Category Archives: nukes

Nuclear Is Not Clean

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There are communities in the Southwest still suffering from the effects of the uranium mining from the nuclear boom of the 1940′s – 1980′s (more below). But, when nuclear proponents tout the idea that nuclear energy is the clean energy savior for the planet, it is pretty convenient to ignore the community health disaster that uranium mining inevitably brings along. I wish it were more suprising to hear this:

On public lands within five miles of Grand Canyon National Park, there are now more than 1,100 uranium claims, compared with just 10 in January 2003, according to data from the Department of the Interior. [...] In the five Western states where uranium is mined in the U.S., 4,333 new claims were filed in 2004, according to the Interior Department; last year the number had swelled to 43,153.

The push to extract more uranium has caused controversy not just involving federal land but private and state land as well. In Virginia, a company’s plan to operate in a never-mined deposit spurred a hearing in the Legislature. In New Mexico, a Navajo activist group is challenging in federal court a license issued just over the reservation’s east border.

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Most of the new claims are in the vicinity of the Grand Canyon:

Uranium is “a special concern,” he added, because it is both a toxic heavy metal and a source of radiation. He worries about uranium escaping into the local water, and about its effect on fish in the Colorado River at the bottom of the gorge, and on the bald eagles, California condors and bighorn sheep that depend on the canyon’s seeps and springs. More than a third of the canyon’s species would be affected if water quality suffered, he said.

“If you can’t stop mining at the Grand Canyon, where can you stop it?” asked Richard Wiles, executive director of the Environmental Working Group.

The energy-versus-environment debate is apparent within the Interior Department, which granted the mining claims through its Bureau of Land Management. Among the mining critics is Steve Martin, superintendent of the Grand Canyon park and an Interior Department employee himself. “There should be some places that you just do not mine,” Martin said.

I wonder which places he thinks you should mine? Here is a look at a Tufts student’s research on the Navajo Nation’s experience with uranium mining:

In North America, many people think of clean drinking water and uncontaminated land as a birthright. For members of Navajo Nation, access to these basic needs isn’t as easy to come by. An area the size of West Virginia sandwiched between Arizona and New Mexico, the Navajo reservation’s austere land of buttes and mesas is beautiful but burdened by toxic waste. Forty years of uranium mining has created an environmental justice nightmare that scientists and researchers like Jamie deLemos are working to redress.

deLemos, an environmental health doctoral candidate at Tufts School of Engineering and a student in the Water: Systems, Science, and Society program, has been working with engineering associate professor, John Durant, and Tufts Public Health and Family Medicine’s Doug Brugge as part of a large-scale project to understand the health impacts of uranium mining.

Uranium contamination on the Navajo Nation is the result of mining operations conducted during the boom of the atomic age in the 1940s through the 1980s. Many Navajos employed in the uranium mines were directly exposed to high levels of radiation toxicity from mining, but also indirectly from environmental exposures created by residual waste. As miners extracted uranium from the ore, leftover tailings–accumulated waste material from extraction and processing activities–open pits, and mine shafts dotted the landscape.

In July 1979, in Church Rock, NM, millions of gallons of low-level radioactive waste burst from a dam and contaminated the surrounding watershed of New Mexico and Arizona. Almost 30 years later, the U.S.EPA and Navajo Nation EPA are working to clean up these since-abandoned mines, and epidemiological researchers are assessing the extent of the health risk.

Although uranium is often associated with radiological toxicity, it is much more hazardous from a chemical toxicity standpoint. “Uranium is a kidney toxin. Kidney disease is three times higher among the Navajo (or Diné) people than in the general U.S. population,” deLemos said. Her information comes from working on a large community based-participatory research project called the Diné Network for Environmental Health, or DiNEH project. Along with Dr. Johnnye Lewis, director of University of New Mexico’s Community Environmental Health Program, and members of the Eastern Navajo Health Board, the project team has been studying the effects of toxic exposures on the Navajo Nation. Through work on this project, deLemos was named one of this year’s Switzer Environmental Fellows by the Robert & Patricia Switzer Foundation.

As part of Lewis’ team, deLemos uses her environmental health and geochemistry skills to address the extent of uranium contamination, to discover the chemistry that controls uranium transport in water and soil, and to identify areas at high risk for uranium exposures. In March 2006, deLemos and fellow graduate student Naomi Slagowski traveled to New Mexico to obtain 150 samples, including soil, water and vegetation from a heavily burdened mining area. deLemos and Slagowski worked with Tommy Rock, a Navajo and Northern Arizona University graduate student.

