Nuclear Power’s Carbon Footprint

by Eric Epstein, April 26, 2014

Remember the environmentalist who proclaimed the dawn of a new day as he drove around town in his electric powered automobile? He chirped about the cleanliness of this mode of transport until it was pointed out that the battery was charged by the coal burning power plant down the road.

Well, he’s baaaaaaaack! A little older and poorer, but still peddling the same energy shell game. This time he’s got a better deal: nuclear power.

Nuclear proponents argue that the problem of greenhouse gases can be solved by nuclear power plants which do not emit carbon dioxide – at the point of production. What they don’t tell you is what happens to the nuclear wonder pill before it is magically transformed into green penicillin.

The nuclear-carbon shell game only works if you ignore the environmental cost on the “front end” of nuclear power production. From the moment uranium is mined – then milled, enriched, fabricated and transported – it releases large amounts of airborne pollutants.

The “clean air myth” was demolished on May 13, 1999 when the Nuclear Energy Institute’s (“NEI”) advertising campaign was deemed “misleading” by the National Advertising Division of the Better Business Bureau. The specific ad in question was displayed in Atlantic Monthly (December, 1998). The commercial featured a cute owl singing the praises of nuclear power, and thanked the NEI for “clean air.”

The Business Bureau stated: “The process currently used to produce at least some, if not most, of the uranium enriched fuels that are necessary to power nuclear energy plants emits substantial amounts of environmentally harmful greenhouse gases.”

The NEI did not appeal the decision.

The enrichment of uranium at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion plant in Kentucky released massive amounts of chlorofluorocarbons (“CFCs”) which are more damaging as a global warmer than carbon dioxide. Nuclear fuel production in America created at least 800,000 pounds of CFCs annually. CFCs remain the primary agent for stratospheric ozone depletion.

The industry’s official strategy to reduce CFC emissions was to close its Portsmouth, Ohio enrichment plant and eliminate “many miles of leaky pipes.” The plant closed in 2011, but is undergoing a massive site cleanup to recover uranium, treat and isolate contaminated water and sewage, and decontaminate and remove miles of radioactive tubes, pipes and equipment.

The production of fuel for nuclear reactors is extremely energy intensive. For example, the Paducah, Kentucky plant, which operated from 1952-2013, required the electrical output of two 1,000-megawatt carbon dioxide producing, coal-fired plants.

With all the radioactive waste baggage associated with nuclear power production, folks forget that nuclear fuel is a nonrenewable energy source with an escalating cost. The same “low-cost” fuel that sold for $7 a pound in 2001 now sells for $34. Imagine the hysteria at America’s gas pumps if a gallon of gas had increased fivefold over a decade.

America imports 84% of its nuclear fuel from “dependable foreign allies” like Russia and Kazakhstan as well as from Canada and Australia – when their mines aren’t flooded.

Why would we exchange a dependency on oil from the Middle East for a dependency on expensive, harmful and imported nuclear fuel?

Mr. Epstein is the Chairman of Three Mile Island Alert , Inc.,, a safe-energy organization based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and founded in 1977. TMIA monitors Peach Bottom, Susquehanna, and Three Mile Island nuclear generating stations.

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