The West casts a wary eye on the latest nuclear craze

  • Outside the boomtown of Naturita, Colorado

    Robert Dawson
  • Miss Atomic Energy receives her prize, a truckload of uranium ore, May 1955, Grand Junction, Colorado

    courtesy of the Department of Energy Collection, Loyd Files Research Library, Museum of Western Colorado, Grand Junction

Note: this story is part of a package of articles in this issue about the West's resurgent uranium economy.

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.

Note: the following feature stories accompany this introductory essay in this issue:

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

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

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