Top 6 Nuclear Energy Myths Exposed

There's a lot of fiction around nuclear power. (Photo: Tennessee Valley Authority [CC by 2.0]/Flickr)

We humans have a remarkable ability to rationalize our way into (or out of) anything, and the Nuclear Industry has certainly taken this skill to its highest and most ironic conclusion — the legitimation of nuclear energy as a viable alternative to fossil fuels.

The industry has misappropriated the discourse around global warming by positioning nuclear as a somehow “clean” alternative to coal, one which is “carbon neutral” (not true), affordable (absolutely not true) and most unbelievable of all, “safe.”

So it was a relief when Al Gore cleared things up at this year's Netroots Nation. Gore, who in the past has been open (if not friendly) towards nuclear energy, laid out the major misconceptions around the feasibility of nuclear. Additional facts provided by the Sierra Club and discussion with a top nuclear scientist, give us the true facts that have previously been buried amidst a pile of canned pro-nuclear sentiments fed to both political leaders and journalists alike.

Who’s behind the misinformation? The masterfully spin-generating NEI, the Nuclear Energy Institute. After reading the April (anti-Earth Day) issue of Wired Magazine, bearing the headline “GO NUCLEAR,” it's become clear that the NEI has succeeded in infiltrating even fairly liberal bastions of media. So it was not surprising to hear Obama give it lip service in his recent address to the Global Climate Summit. It seems the NEI has deep pockets and powerful friends.

The NEI, which Dr. Helen Caldicott calls the “propaganda wing” of the US nuclear industry, spends millions every year to engineer public opinion. The NEI shares the same PR firm that represents Bechtel and other war contractors. They are notorious for ghost writing fake editorial pieces submitted to local newspapers across the country, and were even censured by the fairly conservative Council of Better Business Bureaus for their misleading advertising on nuclear energy as “carbon-free” and “clean.” Here is their sunny, happy header:

Photo: Nuclear Energy Institute

Below are the top 6 nuclear myths and facts:

Myth 1. Nuclear energy can solve the global warming crisis.

Even if Nuclear were really carbon-free (which it is not, see below) in order to play a significant role against global warming, 24 new plants per year would need to be brought online safely for the next 40 years (approximately 960 new plants). In addition, at least 10 new storage facilities the size of Yucca Mountain (see below) would have to be brought online. This is a near impossibility given the high costs of commissioning a plant safely and the immense technological challenges associated with long-term waste storage. Compromising current safety standards would be necessary (MIT).

Myth 2. Nuclear has lower CO2 emissions than fossil fuel plants.

If you go on the NEI website, you will read that a nuclear power plant produces 0 carbon emissions. Yes at the plant, zero CO2 is emitted, but what about the construction of the plant, the sourcing of uranium, and the transportation and long-term storage of its waste? If you factor these energy expenditures into the equation (including storage costs modestly estimated through 2070), a typical 1500 megawatt plant emits approximately 400g of CO2 per kWh, making it roughly equivalent to a natural gas plant (Oxford Research Group).

Myth 3. Nuclear energy is safe.

OK, lets forget that Three Mile Island and Chernobyl ever happened, and lets just pretend that we didn’t know about the enormous and apocalyptic environmental impacts of a nuclear reactor gone wrong (the 30 km “Exclusion Zone” around Chernobyl will not be habitable for a century or more). Human error and the potential for earthquakes are a constant looming threat in the day-to-day operations of a nuclear plant. Just last year, a reactor in Tennessee leaked 9 gallons of highly enriched liquid Uranium, which could quite easily have triggered a spontaneous unprotected nuclear reaction of unprecedented proportions.

Myth 4. Nuclear waste is a manageable problem.

Currently nuclear waste is stored in 126 locations across the United States, including many unsecured nuclear power plants which are now forced to temporarily contain their waste in “dry casks,” or large metal tubes that encase the highly radioactive spent fuel in a layer of inert gas. Many of these facilities are far beyond capacity, and (way back in 1978) were promised a safe and secure storage facility by 1998. That deadline has long come and gone as the Yucca Mountain Deep Storage Facility continues to be beset with problems. The Yucca Mountain deadline has been extended to 2017, and optimistic estimates put the opening at 2020 after massive costs overruns and a wave of layoffs this year. Current estimates put the total cost of the facility at $96 billion (38% more than anticipated) and that does not include $11 billion in estimated liability of the DOE, which had promised the utility companies a safe storage facility (EE & E).

Myth 5. Nuclear energy is affordable.

It’s an astounding feat that the Nuclear industry was somehow been able to pass the burden of waste storage onto taxpayers, considering those costs are so enormous. But even if you do factor out these waste costs, the economics of nuclear still do not add up. A typical plant is usually estimated at $4 billion per plant, or $30 per mWh (roughly equivalent to Coal). Many point to Europe for examples of cost-effective nuclear implementation, but if you look at actual numbers a plant (like Finland’s new EPR) can cost up to $6.5 billion to safely bring online. And then there are the annual desalting procedures, in which the plant continues to operate at great costs without producing energy. It’s thus not surprising that the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) stated that US loan guarantees of nuclear power have a 50% chance of defaulting. Banking institutions (including Credit Suisse and Goldman Sachs) have told the DOE that private capital would not be available for nuclear investment unless US taxpayers backed 100% of debt incurred. Clearly, not a sound business proposition (via Greenpeace).

Myth 6. Nuclear energy won’t affect our national security.

According to an MIT study, just 1 percent of global uranium enrichment capacity can produce 200 nuclear weapons per year. North Korea received all of its depleted uranium from commercial nuclear power plants. It is impossible to imagine that expanded nuclear energy production would not result in the expanded proliferation of nuclear weapons. In addition, the Dept. of Homeland Security has acknowledged that nuclear power plants are themselves prime terrorist targets and that 911 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had originally planned to fly a plane into a nuclear facility in New Jersey. The Congressional Research Service has shown that current construction standards are not in any way designed to withstand an airline attack. In recent simulations, terrorists “reached and simulated destruction of safety systems that in real attacks could have caused severe core damage, meltdown and catastrophic radioactive releases.”