In May of this year, the governor of Maryland, the state where I live, announced his support for a new nuclear power plant to join the two existing plants on the Chesapeake Bay. "It is a huge moral challenge and it is a moral imperative," Governor O'Malley said, "given what massive new burning of coal will do to the planet if we don't develop better and cleaner technology, including safer and cleaner nuclear, which is what is ... planned and talked about in terms of the third reactor." (1)
Governor O'Malley is right that current energy policy presents a huge moral challenge: the combustion of fossil fuels is measurably harming the world's climate, threatening species and low-lying island nations, and facilitating the spread of diseases such as malaria into ecosystems formerly inhospitable to the carrier mosquito. There are vast disparities in the use of the world's finite energy resources. Those of us in the world's richest countries consume sixty times more per capita of the world's nonrenewable energy resources --oil, coal, natural gas, uranium--than do people in the poorest countries. (2) Oil production at the expense of human rights in countries such as Nigeria contributes to regional and global insecurity. Coal mining in Appalachia and in other regions of the world has devastated the landscape, polluted watersheds, and literally undermined communities whose homes and infrastructures collapse into sinkholes caused by mine subsidence. The increase in renewable energy production, particularly the shift of corn from a food crop to the raw material for a fifteen billion gallon fuel mandate in the 2007 U.S. federal energy bill, has contributed to a new global food crisis and to conversion of more and more arable land to monocrops, leading to the exhaustion of soil fertility and increasing reliance on expensive and hazardous synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.
Although high energy costs are changing behaviors across almost all socioeconomic groups these days, the biggest losers are those without the economic and political power to insulate themselves from the negative consequences of the world's energy production and consumption--not just in higher energy and food costs, but in ecosystem damage and the adverse health effects of water, air, and soil pollution. While the immediate and most acute consequences are felt by the poor, there are long-term implications for future generations of human and nonhuman species, and the earth systems on which all life depends--a moral challenge if there ever was one.
I agree with Governor O'Malley that there is a moral imperative for something better and cleaner. The question is whether nuclear power is that alternative. Policy deliberation about the proposed renaissance of nuclear power must take into consideration the disproportionate health risks associated with uranium extraction, processing, enrichment, waste storage, and nuclear accidents, not to mention repurposing for weapons.
The history of nuclear power is intimately tied to the history of nuclear arms. It is no coincidence that in the game of cat and mouse that is international nuclear inspection, whether uranium is being used for power generation or military purposes is always a question. In the United States, research on the development of the atomic bomb led, in the post--World War II years, to the establishment of the Atomic Energy Commission, the predecessor of today's Department of Energy. In 1954, the Atomic Energy Act Amendments created a licensing system for private nuclear power operators, and in 1957, Congress passed the Price-Anderson Act, which indemnifies private operators in the event of a nuclear accident.
This act, currently extended until 2025, limits a nuclear utility's liability to $10 billion, with the remainder of the liability borne by U.S. taxpayers. Critics, liberal and conservative alike, have criticized the act as an inappropriate government subsidy that externalizes (and thus leads to underrepresentation of) the real cost of nuclear power. Public Citizen, in its 2004 advocacy work against extension of the act, estimated that "the $10.5 billion provided by private insurance and nuclear reactor operators represents less than two percent of the $560 billion in potential costs of a major nuclear accident." (3) More recently, under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, the federal government assumed responsibility for the disposal of all spent nuclear fuel--with the waste storage plan funded by electric utility users and taxpayers. The mandated 1998 deadline for the government to start receiving nuclear waste has long since passed due to technical and legal challenges to the proposed site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada--which sits on geologic faults, and whose host state and host Indian Nation, the Western Shoshone, have filed lawsuits to stop the plan.
One of the reasons the federal government has assumed a large share of the risks associated with nuclear energy is its military incentives, both to ensure a continuing supply of nuclear material for weaponry and to ensure that disposed material is safely out of the reach of terrorists and others who would use it against the United States. The other reason, as Governor O'Malley and others have maintained, is that it is a "clean" alternative to fossil fuels. But how "clean" is it?