“Some people, because of the historical abuses–of which there are many–are not interested in letting you on their land,” said deLemos. “They’ll say, ‘How are you different from other researchers who’ve come and done nothing to change things for us or never come back and report what you’ve found?’” deLemos worked with Rock who translated the language and helped foster trust with community members. “People automatically accepted him through clanship and his Navajo language skills; and when he was with us, we were okay.”

As part of her geochemical assessment, deLemos worked with former mentor and geochemist Benjamin Bostick at Dartmouth College. Using a combination of laboratory and x-ray spectroscopic techniques, she evaluated the chemical form of uranium in contaminated sediments and how soluble these forms are. “One state is soluble and one isn’t,” said deLemos. “And the soluble form is much more toxic.” In 2000, the U.S. EPA issued the Radionuclides Rule, which set the maximum contaminant level safety standard at 30 micrograms per liter of drinking water. “What my data show is that when contaminated sediments are wet, the amount of uranium that dissolves into the water can exceed this rule by more than a factor of 100,” said deLemos. “This has serious implications for contaminating groundwater supplies.”

“People still haul water even if they’re on a public water supply, either for cultural reasons, or because they prefer the taste,” said deLemos. However, the Navajo Nation has deemed any unregulated water supplies unfit for human consumption, even though chemical and bacteriological analysis haven’t, as of yet, been systematically performed on all wells. “All water sources that have been tested are given a rating with a stop-light system, and everything unregulated is given a yellow or a red light,” deLemos said. “When people who are hauling water see this, it’s a little confusing. It’s hard for people to give up what they’ve been doing their whole lives–and when you can’t provide them with an acceptable alternative, it’s a real challenge.”

Providing clear information, and possible alternative water sources, perhaps in an easy-to-read map, is the next phase of deLemos’ project. “Historically, there’s been a lot of recommendations and no offer of alternatives and no follow up,” said deLemos, adding that in the past other researchers have issued statements such as, “‘We recommend that for your livestock, you don’t eat kidney or liver,’ but they eat the whole sheep as part of the culture,” deLemos said. “Or ‘We recommend you stay off the banks of the river.’ Well, that’s like telling someone around Boston to stay off of 95.”

After presenting her current research to the community at this summer’s 4th Annual Navajo Nation Drinking Water Conference hosted by the Navajo Nation EPA, deLemos realized that Navajos need straightforward answers.

“People have basic questions: Are my livestock going to get sick if they eat this grass? Can I take water from this well or pond? You have to balance between cutting-edge science and something that’s actually going to be immediately useful and relevant to these impacted communities.”

Profile written by Julia C. Keller, Communications Specialist, Tufts School of Engineering

[Grist, LATimes, Tufts E-News]

Speechless

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I don’t know why anybody expected this man to have anything intelligent or productive to say on this topic this time around.

Here are the three things you need to know about Bush’s speech — the same three things you needed to know about his previous speeches on the subject:

  1. Bush’s speech is not meant to advance serious efforts to address climate change, but to thwart the efforts of others. This has been true of all three speeches he’s given — see Dan Froomkin on this. This time around, it’s meant to thwart Congressional Democrats, who show every sign of being on the verge of passing a carbon cap-and-trade bill.
  2. The targets Bush does announce would doom the planet. Last time around it was improving the “carbon intensity” of the economy — that is, releasing less CO2 per unit of GDP, even though total CO2 would continue rising. This time around, it’s “halting the growth” of U.S. emissions by 2025. By way of contrast, international folks are pushing for a peak in global emissions by 2020. If U.S. emissions keep rising until 2025 — and that’s what Bush is calling for, rising CO2 emissions for another 17 years — efforts to keep global CO2 levels below 450ppm, or even 550ppm, are futile, and unthinkable human misery lies on the horizon.
  3. The Republican Party will not accept even the weak initiatives Bush lays out. This piece in Roll Call ($ub. req’d) tells the story:

    Years after President Bush torpedoed the Kyoto global warming treaty, he is expected to outline principles this afternoon for passing legislation to reduce carbon emissions, but it’s unclear how much support he will find among Congressional Republicans.

[grist.org]

11:55 to be exact

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The voice in the “11th Hour” preview [peep below] claims the time is 11:59. Well, according to the Doomsday Clock, the time is actually 11:55 – two minutes closer to the apocalypse than we were in 2002, twelve minutes closer than we were in 1995 and the closest we have been to total destruction since 1984. What is the Doomsday Clock you might ask?

