Recent Developments in the Nuclear Fuel Cycle

Article excerpt

The purpose of this essay is to present an update on recent developments in the nuclear fuel cycle, in order to demonstrate that modern nuclear realities could and should be transformed into something that might bode well for the future of humanity.

NUCLEAR ELECTRIC

Thirty years ago, a generation of safe energy advocates warned that nuclear power and nuclear weapons were not immaculately conceived. Dr. Helen Caldicott, a Boston pediatrician and anti-nuclear activist, was one of these people. In a recent address on the medical and ecological consequences of nuclear power, Dr. Caldicott points out the fact that the nuclear power industry is promoting nuclear electric as a panacea in the reduction of global-warming gases. In fact, she says, if nuclear power were to replace fossil fuels on a large scale globally, it would be necessary to build two thousand large 1,000-mega-watt nuclear reactors. Further, to replace all fossil fuel-generated electricity today with nuclear power, there is only enough economically viable uranium to fuel these world-be reactors for three or four years. Besides, Belgium, Germany, Spain and Sweden have decided to phase out their operating reactors due to a whole litany of problems now associated with the licensing, building, financing, and operating of these types of plants.

According to Dr. Caldicott, the negative aspects of increased nuclear electric include: the costs of uranium enrichment, the massive liability involved in a nuclear accident, the enormous costs of decommissioning all existing and new reactors, and the great expense incurred in the transportation and storage of high level radioactive waste for at least 250 thousand years.

The prevailing ethic promoted by the utilities says that nuclear power is "emission-free." The truth is quite different. Nuclear power stations systematically release small, but measurable, amounts of radiation. And, even very low doses pose a risk of cancer over a person's lifetime, according to the National Academy of Sciences. The Academy, therefore, is now concerned about radiation levels allowed at abandoned reactors and other nuclear sites. Some anti-nuclear advocates argue that stringent regulations are needed when cleaning up abandoned nuclear sites and considering health risks near nuclear power plants. Thus, there is virtually no radiation dose that is completely safe.

In connection with the above findings, it must be noted that cancer, not heart disease, is now the leading cause of death in America. And, for the first time in U.S. history, those younger than 85 years will die of cancer before any other cause. How many more byproducts of modern civilization will we tolerate before we say, "No more?" Clearly, governmental agencies are failing to protect public health here and abroad.

While politicians and media are clamoring for more nuclear power stations, we still need a long-term solution for the problem of medium and high level nuclear waste storage. The subject of massive quantities of radioactive waste accumulating at 442 global nuclear reactors is rarely, if ever, addressed by the nuclear industry. According to Dr. Caldicott's thoughtful speech, the typical 1000-megawatt reactor produces 33 tons of thermally hot, intensively radioactive, waste per year 1. More than 80,000 metric tons of highly radioactive waste sits in cooling ponds next to the 103 operating U.S. nuclear power plants, awaiting transport to yet-to--be-named storage facilities. Much more nuclear waste accumulates at reactor sites in France, Russia, Japan and elsewhere. The long-term storage of radioactive waste is an immense, and perhaps insoluble, social, political, and environmental problem.

According to Dr. Caldicott, the incubation time for cancer is five to fifty years following exposure to ionizing radiation1. Children, elders, and individuals with weakened immune systems are many times more sensitive to the malignant effects of radiation than other persons. …