokaimura accident in 1999 killed two workers, and the explosion caused a radiation leak. A steam explosion and subsequent radiation leak at Japan’s Mihama Nuclear Power Plant in 2004 injured seven workers and killed four more. And there are many others.
We’ve all heard of Chernobyl. It’s been very well documented, but what hasn’t been well discussed is the death toll and health problems the meltdown caused over the past 36 years.
In 2009, the New York Academy of Sciences released the most significant English-language report on the deaths and environmental devastation caused by Chernobyl. After poring through thousands of reports and studies conducted in Eastern Europe and Russia, the academy concluded that nearly one million people have died as a result of radiation exposure from this one nuclear disaster.
I think we should sit with that number for a minute. One million people may have died as a result of the meltdown of Chernobyl. Even if they are off by half, that’s an unfathomable toll. And remember, Chernobyl is still very much a radioactive wasteland to this day and will be for decades to come.
So what about Fukishima, which was an even larger meltdown than Chernobyl? Well, numbers are hard to come by for a reason. In December 2013, Japan passed an obstructive Cancer Registration Law, which made it illegal to share medical data or information on radiation-related issues, denying public access to medical records, violators are subject to fines of two million Yen or 5-10 years in prison.
Additionally, a confidentiality agreement to control medical information about radiation exposure was signed in January 2014 by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Fukushima Prefecture, and Fukushima Medical University. After that, all the info about illness from radiation is reported to a central repository run by Fukushima Medical Centre and the IAEA. What this means is simple, all information on radiation-related illnesses in and around the Fukushima disaster is a tightly guarded secret. It’s important here to point out that the IAEA was set up to promote nuclear power, so any evidence that damages its credibility directly challenges its mission.
Why would governments, be they in Russia, the US or Japan, or the IAEA, not want accurate data on radiation-related cancers and deaths? I think we all know the answer to that question. Information on the impacts of radiation from a nuclear accident would directly challenge the nuclear industry and the governments that keep it running.
Okay, If the fact that nuclear power isn’t carbon neutral doesn’t bother you. If mining on Indigenous lands doesn’t bother you. If the trouble with the disposal of radioactive waste doesn’t bother you. If nuclear powers’ ties to nuclear weapons don’t bother you. If the risks of accidents don’t bother you. Then maybe the cost of nuclear development will give you pause.
Nuclear power is very, very expensive, and if we are to believe in the urgency of combating climate change, is far too slow to deploy fast enough to replace fossil fuels. The average time it takes to build a new nuclear reactor is about 10-15 years. As of 2020, renewables were the cheapest form of energy in the world and also the quickest to deploy. For the first time, they were competitive with coal, which has always been cheap. Renewables were cheaper than natural gas and far cheaper than nuclear power.
Proponents of nuclear power, which often echo the industry itself, will tell us that nuclear is still the best bang for the buck because it can produce so much energy. But even the pro-nuclear lobby admits that without huge government subsidies, nuclear cannot compete with the renewables market.
Aside from a few countries, including Japan and Russia, the majority of the world is turning against nuclear power. Germany, Korea, Belgium, and Switzerland are planning to phase out nuclear power. France, the largest nuclear producer in Europe, is closing down facilities and investing in renewables, and the reason is clear: it’s cheaper to transition to renewable energy than it is to build new plants or keep old ones running. In California, where I live, Gov. Newsom just extended the life of Diablo Canyon, our state’s last nuke plant, to the tune of $1.4 billion.
It’s a huge waste of money, and a dangerous decision as Diablo sits on top of a major faultline, right on the Pacific coast. The basis for shuttering Diablo, which was agreed upon after years of negotiations by unions, PGE, and environmentalists, was largely made after a comparison was done of renewable upgrades versus the price to keep it running. The study found using renewables/efficiency to replace it would cost $12 billion and keeping it running would run $17 billion.
Let’s get back to France, which is often said to be a perfect nuclear state, run exactly how a nuclear-powered country should operate. Yet, France is taking many of its plants offline, and, as we’ve seen this past summer as a severe heatwave engulfed Europe, nuclear power was anything but reliable. France was forced to shut down half of its nuclear power plants this summer because of safety/corrosion issues. And as rivers heat up, the water in the rivers is too warm to cool down France’s nuclear reactors, and this is not likely to change as climate change continues to impact us.
In the US, as the country’s nuclear fleet begins to age, the Dept of Energy has allocated billions to keep it up and running. And since the 1940s, taxpayers have shelled out hundreds of billions of dollars in corporate welfare to the nuclear power industry, and Biden is again calling on more money for nukes, and the latest Inflation Reduction Act gives tax incentives and other handouts to the nuclear industry.
Private investors have long known nuclear is a poor place to put their money, which is why governments have had to keep the industry afloat. Why do investors shun nuclear? Because nuclear power continues to be riddled with cost and risk concerns that scare away these private financial backers, leaving the industry asking for more taxpayer handouts.
It’s a one-way love affair that must end. Taxpayer subsides should be pouring into real renewable energy projects, not keeping an old dangerous one alive.
Lastly, I have to talk briefly about the threat that nuclear power currently poses to Ukraine and Russia. As a result of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, and its subsequent occupation of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, Europe’s largest, the threat of a nuclear accident appears imminent.
Shelling around the plant, likely by both sides, while Ukrainian workers are inside, literally working at gunpoint, is leading to a very dire situation. Recent satellite images show there is damage to at least one building at the plant. This week International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors headed to the plant to assess the situation.
The plant has lost power on several occasions, and backup generators were started to keep its waste cool. But if a fire were to break out in one of the reactors, if control panels melt, or the generators fail, all bets are off, and an accident far greater than Chernobyl could occur.
Any proponent of nuclear power must take into account that no other energy source would pose such a risk in a war zone. The outcome could be catastrophic, equivalent to an atomic bomb.
While this is the first time a nuclear plant has been in the line of fire, there are no guarantees it will be the last. For example, Taiwan has several nuclear plants. Iran has a nuclear plant. Saudi Arabia is building a plant. Nobody can promise without a doubt that these plants will never come under attack. If a nuclear plant has a 1 in 7 chance of having an accident in its lifetime, I imagine those odds are much higher if it is operating in a war zone.
For all the reasons I’ve laid out here and so many more, I hope you’ll join me in continuing to uphold the legacy of anti-nuke activists that came before us, and oppose this expensive, dangerous, destructive and exploitative source of energy. As a smart person once said, nuclear power is a hell of a way to boil water.
We can do better, and we must. Thank you.