The Doomsday Clock is a symbolic clockface maintained since 1947 by the Board of Directors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists at the University of Chicago. It uses the analogy of the human race being at a time that is a ‘few minutes to midnight’ where midnight represents destruction by nuclear war, and has appeared on the cover of each issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists since its introduction. The clock was started at seven minutes to midnight during the Cold War in 1947, and has subsequently been moved forwards or backwards at intervals, depending on the state of the world and the prospects for nuclear war.

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In 2007, for the first time, the “minutes to midnight” have been set to include the imminent threat of climate change.

Fossil-fuel technologies such as coal-burning plants powered the industrial revolution, bringing unparalleled economic prosperity to many parts of the world. In the 1950s, however, scientists began measuring year-to-year changes in the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere that they could relate to fossil fuel combustion, and they began to develop the implications for Earth’s temperature and for climate change.

Fifty years later, leading scientists agree that carbon-burning technologies continue to make Earth warmer at an unprecedented rate. They warn that the consequences could drastically alter both the planet and human life. Already, ice packs in Greenland are rapidly disappearing, which, in turn, threatens the existence of hundreds of species such as polar bears and the traditions of whole societies such as the Inuit. The future looks even bleaker, as scientists continue to observe cascading effects on Earth’s complex ecosystems.

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As the authority on the nuclear threat, it is interesting to see the Atomic Scientists’ coverage of nuclear energy as a source of green energy. Here are a few diverse opinions from a panel:

Amory B. Lovins, the chairman and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute:

Nuclear power is unnecessary and uneconomic, so we needn’t debate its safety. As retirements of aging plants overwhelm construction, global capacity and output will decline (as they did slightly in 2006). Most independent analysts doubt the private capital market will finance any new nuclear plants. Even in the United States, where new subsidies would roughly repay the next six units’ entire capital cost, Standard & Poor’s said this wouldn’t materially improve the builders’ credit ratings. I expect this experiment will be like defibrillating a corpse: It’ll jump, but it won’t revive.

Nuclear power’s market meltdown is good for global development: Saving electricity needs around 1,000 times less capital and repays it about 10 times faster than supplying more electricity. Shifting capital to saving electricity can potentially turn the power sector (now gobbling one-fourth of global development capital) into a net funder of other development needs. Further, an efficient, diverse, dispersed, and renewable energy system can make major supply failures, whether caused by accident or malice, impossible by design rather than (as now) inevitable by design.

R. Stephen Barry, the former Special Advisor to the Director of Argonne National Laboratory for National Security:

Nuclear power has become more and more reliable and increasingly safe. While no energy source is risk-free, nuclear power probably represents the safest electricity source in overall costs of human life–and also the most reliable. Nuclear reactors now perform at about 90 percent of their theoretical limits; 20 years ago, it was roughly 60 percent. New designs of conventional light water reactors will be safer still, because they’ll have inherent, gravity-driven self-quenching that won’t require active steps by operators if something goes wrong.

The direct cost of nuclear power now is indeed higher than that of coal-, oil-, or gas-generated electric power. But this wouldn’t be the case if the indirect costs of environmental damage from greenhouse gases were formulated into the cost, which would happen if a carbon tax were introduced. Even without a carbon tax, at least one extensive economic study found that the cost of nuclear reactors will drop after the first three or four new nuclear reactors are built, making nuclear competitive with fossil-fueled generating plants.

The emotional reaction to resist nuclear power is an interesting analogue to the emotional reaction to deny the likelihood of human-generated climate change. The two positions have remarkable similarities, at opposite ends of a common scale. Let’s hope there’s enough rationality for us to make our way in a healthy, sustainable manner between those emotional extremes.

Peter A. Bradford, a former member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission:

A sensible approach to climate change would put a significant price on fuels according to their carbon content. It would offer nondiscriminatory, governmental support to technologies according to their ability to achieve reductions rapidly, economically, and acceptably to the public. It would insist that any nuclear power growth occur in ways that diminish the association between nuclear power and proliferation.

Instead, too many nuclear proponents have turned to their old playbook– pushed power plants; postponed problems. Nuclear power’s asserted comeback in the United States rests not on newfound cost competitiveness, but on an ancient formula: licensing shortcuts, risks borne by customers and taxpayers, political muscle, and ballyhoo. Climate change has replaced oil dependence as the bogeyman from which nuclear power can save us.