The legacy of uranium mining in Navajo lands provides a cautionary tale. Between 1944 and 1986, close to four million tons of uranium was mined on the Navajo homeland in the Four Corners region of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. Based on Environmental Protection Agency estimates, there are 520 unremediated radioactive mine and mill sites on Navajo lands. These sites, which were operated by private contractors and overlooked by federal regulators, were simply abandoned and left open near Navajo homes and water supplies. As a result, for well over a quarter of a century, uranium dust has been inhaled, ingested, and unknowingly mixed with clay to build structures in the Navajo nation--with radium levels registering 270 times the EPA standard. (4) At one site in Utah, ten thousand gallons of uranium-contaminated water a day was found seeping into the Colorado River. (5) EPA studies have also found uranium-contaminated water sources as high as thirty-eight times the safe drinking water level. Many Navajo carry their water from the nearest source for household use, leaving few options to avoid contamination. The effects of these exposures are increasingly coming to light. As Judy Pasternak writes in a recent Los Angeles Times series, "Fifty years ago, cancer rates on the reservation were so low that a medical journal published an article titled 'Cancer Immunity in the Navajo." From the early 1970s to the late 1990s, however, "the cancer death rate on the reservation--historically much lower than that of the general U.S. population--has doubled." The incidence of stomach cancer in some areas near uranium deposits and mills is fifteen times the national average. (6) An occupational health study of Navajo uranium miners concluded that their risk of developing lung cancer is twenty-eight times greater than Navajos not exposed to uranium. (7)
The federal government has, in a piecemeal way, recognized the injustice done to the Navajo as a result of uranium extraction. In 1995, the President's Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments (chaired by Ruth Faden) concluded that "the federal government had wronged the uranium miners by allowing them to be unwittingly exposed to radiation hazards, and by studying the health effects of their exposures without adequate consent and disclosure." (8) On the basis of this finding, many miners have received compensation through the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which as of May 19, 2008, has paid out $1.3 billion in twenty-eight thousand claims not only to 4,822 miners but also to "downwinders"--people living downwind of the Nevada test site exposed to nuclear fallout. (9)
Remedies for the toxic pollution of tribal lands, however, have lagged far behind. It was not until this year, at the request of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, that the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Department of Energy, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Environmental Protection Agency, and Indian Health Service developed a coordinated five-year plan, including assessment of structures and water sources that are likely to be contaminated, cleanup of structures found to be contaminated above safe levels, provision of alternate water supplies for residents consuming contaminated water, and cleanup of abandoned mine sites. By contrast, two hundred miles away, the government moved quickly to eliminate similar uranium risks in the community of Grand Junction, near Aspen and Vail, Colorado. (10) Environmental justice advocates have repeatedly demonstrated that low income and minority communities suffer from unequal protection in environmental risk, enforcement, and remediation. (11) This case seems to prove the point. Whereas the affected Navajo have a poverty rate of 40 percent for families, the 91 percent white population of Grand Junction has a family poverty rate of 7.5 percent. (12) The Grand Junction site cleanup was initiated in the 1970s with an ultimate budget of $500 million. (13) Such disparities in environmental enforcement and public health standards are intolerable, and yet, without explicit and enforced legal prohibitions and protections built into nuclear energy policy, they are likely to continue.
