Coming in to land at the Harrisburg International Airport in Pennsylvania we circle past the partially shuttered Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, two of the cooling towers still ominously steaming years past the plant's life expectancy. For my family members who lived within the 5 mile evacuation zone when Reactor Number 2 at the plant partially melted down on March 28, 1979, the towers still stir deep emotions. And rightly so. Like the stories of so many others who lived through that nuclear crisis, their tales point to some of the problems with nuclear power as a potential alternative to fossil fuel: It isn't safe, and we cannot rely on the Government or the nuclear industry to be completely honest about it.
Those who were in Harrisburg that day are still angry that it took years - yes YEARS - before the true scope of the meltdown at Three Mile Island was reported. When it was reported, we learned that massive quantities of radioactive material had leaked from the reactor that had suffered catastrophic damage. Due, largely, to dumb luck, the radioactive cooling water that leaked from the reactor had remained mostly contained, yet the radiation released to the community was real. And though the nuclear industry has consistently repeated the mantra that the increased cancer rates in the community since the meltdown have been "statistically insignificant," that has done little to calm the the emotions of the people effected by it. If anything, it has made them believe the industry itself cannot be trusted. At best, the nuclear industry's statement is grossly insensitive to the cancer patients left wondering if their disease is a result of that event.
Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima... these accidents are the primary concern people have about nuclear power, and understandably so. There are, however, other very serious concerns at every stage of the nuclear cycle, from the mining and enriching of uranium to the operation of reactors and the long-term storage of radioactive waste.
There are three main approaches to the mining of uranium and all three bring with them significant human health and environmental impacts, because, in part, the mined uranium begins releasing radioactivity into the environment the moment it is taken from the ground. Open pit mines use explosives to blast the uranium deposits, releasing radiation into the air. Deep tunnel mines expose miners to more intense radiation exposure and risks of mine collapse. All forms of mining release significant quantities of radiation into the environment when the waste products, called tailings, are discarded. Tailings end up blowing in the wind and leaching into ground water. Each mine represents an environmental disaster of its own that is rarely factored into the discussion when people are promoting nuclear as a potential replacement for fossil fuels.
Once dug from the ground uranium needs to be enriched in order to concentrate it into the more potent forms used for nuclear energy production. The enriched product then needs to be fabricated into fuel. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) there are significant environmental impacts associated with each of these stages of the nuclear power supply chain, up to and including the routine daily operation of all nuclear power plants.
The reality that all nuclear power plants continually release low level radiation into the environment is a little appreciated fact that has led industry insiders, like Bernard Leonard Cohen, to make the claim that regular exposure to low level radiation is perfectly safe. Cohen was the Director of the Scaife Nuclear Laboratory from 1965 to 1978 and is one of the most frequently cited sources by proponents of nuclear power. What these proponents usually ignore, however, are the facts that Cohen's published statements about the safety of nuclear radiation were not supported by major organizations, like the World Health Organization and that Cohen himself retracted his statements about safety later in life.
Then there is the issue of safely storing toxic nuclear waste. If you believe the industry, doing that is simple, safe and no problem at all. On the other hand, the United States Department of Energy says there are ALREADY "millions of gallons of radioactive waste" as well as "thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel and material" and also "huge quantities of contaminated soil and water."
The DOE has a stated goal of cleaning the existing contaminated sites by 2025. Just one site in Fernald, Ohio has "31 million pounds of uranium product, 2.5 billion pounds of waste, 2.75 million cubic yards of contaminated soil and debris." A 223 acre portion of the Great Miami Aquifer has uranium levels above drinking standards. Let those facts sink in when pondering the sustainability of nuclear power.
The United States has at least 108 sites designated as areas that are contaminated and unusable, sometimes many thousands of acres.
These waste products will remain hazardous for thousands of years and we have already produced this level of problem while obtaining a small portion of our total energy use from nuclear. Clearly, nuclear power is anything but green. It turns out that it is also not economically viable.
Many people believe nuclear power to be inexpensive because the building of nuclear power plants and the production of nuclear fuel have been heavily subsidized by government funds. If these costs (along with the true costs of storage and clean up) were included in the economic equation, nuclear power becomes not only environmentally disastrous but also cost-prohibitive.
As we look to the future we need to focus on truly clean and renewable energy sources that can be decentralized to help make people and neighborhoods to be more energy independent. Nuclear power is the polar opposite of the future we need. We should not replace one centralized and unsustainable system with another more centralized and more unsustainable one.
In the relatively near future, Reactor 1 at Three Mile Island is expected to be shut down. As I said earlier, it is past its life expectancy. For my family who lives in its shadow, the day cannot come soon enough. Hopefully, we will have learned enough from its partial meltdown in 1979 to know we should not build another.