Bradford cites a really interesting paper (PDF, 1 MB) featured in the September 2006 Scientific American by Princeton professors that “introduces the useful concept of a “wedge,” defined as any measure that would lead to a global reduction of 25 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions relative to business-as-usual over the next 50 years.” This paper gives nuclear the credit of one wedge, if its production is tripled and replaces coal-based power. The path upsizing nuclear to this scale, however is neither a cheap nor a pretty one.

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Tick-tock.

[Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Scientific American]

Uranium Ignites ‘Gold Rush’ in the West

Given its connotations, Pandora is an oddly inappropriate name for an uranium mine.

A 25 year drought in Uranium prices is finally coming to an end. In 2004 only 104 new claims were made for uranium development. This year, 2,700 new claims have been filed in just Colorado. Obviously there are some people excited about this, including hedge fund managers and claims filers hoping to get rich. And of course, there are those worried about the effects of a jump in uranium mining and production such as the Navajo Nation and other people in the area worried about the local environment and their health.

Globally, 180 million pounds of processed uranium are consumed each year by nuclear power plants. Production worldwide from mines amounts to only 100 million pounds. Roughly 75 million pounds come out of utility company stockpiles. What is actually traded in the spot market is only about 35 million
pounds.

The revival of uranium mining in the West, though, has less to do with the renewed interest in nuclear power as an alternative to greenhouse-gas-belching coal plants than to the convoluted economics and intense speculation surrounding the metal that has pushed up the price of uranium to levels not seen since the heyday of the industry in the mid-1970s.

“There’s a lot of staking going on,” said Mike Shumway, a 53-year-old Vietnam veteran who owns the contracting business that is working the Pandora mine. “It’s like the gold rush.”

[NY Times]

Why the sloppy love for nuclear?

The question to me has always been why alleged conservatives have so much time for nuclear when it doesn’t align with one of their cherished principles: If “big-government nanny-state market interference” had a poster child, the cooling towers of a nuclear plant would be it…

The mid-1970s were, as it turned out, the last best hope for a major nuclear expansion. With unprecedented spikes in the price of oil, France (as any nuclear advocate will endlessly tell you) embarked on a major expansion of its nuclear industry. How did France do this? With yet more nanny-state intervention, of course! Reactors were designed by the state, financed by the state, built by the state, and operated by the state. Permanent waste sites are similarly built and run by the state.

Often called the biggest single subsidy for the nuclear electric industry, the U.S. government insures every reactor built in the U.S. with taxpayers’ money. (No private insurer will ever, ever risk a nuclear investment.) The companies that make civilian reactors also just happen to be able to rely on contracts from the U.S. Navy, which powers all its large ships with nuclear reactors.

And now we have Yucca Mountain, a long-term (and I mean long-term!) storage site for nuclear waste being built at taxpayers’ expense in a location chosen for political expediency, not safety, efficiency, or even market logic. (Nevada apparently didn’t have the sway in Congress to dump in another state.)

[Grist]

The Moon’s replacement for fossil fuels?


Newseek is reporting today on the quest to mine 3He from the moon (and build a working fusion reactor):

National pride is a big force behind China’s moon program, but not the only one. The Chinese are aiming to do more than “just set up a flag or pick up a piece of rock,” says Ye Zili of China’s Space Science Society. What are they after? A limitless source of clean, safe energy to feed their voracious economy. The stable isotope helium 3 (3He), a potential fuel for nuclear fusion, was first found in moon rocks brought back by the Apollo missions. It is one constituent of the “solar wind” constantly given off by the Sun. The stuff bounces off Earth’s magnetic field, but the moon has no magnetic field, and its surface has been soaking up 3He for billions of years. If you could dig it up and put it into a fusion reactor you would get ordinary helium 4 (as in balloons), ordinary hydrogen (as in H2O) and an abundance of radioactivity-free energy. According to Gerald Kulcinski, director of the Fusion Technology Institute at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, a mere 40 tons would be roughly enough to serve America’s electrical needs for a year.

[RawStory]

Sound familiar? myninjaplease featured this story a few months back, after the release of NASA’s new lunar plans. [MNP]

Thorium: Safe & Clean Nuclear Power?


TreeHugger has another post up about Thorium and the potential for nuclear energy without many of the risks present today.  Not only is Thorium far more abundant than uranium, reactors powered by it would not run the risk of meltdowns, and would produce little radioactive waste.  Equally important these days, Thorium is not suitable for the production of weapons grade radioactive material.

More reading:

Th Solves Gloabl Energy Storage? (TreeHugger: 10/12/06)

The Energy from Thorium Weblog