"Clean" Nuclear Energy? Global Warming, Public Health, and Justice

By Sharpe, Virginia A. | The Hastings Center Report, July-August 2008 | Go to article overview

"Clean" Nuclear Energy? Global Warming, Public Health, and Justice


Sharpe, Virginia A., The Hastings Center Report


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. …

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