Texas Radiation Online - Pollution From Nuclear Power
Nothing Clean About Nuclear Energy Production

Supporters of nuclear energy say it is clean because power plants do not emit carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases contributing to global warming and ozone depletion. Revisiting the facts demonstrates this statement to be untrue. In addition, the energy expended in the process of creating nuclear fuel seriously offsets the amount of energy produced by nuclear reactors. Nuclear energy's advocates routinely ignore this important factor when making energy efficiency comparisons.

Uranium Facilities Top List of Ozone Layer Polluters
In order for nuclear power plants to run, uranium must be mined and processed. The two enrichment plants in Portsmouth, Ohio, and Paducah, Kentucky, released 818,000 pounds of freon (CFC-114) in 1999 alone. This amounts to 88% of US industrial sources, and an estimated 14% of all CFC-114 emissions worldwide. Freon is used to cool equipment and uranium hexafluoride in the plants, and escapes to the atmosphere through leaks in piping. There are over 700,000 tons of uranium hexafluoride in decaying metal canisters at Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee sites.

Although the import and production of CFCs were banned by the Montreal Protocol and Clean Air Act amendments of 1990, companies are allowed to use existing supplies. CFCs are held responsible for the destruction of the ozone layer, which protects humankind from too much ultraviolet-B (UV-B) rays from space. CFCs also play an important role in causing the greenhouse effect.

Aside from radioactive wastes, other waste and pollutants from the manufacture of nuclear reactor fuel include mercury, arsenic and cadmium, which are disposed of on and off site, and hydrochloric acid aerosols, fluorine and chlorine gas, which are released into the air.
[James Brugger, Courier Journal, 5/29/01; Nuclear Fuel, No. 24, 18 November 1996, p.5]

Carbon Dioxide Emissions
While generating electricity from nuclear power entails no direct emissions of CO2, the nuclear fuel cycle does release CO2 during mining, fuel enrichment and plant construction. Uranium mining is one of the most CO2 intensive industrial operations and as demand for uranium grows CO2 emissions are expected to rise as core grades decline. According to calculations by the Öko-Institute, 34 grams of CO2 are emitted per generated kWh in Germany. The results from other international research studies show much higher figures - up to 60 grams of CO2 per kWh. In total, a nuclear power station of standard size (1,250MW operating at 6,500 hours/annum) indirectly emits between 376,000 million tonnes (Germany) and 1,300,000 million tonnes (other countries) of CO2 per year. In comparison to renewable energy, nuclear power releases 4-5 times more CO2 per unit of energy produced taking account of the whole fuel cycle. Also, with its long development time a nuclear power programme offers no short-term possibility for reducing CO2 emissions.
[Lim Sui-San, 'Comparison of greenhouse gas emission and abatement cost from nuclear and alternative energy resources from lifecycle perspective', Öko-Institut, Germany, 1997.]

Radioactive emissions at nuclear plants
It doesn't take an accident for a nuclear power plant to release radioactivity into our air, water and soil. During everyday routine operation, federal regulations permit these radioactive releases. Radioactive water is allowed to be released into the environment containing "permissible" levels of contamination. Permissible does not mean safe. Detectors at reactors are set to allow contaminated water to be released, unfiltered, if below "permissible" legal levels. Some contaminated water is intentionally removed from the reactor vessel to reduce the amount of the radioactive and corrosive chemicals that damage valves and pipes. The water is filtered and then either recycled back into the cooling system or released into the environment.

A typical 1000-megawatt pressurized-water reactor (with a cooling tower) takes in 20,000 gallons of river, lake or ocean water per minute for cooling, circulates it through a 50-mile maze of pipes, returns 5,000 gallons per minute to the same body of water, and releases the remainder to the atmosphere as vapor. A 1000-megawatt reactor without a cooling tower such as those in Texas, takes in even more water- as much as one-half million gallons per minute. The discharge water is contaminated with radioactive elements in amounts that are not precisely known. Accurate, economically-feasible filtering and monitoring technologies do not exist for some of the major reactor by-products.

Mechanical failure and human error can cause a reactor's components to leak. As a nuclear plant ages, so does its equipment- and leaks generally increase. Some gases leak into plant interiors and are released during periodic "purges" and "ventings." These airborne gases contaminate not only the air, but also soil and water. Radioactive releases from a nuclear power reactor's routine operation often are not fully detected or reported, and accidental releases may not be completely verified or documented. During the accident at Three Mile Island, large amounts of radioactive particles were vented into the atmospere, notably significant amounts of krypton-85.
[Nuclear Information and Resource Service, "Routine Radioactive Releases from Nuclear Reactors"]

Reprocessing spent fuel is not an alternative.
One way to get around mining uranium is to separate uranium and plutonium from spent fuel. Whereas this would seem to solve the nuclear CO2 pollution problem, this is not economically or environmentally viable. Economically, it is far more expensive than storing the spent fuel once it is discharged from a reactor, and whereas reprocessed uranium is considerably more costly than fresh uranium, there is simply a lack of demand substantial enough that sites companys have planned for such operations have been cancelled. Part of this is that on account of contamination problems uranium from reprocessing must be processed separately from fresh uranium. The oversupply of uranium on the market means that this is likely to persist for the foreseeable future.