Enforced prohibitions and protections should also, of course, be extended to govern the extraction of uranium imported to the United States and uranium mined by U.S. interests oversees. In Niger, for example, uranium extraction, including open-pit mining by the French company Areva, is wreaking havoc on the nomadic Tuareg peoples. As Claire Spiegel reported recently, with the price of uranium rising from nine dollars in 2004 to around seventy-five dollars today, the government of Niger has cracked down on the Tuareg, who are "demanding the health care, education and economic opportunities that the Niger government promised in 1995." In addition, their ceremonial grounds "are now dotted with red flags marking uranium deposits to be mined. Thousands of flags have been planted 'without any of the peoples of northern Niger being consulted or even informed,' said Issouf Ag Maha, a spokesman for the Niger Movement for Justice." (14)
When nuclear power is touted as a "clean" form of energy, proponents are generally referring to the fact that it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuel. Belied by this rosy description are the enormous and documented ecological and human risks and harms associated with extraction, processing, enrichment, waste storage, and nuclear accidents, as well as with uranium's potential use in weapons production. If we go forward with nuclear power, any morally tenable nuclear energy policy must incorporate enforceable human rights protections into the uranium extraction process. These issues could not be more urgent. According to a recent report, as of 2007, 43,153 new uranium mining claims have been filed in five western states in the United States, up from 4,333 new claims in 2004. (15) Our hands are certainly not clean now. Will they be cleaner in the future?
The opinions in this article are those of the author and do not represent the position of the Department of Veterans Affairs or the U.S. government.
(1.) C. Goodman. "'It Is a Moral Imperative': O'Malley Outlines Necessity for New Reactor in Lusby," Washington Post, May 2, 2008.
(2.) J. Chow, R.J. Kopp, and P.R. Portney. "Energy Resources and Global Development," Science 302 (2003): 1528; Energy Resources and Global Development Supplemental Material, at http://www.rff.org/rff/News/ Features/Global-Energy-Resources-Supplemental-Material.cfm.
(3.) Public Citizen, "Price-Anderson Act: The Billion Dollar Bailout for Nuclear Power Mishaps," at http://www.citizen.org/documents/ Price%20Anderson%20Factsheet.pdf.
(4.) Hearing on the Health and Environmental Impacts of Uranium Contamination in the Navajo Nation, October 23, 2007, at http:// oversight.house.gov/story.asp?ID=1560.
(5.) Oak Ridge National Laboratory, "Tailings Pile Seepage Model: The Atlas Corporation Moab Mill, Moab, Utah," at http://www. ornl.gov/~webworks/cppr/y2001/rpt/112413. pdf.
(6.) J. Pasternak, "Blighted Homeland: A Peril That Dwelt Among the Navajos," Los Angeles Times, November 19, 2006.
(7.) F.D. Gilliland et al., "Uranium Mining and Lung Cancer among Navajo Men in New Mexico and Arizona, 1969 to 1993," Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine 42, no. 3 (2000): 278-83.
(8.) Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Committee, "Final Report of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Committee," submitted to the Human Radiation Interagency Working Group, July 1996; http:// www.hss.energy.gov/healthsafety/ohre/ roadmap/uranium/index.html.
(9.) U.S. Department of Justice Civil Division, "Radiation Exposure Compensation System Claims to Date Summary of Claim Received by 05/26/2008"; http://www.usdoj. gov/civil/omp/omi/Tre_SysClaimsToDateSum.pdf.
(10.) Energy Information Administration, Grand Junction (Climax Uranium) Mill Site Mesa County, Colorado; http://www.eia.doe. gov/cneaf/nuclear/page/umtra/grandjunction_ title1.html.
(11.) R. Bullard. "Overcoming Racism in Environmental Decision Making," Environment 36, no. 4 (1994): 11-20 and 39-44.
(12.) T. Choudhary, "Navajo Nation Fast Facts: Poverty Statistics Compared," http:// www.navajobusiness.com/pdf/FstFctspdf/Tbl 24PvrtyStat.pdf; "Grand Junction, Colorado," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_ Junction,_Colorado#Demographics.
(13.) Pasternak, "Blighted Homeland."
(14.) C. Spiegel, "Uranium Under the Sand, Anger Above," Washington Post, April 27, 2008.
(15.) J. Pasternak, "Uranium Claims Spring up Along Grand Canyon Rim," Los Angeles Times, May 4, 2008.
This column appears by arrangement with the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities.…