Orion Magazine: Rebecca Solnit: Reasons Not to Glow

Published on Tuesday, July 10, 2007 by Orion Magazine
Reasons Not to Glow
On Not Jumping Out of The Frying Pan Into The Eternal Fires
by Rebecca Solnit

Chances are good, gentle reader, that you are going to have to sit
next to someone in the coming year who will assert that nuclear power
is the solution to climate change. What will you tell them? There’s
so much to say. You could be sitting next to someone who hasn’t
really considered the evidence yet. Or you could be sitting next to
scientist and Gaia theorist James Lovelock, a supporter of
Environmentalists for Nuclear EnergyTM, which quotes him saying, “We
have no time to experiment with visionary energy sources; civilisation
is in imminent danger and has to use nuclear-the one safe, available,
energy source-now or suffer the pain soon to be inflicted by our
outraged planet.

“If you sit next to Lovelock, you might start by mentioning that
half the farms in this country had windmills before Marie Curie
figured out anything about radiation or Lise Meitner surmised that
atoms could be split. Wind power is not visionary in the sense of
experimental. Neither is solar, which is already widely used. Nor are
nukes safe, and they take far too long to build to be considered
readily available. Yet Stewart Brand, of Whole Earth Catalog fame, has
jumped on the nuclear bandwagon, and so has Greenpeace founding member
turned PR flack Patrick Moore. So you must be prepared.

Of course the first problem is that nuclear power is often nothing
more than a way to avoid changing anything. A bicycle is a better
answer to a Chevrolet Suburban than a Prius is, and so is a train, or
your feet, or staying home, or a mix of all those things. Nuclear
power plants, like coal-burning power plants, are about retaining the
big infrastructure of centralized power production and, often, the
habits of obscene consumption that rely on big power. But this may be
too complicated to get into while your proradiation interlocutor
suggests that letting a thousand nuclear power plants bloom would
solve everything.

Instead, you may be able to derail the conversation by asking whether
they’d like to have a nuclear power plant or waste repository in
their backyard, which mostly they would rather not, though they’d
happily have it in your backyard. This is why the populous regions of
the eastern U.S. keep trying to dump their nuclear garbage in the
less-populous regions of the West. My friend Chip Ward (from
nuclear-waste-threatened Utah) reports, “To make a difference in
global climate change, we would have to immediately build as many
nuclear power plants as we already have in the U.S. (about 100) and at
least as many as 2,000 worldwide.” Chip goes on to say that “Wall
Street won’t invest in nuclear power because it is too risky. . . .
The partial meltdown at Three Mile Island taught investment bankers
how a two-billion-dollar investment can turn into a billion-dollar
clean-up in under two hours.” So we, the people, would have to foot
the bill.

Nuclear power proponents like to picture a bunch of clean plants
humming away like beehives across the landscape. Yet when it comes to
the mining of uranium, which mostly takes place on indigenous lands
from northern Canada to central Australia, you need to picture
fossil-fuel-intensive carbon-emitting vehicles, and lots of them-big
disgusting diesel-belching ones. But that’s the least of it. The
Navajo are fighting right now to prevent uranium mining from resuming
on their land, which was severely contaminated by the postwar uranium
boom of the 1940s and 1950s. The miners got lung cancer. The children
in the area got birth defects and a 1,500 percent increase in ovarian
and testicular cancer. And the slag heaps and contaminated pools that
were left behind will be radioactive for millennia.

If these facts haven’t dissuaded this person sitting next to you,
try telling him or her that most mined uranium-about 99.28 percent-is
fairly low-radiation uranium-238, which is still a highly toxic heavy
metal. To make nuclear fuel, the ore must be “enriched,” an
energy-intensive process that increases the .72 percent of highly
fissionable, highly radioactive U-235 up to 3 to 5 percent. As Chip
points out, four dirty-coal-fired plants were operated in Kentucky
just to operate two uranium enrichment plants. What’s left over is a
huge quantity of U-238, known as depleted uranium, which the U.S.
government classifies as low-level nuclear waste, except when it uses
the stuff to make armoring and projectiles that are the source of so
much contamination in Iraq from our first war there, and our

Reprocessing spent nuclear fuel was supposed to be one alternative to
lots and lots of mining forever and forever. The biggest experiment in
reprocessing was at Sellafield in Britain. In 2005, after decades of
contamination and leaks and general spewing of horrible matter into
the ocean, air, and land around the reprocessing plant, Sellafield was
shut down because a bigger-than-usual leak of fuel dissolved in nitric
acid-some tens of thousands of gallons-was discovered. It contained
enough plutonium to make about twenty nuclear bombs. Gentle reader,
this has always been one of the prime problems of nuclear energy: the
same general processes that produce fuel for power can produce it for
bombs. In India. Or Pakistan. Or Iran. The waste from nuclear plants
is now the subject of much fretting about terrorists obtaining it for
dirty bombs-and with a few hundred thousand tons of high-level waste
in the form of spent fuel and a whole lot more low-level waste in the
U.S. alone, there’s plenty to go around.
By now the facts should be on your side, but do ask how your neighbor
feels about nuclear bombs, just to keep things lively.

The truth is, there may not be enough uranium out there to fuel two
thousand more nuclear power plants worldwide. Besides, before a nuke
plant goes online, a huge amount of fossil fuel must be expended just
to build the thing. Still, the biggest stumbling block, where climate
change is concerned, is that it takes a decade or more to construct a
nuclear plant, even if the permitting process goes smoothly, which it
often does not. So a bunch of nuclear power plants that go online in
2017 at the earliest are not even terribly relevant to turning around
our carbon emissions in the next decade-which is the time frame we
have before it’s too late.

If you’re not, at this point, chasing your poor formerly pronuclear
companion down the hallway, mention that every stage of the nuclear
fuel cycle is murderously filthy, imparting long-lasting contamination
on an epic scale; that a certain degree of radioactive pollution is
standard at each of these stages, but the accidents are now so many in
number that they have to be factored in as part of the environmental
cost; that the plants themselves generate lots of radioactive waste,
which we still don’t know what to do with-because the stuff is
deadly . . . anywhere . . . and almost forever. And no, tell them,
this nuclear colonialism is not an acceptable sacrifice, since it is
not one the power consumers themselves are making. It’s a sacrifice
they’re imposing on people far away and others not yet born, a debt
they’re racking up at the expense of people they will never

Sure, you can say nuclear power is somewhat less carbon-intensive than
burning fossil fuels for energy; beating your children to death with a
club will prevent them from getting hit by a car. Ravaging the Earth
by one irreparable means is not a sensible way to prevent it from
being destroyed by another. There are alternatives. We should choose
them and use them.

An antinuclear activist in Nevada from 1988 to 2002, Rebecca Solnit
just put up a clothesline in the backyard and will get around to
installing the solar panels any day now. National Book Critics Circle
award-winner Solnit’s most recent book is Storming the Gates of

© 2007 Orion Magazine

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