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King: Is nuclear power a solution? Not so fast

POSTED: July 15, 2008 5:01 a.m.

Sen. Johnny Isakson’s recent call for a compromise on energy policy is getting a lot of coverage. The Georgia senator wants Republicans to embrace conservation initiatives and alternatives such as solar and wind in turn for Democratic acceptance of nuclear power and a more aggressive exploitation of our own oil resources (Alaska and off the Atlantic Coast).

Sounds fair, but let’s examine these energy proposals.

I am at a loss to understand why Republicans, who generally consider themselves to be conservatives, need prodding to "embrace" conservation measures. But I do understand why Republicans are reluctant to promote solar and wind energy. Republicans are the party of business. The big boys — gas, oil and electric giants — are well-established and not eager to encourage competition, while wind and solar power are startups that operate best at the local level. No one can corner the market on wind and sunshine.

Now consider drilling in the Arctic and off the Atlantic Coast. Even if new oil deposits are discovered in U.S. territory, they will be difficult and expensive to exploit, while oil from the Mideast is abundant and easy to come by. More domestic oil won’t reduce gas prices. Furthermore, no matter where it is discovered, oil is a nonrenewable resource. When it’s gone, it’s gone.

This leaves nuclear energy, and what Isakson may not realize is that nuclear energy also depends on a nonrenewable resource, uranium. Most of the uranium we use (95 percent) is imported from outside the country. In theory, plutonium can be extracted from nuclear waste and used as fuel, but the process is expensive, incredibly dirty and at this point, still requires some uranium in the mix.

It concerns me that Americans know so little about nuclear security. Two top men in the U.S. Air Force had to get fired before recent nuclear mishaps became front-page news. Most nuclear accidents and malfeasance are accorded a few lines buried in the back of the paper, if they make it into print at all.

If you missed the Air Force flap and don’t know why its top uniformed and civilian leaders were canned, think about a B-52 bomber flying across the U.S. mistakenly armed with nuclear warheads, or fuses for ballistic missiles accidentally sent to Taiwan. Nuclear bungling is not rare. So far, we’ve been just plain lucky.

Nuclear mishaps are also easily forgotten by the public.

How many readers remember the close call at the Davis-Besse nuclear plant in Ohio? Its owners ignored indications that acid was leaking from nozzles in the reactor lid until the corrosion had eaten a sizable hole in the reactor’s cover. Only then did they realize that similar corrosion was occurring at other nuclear plants around the country, one of them the Oconee Plant just across Georgia’s border with South Carolina. (for details, check out www.mindfully.org/Nucs/2002/Davis-Besse-Acid-Leak1sep02.htm)

Every industry, every department of government has its goof-ups, but a nuclear blunder could be catastrophic. It’s not like any form of energy we‘ve ever had, and it behooves us to understand more about it than we do. It requires constant vigilance, and this runs against human nature.

New nuclear plants will not solve our energy problems, but because of the risk factor and the need for government control, they will move energy decisions from the local level — from the people who use the energy — into the hands of corporate executives and government bureaucrats.

Furthermore, we can never forget the link between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. The standoff with Iran should make this painfully clear.

Every nuclear power plant produces plutonium as well as electricity. It’s part of the waste stream, and it can be extracted and used in a thermonuclear bomb. It is simply a matter of time and money.

The U.S. is trying to control this part of the fuel cycle, but over the long run it is bound to fail. We cannot continue to say to the world, "you can trust us with nuclear weapons, but you can’t trust them." After all, we are the only nation that has actually dropped a nuclear bomb.

Before Republicans endorse nuclear power they need to learn more about the nuclear fuel cycle from mining to decommissioning and waste disposal. They need to take note of the many points in the process that require government oversight, and they need to be fully cognizant of the human propensity to screw up.

Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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