Nuclear power isn't 'clean'; it's dangerous
By Helen Caldicott, 9/3/2001
AMONG THE many departures from the truth by opponents of the Kyoto protocol,
one of the most invidious is that nuclear power is ''clean'' and, therefore,
the answer to global warming.
We heard this during the last round of talks in Bonn, and we can expect to
hear more of the same as we move closer to the next round of Kyoto talks that
are coming up in Marrakesh in October and November.
However, the cleanliness of nuclear power is nonsense. Not only does it
contaminate the planet with long-lived radioactive waste, it significantly
contributes to global warming.
While it is claimed that there is little or no fossil fuel used in producing
nuclear power, the reality is that enormous quantities of fossil fuel are
used to mine, mill and enrich the uranium needed to fuel a nuclear power
plant, as well as to construct the enormous concrete reactor itself.
Indeed, a nuclear power plant must operate for 18 years before producing one
net calorie of energy. (During the 1970s the United States deployed seven
1,000-megawatt coal-fired plants to enrich its uranium, and it is still using
coal to enrich much of the world's uranium.) So, to recoup the equivalent of
the amount of fossil fuel used in preparation and construction before the
first switch is thrown to initiate nuclear fission, the plant must operate
for almost two decades.
But that is not the end of fossil fuel use because disassembling nuclear
plants at the end of their 30- to 40-year operating life will require yet
more vast quantities of energy. Taking apart, piece by radioactive piece, a
nuclear reactor and its surrounding infrastructure is a massive operation:
Imagine, for example, the amount of petrol, diesel, and electricity that
would be used if the Sydney Opera House were to be dismantled. That's the
scale we're talking about.
And that is not the end of fossil use because much will also be required for
the final transport and long term storage of nuclear waste generated by every
From a medical perspective, nuclear waste threatens global health. The
toxicity of many elements in this radioactive mess is long-lived.
Strontium 90, for example, is tasteless, odorless, and invisible and remains
radioactive for 600 years. Concentrating in the food chain, it emulates the
mineral calcium. Contaminated milk enters the body, where strontium 90
concentrates in bones and lactating breasts later to cause bone cancer,
leukemia, and breast cancer. Babies and children are 10 to 20 times more
susceptible to the carcinogenic effects of radiation than adults.
Plutonium, the most significant element in nuclear waste, is so carcinogenic
that hypothetically half a kilo evenly distributed could cause cancer in
everyone on Earth.
Lasting for half a million years, it enters the body through the lungs where
it is known to cause cancer. It mimics iron in the body, migrating to bones,
where it can induce bone cancer or leukemia, and to the liver, where it can
cause primary liver cancer. It crosses the placenta into the embryo and, like
the drug thalidomide, causes gross birth deformities.
Finally, plutonium has a predilection for the testicles, where it induces
genetic mutations in the sperm of humans and other animals that are passed on
from generation to generation.
Significantly, five kilos of plutonium is fuel for a nuclear weapon. Thus
far, nuclear power has generated about 1,139 tons of plutonium.
So, nuclear power adds to global warming, increases the burden of radioactive
materials in the ecosphere and threatens to contribute to nuclear
proliferation. No doubt the Australian government is keen to assist the
uranium industry, but the immorality of its position is unforgivable.
Dr. Helen Caldicott is founding president of Physicians for Social
Responsibility. This column originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.
This story ran on page 13 of the Boston Globe on 9/3/2001.