By Tom H. Hastings
I used to listen to Freakonomics, an interesting podcast, until it called nuclear energy clean and nonpolluting. I haven’t listened to any since. I really don’t appreciate fake news and junk science.
Radiation kills, okay? It causes cancers, birth defects, and if one gets enough of it, radiation kills promptly, as it did in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Chernobyl and Fukushima. What is the difference if the radiation comes from a bomb or a power plant? It still kills, sometimes in days, sometimes by planting latent cancers that consume a person a few years later.
But what are the alternatives? Back to the Steam Age?
Actually, we never left. That is how nuclear power creates electricity, by making steam—as if we can’t make steam in other, less polluting ways. As if we can’t turn turbines—the entire idea behind generating electricity from hydro power, wind, or nukes—in many ways.
Using a massive nuclear reaction to make steam, noted someone years ago, is like using a chainsaw to cut butter. Let’s match the least destructive means to the desired ends.
We are paying the price every day for our nukes. Just this past week in southern Ohio the Scioto Valley Local School District announced it was closing Zahn’s Corner Middle School, because neptunium was in air samples from the school and that causes bone cancer. Right next door is an abandoned uranium enrichment plant that the Department of Energy ran for both nuclear energy and nuclear weapons, and is paying to have cleaned up.
The uranium was enriched at taxpayer expense. The site, closed now for some 17 years, is being remediated at taxpayer expense. Still, when those who argue for nuclear power claim that nukes are scarcely subsidized and that solar and wind are the ones getting the really massive subsidies, they are wrong at every level. They never include all these massive costs, mostly taken from government (taxpayer) budgets, from exploring for uranium to mining it to transporting it to enriching it to fabricating the rods—and then to endless very costly attempts to manage the waste. Private industry basically plugs in for the profit-taking section of the nuclear chain.
This is not even considering the dealbreaker that private utilities needed fixed before they would take the risk of trying nuclear power way back in the day. They refused to get into nukes unless the government capped liability in case of accident. After all, how much has Chernobyl cost? Fukushima? What if corporations had to pay actual insurance rates or had to cover damages above and beyond what insurance would cover? The corporations aren’t stupid; they made that demand and Congress dutifully passed the Price Anderson Act, limiting how much the utilities would be on hook for in case of a meltdown.
The ratepayer and the taxpayer are the fiscal victims in these cases—the government gouges the taxpayer to cover huge expenses so nuclear power is affordable for the utilities. The government forces the utilities to charge the ratepayers for a special fund that is supposed to help with radioactive waste disposal. Good luck collecting enough for thousands of years of caretaking that radioactive effluent.
Indeed, if the true invisible hand of the market were allowed to operate (i.e., remove all subsidies to all forms of electrical generation) nukes, coal, and natural gas would be more expensive than solar and wind.
Imagine the true costs of nukes, coal, and natural gas if the human health and environmental costs over time were required to be a part of the rates. Put the ecologists and insurance bean counters in the same room for a while and we would know the extrapolative estimates that would make some jaws drop.
Certainly the number crunchers from the International Monetary Fund and researchers from UC-Davis found some stunning numbers that revealed the aggregate subsidies for fossil fuel corporations: “Estimated subsidies are $4.9 trillion worldwide in 2013 and $5.3 trillion in 2015.” Whopping subsidies per year for the big polluters and in the US the clean power subsidies over decades barely reach less than $35 billion, a tiny fraction of dirty power government gifts—truly “lemon socialism,” that is, take from the poor and middle class and give to the elite owners. Nuclear, coal, and natural gas power corporations are true welfare queens.
Thus, the true voodoo economics of nuclear power are, for the most part, simply not understood by many “researchers,” such as those who produce Freakonomics, so imagine how well politicians understand, let alone regular folks with busy lives trying to pay for it all.
During the Obama years clean v dirty energy subsidies were mostly reversed. That’s all done now, of course. Back to planet-wrecking business as usual.
No to coal. No to nukes. Yes to low-head hydro constructed to not harm fish migration. Yes to solar. Yes to wind. Yes to conservation.
I write this as I am in my late late sixties, closing next year on 70. This is not for me. I teach hundreds of young people every year at my university. I look at them and think of the fake news false dichotomy fed to them by so-called experts—do you want coal and global warming or do you want ‘clean’ nuclear power? How about neither?
I read of the kids in the Zahn’s Corner Middle School, exposed to bone cancer-causing neptunium—three young students in this tiny school of just 360 students have died from cancer in the past few years and others have been diagnosed. The nuclear facilities, from uranium mining tailings to enrichment feed plants to actual nuclear power generating stations to waste management sites, all emit ionizing radiation, usually for a long time before they are made known to the public—if ever. It is the Midas Touch in reverse. Everything nuclear power touches becomes life-threatening for long periods, some more than a quarter million years.
No one has to mine for the sun or wind or rivers. No wind machine and no solar panel will need to be buried deeply in the earth, encased in vitrified material and guarded for thousands of years. None of these alternatives does anything but protect the climate and protect the quality of our air, our water, and our children’s health.