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With the world’s attention focused on global warming, nuclear energy enthusiasts and even some environmentalists are pronouncing that nuclear energy is the silver bullet. But nuclear energy only accounts for 2.5 percent of the world’s electricity needs and cannot replace the energy needs of our transportation sector which produces 25 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, the main greenhouse gas responsible for global warming.
Indian Point’s website boasts that “nuclear is a clean energy source.” While it’s true that, unlike other types of power plants, nuclear reactors do not emit carbon dioxide (C02), the life cycle of generating nuclear power – from mining to refining to transportation to storage – requires an enormous amount of energy. So just how clean and green is Indian Point?
To answer this question, it’s necessary to compare emissions from nuclear energy to those of other energy sources and to take into consideration all aspects of what each one needs to produce energy. Most of the energy necessary for building and operating nuclear power plants—from mining, refining and enriching uranium fuel, conditioning radioactive waste so that it can be stored, to safely transporting and sequestering the radioactive waste, and to finally decommissioning and dismantling the plant – comes from C02-producing fossil fuel-burning plants. Coal burning plants produce over 2.5 billion tons of CO2 per year in the U.S. alone.
The Nuclear Energy Institute, a policy organization for the nuclear industry, cites several life cycle analyses on its website that claim emissions from nuclear energy are among the lowest of any type of energy production. But the German Oko Institute’s ten-year life cycle analysis found that nuclear power produces significantly more C02 than renewables (hydro, wind or solar) and wood- or gas-cogeneration systems (where heat produced by electricity production is utilized instead of wasted). Moreover, cogeneration systems and renewables are three to four times cheaper than nuclear energy.
The World Information Service on Energy (WISE) and Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) predict an impending shortage of uranium from rich ore (where the percentage of uranium in the ore is 1 percent or higher), especially if nuclear energy production is expanded. The majority of global uranium reserves exist in poorer ores which will require more fossil fuel-produced energy to mine and process.
A life cycle study conducted by scientists Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Smith determined that nuclear energy produces 30 percent of the total C02 emission of a gas-burning plant, but only when the uranium has been extracted from rich soft ores. When poorer ores are used, nuclear energy produces proportionately more C02, and if lean ores are used with .01 percent or less of uranium, actually emits more C02 than if the same amount of electricity had been produced by burning fossil fuels directly. In other words, a dramatic increase of new nuclear power plants here and abroad and the subsequent need to mine deeper for uranium could, in fact, increase CO2 emissions due to the finite uranium resources available.
Moreover, since safely and permanently storing radioactive waste has not yet been accomplished, these life cycle studies have probably underestimated the amount of fossil fuel-generated energy this complex process will require. They have also neglected to factor in the amount of energy that would be needed to transport nuclear waste from all over to a permanent repository.
Uranium mining techniques are similar to those used for coal mining which rip open mountains and leave behind scarred and polluted landscapes. They also contaminate the land and water with hazardous radioactive uranium tailings. Most uranium reserves in the United States are located on Native American lands where uranium mining has caused environmental and public health problems for decades.
Nuclear plants run on enriched uranium. The enrichment process is fueled by fossil fuel plants which create C02 and air pollution. A January 2007 report commissioned by Greenpeace International and the European Renewable Energy Council (EREC) stated that 80 percent of the total volume of uranium from the enrichment process ends up as radioactive tailings.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, every unit of electricity produced using nuclear power also creates about two units of waste heat, which are usually released into water and can alter the balance of the water body’s ecosystem. Each day, Indian Point withdraws 2.5 billion gallons of water from the Hudson (nearly twice the amount of drinking water consumed daily by all of New York City) and releases it back into the river at up to 110° F – a 34 degree increase of the River’s normal temperature.
The Union of Concerned Scientists projects that by 2015, American nuclear reactors will have produced 75,000 metric tons of radioactive waste that will remain deadly for hundreds of thousands of years. The enormous problem of what to do with this waste still has not been solved. A permanent storage site is planned at Yucca Mountain in Nevada where the waste will be buried deep underground and theoretically remain undisturbed by earthquakes or underground water for eons.
But the Environmental Protection Agency has already acknowledged that radioactivity will leak and is planning an 11 mile “controlled area” buffer around the burial site. The controversial Yucca Mountain plan has met with delays and legal challenges and though scheduled to open in 2017, many experts believe that political, social, and environmental obstacles will prevent the site from ever opening.
In the meantime, highly radioactive waste is being stored on-site in spent fuel pools at each nuclear plant, with 1500 tons of waste are currently stored at Indian Point. Should the plant receive a twenty-year license extension, an additional 1000 tons would be generated and remain on-site at Indian Point indefinitely.
Though on-site storage of radioactive waste was never meant to be permanent, Indian Point is currently building a dry cask storage system to store spent fuel rods above ground on concrete pads that is designed to contain the waste for up to 100 years.
A new nuclear plant has not been licensed in the US since 1978, after the Three Mile Island accident. And without government assistance (from 1974-2005, the federal government spent almost $145 billion on nuclear research and development), the nuclear industry has never been economically competitive with coal and natural gas. However in 2002, the Energy Department launched its “Nuclear Power 2010 Program” which will use government (i.e. taxpayer) and industry money to subsidize the development of new nuclear power plants which some hope will blossom into a “Nuclear Renaissance.”
Even if we ignore the many aspects of nuclear production that are neither clean nor green including its intractable radioactive waste problem, nuclear energy is not a sustainable energy source. The Greenpeace/ EREC report states, “In the light of various scenarios for the worldwide development of nuclear power, it is likely that uranium supplies will be exhausted sometime between 2026 and 2070.” Moreover, the danger in advancing nuclear energy as the solution to global warming is that the nuclear industry will be over-subsidized while more promising sources of renewable energy are under-funded, and underdeveloped.
There are currently 442 nuclear reactors worldwide. John Holdren, director of the Woods Hole Research Center and president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, suggested that we would need another 3,000 plants for nuclear power to provide one-third of the world’s expected energy needs by 2100. If we build more nuclear power plants and grant license extensions to aging plants like Indian Point, we will also increase the potential for accidents, acts of terrorism, and the spread of nuclear weapons.
The bottom line is that Indian Point’s nuclear power is neither clean nor green, and the process needed to create fuel from uranium for its reactors is energy-intensive and creates greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. It would be far wiser for New York State to start investing in truly clean and green energy production such as wind, solar, and biofuels, while offering incentives to encourage Smart Energy use by consumers which would drastically reduce our contributions to global warming.
Misleading Entergy propaganda continually touts that the alleged “clean” and “cheap” energy generated by Indian Point is “vital” to the region.
The truth is, we do NOT need Indian Point’s electricity! Read more and get the real facts.