Reprocessed uranium actually makes up the bulk of the material separated during reprocessing and spent fuel may contain one per cent plutonium at most. Plutonium from reprocessing has been proposed to create Mixed Oxide fuel (MOx) which would be used in Fast Breeder Reactors which are considerably more dangerous than normal commercial reactors. MOx burns hotter and faster than uranium fuel, and has the potential for massive explosions. Not one fast reactor has operated satisfactorily and they have all shown to be unstable at best. Sodium leakages and fires have plagued fast reactors in the UK, the Soviet Union and Japan. Whereas France's Superphénix has proved to be an economic and operational disaster, the Dounreay Prototype Fast Reactor is now being decommissioned, and the Japanese fast breeder reactor at Monju, has been closed since an accident in 1995. It is not clear when, or even whether, it will start up again.
[The Ecologist, November 1999, Peter Bunyard and Pete Roche, "Nuclear Power: Time to End the Experiment"]

Nuclear Power Plants as Terrorist Targets
While many focus on the problems associated with stolen weapons-grade nuclear materials, particularly those originating from the former Soviet Union, the greater threat may actually be an attack against a nuclear power plant. Several officials have stated to press conferences that terrorists would be able to skip the formidable task of assembling or stealing a nuclear bomb. Former nuclear weapons designer and the former Deputy Director of the Defense Nuclear Agency, Ted Taylor told the media that its very easy to turn a nuclear power plant into a nuclear weapon, and more than a few terrorist experts believe that a nuclear power plant will be successfully assaulted before terrorists have the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon.

Considering the amount of radiation that a power plant contains, the magnitude of a single attack could reach beyond several thousand deaths and the immediate loss of tens of billions of dollars. Insurance companies won't cover nuclear disasters, and the properties destroyed would remain useless for decades, a stark monument reminding the world of the terrorists' ideology. With more than 100 reactors in the United States alone, if one is successfully destroyed, just threatening additional attacks could instill the sort of high-impact terror which is being sought by a new breed of terrorists.

"The security guards at half the nuclear power plants in the United States have failed to repel mock terrorist attacks against safety systems designed to prevent a reactor meltdown. These are so-called "force-on-force" exercises supervised by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The NRC refuses to take enforcement action in response to the failures, and is in the process of weakening the rules of the game in response to industry complaints. Sabotage of nuclear power plants may be the greatest domestic vulnerability in the United States today. This is the time to strengthen, not weaken, nuclear regulation," said Paul Leventhal at the Center for Defense Information.

For years, what has caused concern for many observers and several federal oversight committees is a report on the potential for damage from truck bombs. Shortly after the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, the NRC commissioned "An Analysis of Truck Bombs Threats at Nuclear Facilities" which was performed by the Sandia National Laboratories in 1984. The study concluded that, "unacceptable damage to vital reactor systems could occur from a relatively small charge at close setback distances, and from larger but still reasonable-sized charges at large setback distances, greater than the protected area for most plants."

This represented the NRC's most feared result. At some plants, a large bomb detonated offsite can cause substantial damage, and while there is no potential for a thermo-nuclear explosion at an electrical generating nuclear plant, but a powerful steam explosion could suddenly eject enormous amounts of radioactive particles into the atmosphere or even a meltdown. Instead of taking steps for proper protection, the NRC hid the findings from the public and announced that the study was ongoing. Yet two years later in 1986, the NRC commissioners voted 3-2 to continue assuming that a terrorist would not deliver a bomb by vehicle.

Many nuclear "watchdogs" are convinced that nuclear plants are the "soft-underbelly" of national security and represent attractive targets to enemies of the United States who do not have sophisticated weapons of war. The group Physicians for Social Responsibility have called nuclear plants "land mines waiting to be stepped upon." Currently, the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission does not require commercial nuclear power plants to defend against "enemies of the United States."

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has a long history of security problems. Federal oversight committees and reports by the US Government Accounting Office have been extremely critical of security within the nuclear power industry. Because of recent events and the continuing vulnerabilities which must be addressed; and because the NRC has now reduced certain security regulations, we believe it is now necessary for public disclosure and public pressure to compel the NRC to close these security gaps.


"Now I'll draw really a graphic example, and that is if somebody drove a bomb into the parking lot, blew it up, killed a hundred people at a power reactor, that is not our problem. I know it sounds terribly callous to say that, but thats a law enforcement problem, thats an FBI problem, thats an intelligence problem."

Question: it's not your problem in that it doesn't affect the facility?"

"It doesnt affect the general health and safety of the general public. The requirements we set for the power plants are are not all of the requirements they have to meet, but to satisfy us they have to protect the, uh, against radiation getting into the atmosphere and affecting the general public, and we don't set requirements that have to do with the protection of the people on the site, with the protection of the turbine buildings, or protection of non-vital areas- we have a narrow objective, and the question we put to ourselves is "are we doing enough to protect against that objective"

- NRC Commissioner Ivan Selin addressing a 1993 Congressional Committee.
Twenty percent of our nation's electricity is generated by 103 nuclear reactors in 66 locations around the country. Currently there are 72 plant sites and 36 states with spent fuel. Approximately 40,000 tons of spent fuel existed in the year 2000, and 105,000 metric tons of spent fuel is projected by 2035. There are alternatives to this predicament.