The West casts a wary eye on the latest nuclear craze


The projections from the Department of Energy are startling: By 2030, net electricity use worldwide will double. Coal will take on an even larger share of the workload, providing more than half of the world’s electricity. And, without a massive overhaul of the world’s coal-burning infrastructure, greenhouse gas emissions — produced by burning coal at a rate of about 11 billion tons per year — will continue to climb into the stratosphere.

A growing new movement — with members as varied as President Bush and Greenpeace founder Patrick Moore — seeks to turn those projections around. They’re not talking about population control or conservation measures, however. Instead, they want the world’s utility companies to build more nuclear power plants. In his 2005 Energy Policy Act, Bush pushed nuclear power (along with traditional energy sources) both rhetorically and financially, piling subsidy upon subsidy to encourage utility companies to go nuclear.

Not since the energy crisis of the 1970s — maybe not even since the 1950s, when the United States first harnessed the power of fission and "Uranium Rush" was a popular board game — has nuclear power enjoyed such hype.

Hopes for the industry have risen along with global temperatures. Generating electricity with nuclear fission emits no greenhouse gases directly. Meanwhile, burning enough coal to power 1,000 homes for about a month spews 2,250 pounds of carbon dioxide into the air; natural gas emits about half that. Even when it comes to the sheer volume of solid waste produced, nuclear power wins out: A typical 1,000 megawatt coal-burning plant creates approximately 300,000 tons of ash annually, replete with toxic heavy metals and alkali. A similar-capacity nuclear plant creates less than 23 tons of waste each year. (Granted, that waste is radioactive and will remain so for thousands of years.)

These numbers convinced Moore — a former anti-nuclear activist who is now co-chairman of the nuclear industry-funded Clean and Safe Energy Coalition — to write in a widely published op-ed this spring: "Nuclear energy may just be the energy source that can save our planet from another possible disaster: catastrophic climate change."

But for all the mushrooming excitement in the radioactive world these days, nuclear power’s promise may prove as elusive as the 1950s dreams of endless, practically free power. Nuclear power is expensive and potentially dangerous, and it produces radioactive waste that no state wants to store. But perhaps the biggest barrier — encapsulating all of this and more — is nuclear power’s own checkered history.

Most of us still remember the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island, which released radioactivity into Pennsylvania communities and spread fear of nuclear power throughout the collective consciousness. And 20 years after the reactor explosion in the Ukrainian town of Chernobyl, the health impacts are still being tallied, and contaminated villages still sit abandoned.

The American West, which provides the fodder for the nation’s reactors and serves as the final tomb for its waste, is haunted by its own nuclear memories. Towns that sprang up from the sandstone in the ’50s were left empty when the price of uranium crashed; places like Uravan, Colo., became Superfund sites; and even as abandoned mines are fired up again, old-timers in Monticello, Utah, wonder if the tailings from a former uranium mill are causing a spike in leukemia and other cancers.

When seen through the filter of this history, Moore’s stark choice — embrace nuclear power or be doomed by global warming — looks a little less clear-cut. If today’s energy-use predictions hold true, something like one nuclear power plant would have to come online each week for the next 25 years, just to hold greenhouse gas emissions at current levels. That amounts to a lot of uranium mining, a lot of waste, and a lot of risk. For those who grew up under the shadow of the last boom and know how messy this business can be, it’s difficult to believe that Moore’s choice is the only one.


The Fourth Wave

With uranium prices rising, speculators are looking anew at busted mining towns like Jeffrey City, Wyo., but locals have learned to be skeptical

Navajo Windfall

The Navajo Nation is fighting to keep uranium mining off the reservation, but eager uranium companies are determined to mine– and the federal government is on their side

Navajos pay for industry's mistakes

The federal Radiation Exposure Compensation Act was created to compensate uranium miners and mill workers sickened by their jobs, but on the Navajo Reservation, Dr. Bruce Baird Struminger says the program has proved flawed

The Hot West

Graphics show the location of the West’s nuclear sites and uranium sources, and the nuclear fuel cycle is described

Retooling a Leviathan

The nation’s nuclear infrastructure is aging, and in need of very expensive – and very complicated – retooling just to survive

Waste disposal the industry's Achilles' heel

The French have dealt with their radioactive waste for decades by reprocessing it, but the process is more problematic than it sounds, particularly in an age of terrorism

Sep 05, 2006 02:24 PM

I have land (so far undeveloped) up by the Navajo Nation in NE Arizona... we've seen the Uranium-based and coal-based economies come and go. I no longer trust central grid (with the accompanying centralized bureaucracies) of any kind. I'm going with a combo of wind and solar when I settle in up on my land. Both are renewable and plentiful up there....

Sep 06, 2006 10:11 AM

Nuclear power again! My question is still WHAT DO WE DO WITH THE SPENT NUCLEAR RODS? Is there a new solution? Are we able to recycle nuclear waste. We in the West bury it believing there will never be a problem with earthquakes, leakage, etc. Wind, solar, water power. CONSERVING. POPULATION CONTROL, BIRTH CONTROL -- apparently these ideas are now obsolete.

Sep 13, 2006 01:06 PM

It is staggering to consider the time it will take for radioactive waste to decay. The half-life of uranium is roughly 250,000 years - older than the life of our own species! I believe our focus needs to be on solar, wind, and hydroelectric power if we are to leave this planet in any kind of respectable shape for future generations. I consider anything less to another symptom of the dictatorship of the present.

Sep 13, 2006 03:28 PM

solar and wind are the way to go. i believe that it is possible for many cities in the unites states to turn to these alternate soulutions for energy.

Apr 13, 2007 04:58 PM

There is a nuclear alternative: Accelerator Driven Fast Reactors. These reactors can be fueled with the waste from older reactors. The waste produced by these reactors is as radioactive as coal ash after only 500 years. No new technology is needed to create them, although they would be prohibitively expensive, at first.Carlo Rubbia's Energy Amplifier is probably the simplest one to try to get a handle on, so look this over: You can also find a lot by searching on Google for "accelerator driven fast reactors".The question I have is why no one is talking about this as an alternative!