Solution or pollution?

Sustainability conference speakers weigh in on nuclear energy

Some environmentalists have switched sides on the debate over nuclear energy, but others remain fervently opposed to a form of energy production they say could have devastating environmental consequences.

Some environmentalists have switched sides on the debate over nuclear energy, but others remain fervently opposed to a form of energy production they say could have devastating environmental consequences.

In 1976, local anti-nuclear activist and environmentalist Ellen Simon gave 31 presentations in Chico in support of the Nuclear Safeguard Initiative in California. Although the initiative failed, California has not moved ahead in developing nuclear energy.

“Transportation of the dangerous waste can be sabotaged,” she said last week, decades after those presentations.

Like Simon, many environmentalists are still skeptical that nuclear-power plants can be made safe. But there are some who, because of climate change, have turned a corner on the issue, and several made their cases for nuclear energy as presenters during the annual This Way to Sustainability Conference at Chico State last week.

As in previous years, conference organizers weren’t afraid to tackle taboo subjects, including population stabilization and immigration policy. This year, though, the conversion to nuclear power to provide energy needs and to decrease global greenhouse-gas emissions figured prominently into discussions with three well-attended sessions (both for and against nuclear energy) over the four-day event (Nov. 5-8).

Gwyneth Cravens, author of Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy, spoke about a journey “from myth to fact” that transformed her from being a successful anti-nuclear activist to a pro-nuclear author and speaker. She cited several environmental leaders who changed their mind, saying, “I have seen quite a shift.”

She acknowledged that the Sierra Club is, however, “still not totally with the [nuclear] program.”

Cravens agreed that conservation is the cheapest and cleanest source, but she qualified that statement by talking about having to meet the “base load”—the steady supply of electricity people use every day around the clock. She, like other pro-nuclear speakers, does not think that solar and wind and other sources can meet the need.

In another session, Tom Blees, pro-nuclear speaker and author of Prescription for the Planet, described the huge amount of exposure to radiation that people get from coal-burning power plants. Citing a 1982 study from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Blees pointed out that the tons of uranium and thorium—among other radioactive toxics—emitted into the air and into the coal ash are not being treated as radioactive waste.

Speakers across the board agreed that coal is anything but a clean source of energy, and Blees tackled the claim that nuclear technology can now produce energy safely. He discussed types of reactors, including first-generation light-water reactors (LWR), some of which are still in use. These thermal reactors use water to cool the spent fuel rods.

Authors Gwyneth Cravens and Tom Blees were two of the pro-nuclear speakers at the recent sustainability conference held at Chico State.

Another type is the integral fast reactor (IFR). In 1964 Americans built a prototype of the IFR at the Argonne National Laboratory; however, Blees said, the Clinton administration cut its funding suddenly in 1994, just before full proof of the reactor’s safety was achieved. Russia may be the first to build and operate an IFR. Blees called the waste from the reactors “relatively benign.”

The pro-nuclear speakers said that nuclear waste can be disposed of safely, such as encased in thick glass and sunk into the ocean or stored in deep holes dug into the ground. IFRs can use plutonium and uranium from decommissioned nuclear weapons as well as nuclear “waste” from thermal reactors, thereby decreasing the need for repository sites. Blees claimed there is enough usable nuclear fuel that is not fully spent that there is no need to mine.

Of course, the biggest argument in favor of nuclear energy is that it can provide for the energy needs of the world without producing greenhouse gases. Proponents argue that with proper safety measures in place and tight security and regulation, nuclear energy is a clean and viable source of energy.

Divan Fard, a chemistry instructor from Shasta College, disagreed, saying he is not convinced about the claims that nuclear waste can produce energy. He described the Uranium-238 decay chain, saying, “We have created a monster before we knew what to do with it.” The “daughter products” of the decay of U-238 include other radioactive and poisonous elements such as Thorium-234, Uranium-234, Radium-226, and Lead-210, each with its own half-life.

Fard also cited an article in this month’s issue of Scientific American claiming that wind, water and solar can provide 100 percent of the world’s energy needs by 2030. Speakers described some downsides of wind, ethanol, hydropower and solar energy, but mainly brought out the downside of coal.

Audience members had many questions about safety issues, especially as they related to times of disaster. While proponents pointed to a nuclear-power plant in New Orleans that withstood Hurricane Katrina and the specifications that are designed to withstand all wartime scenarios—except a direct hit with a nuclear weapon—opponents remained skeptical that the system is foolproof.

Flaws in the design, they said, could be catastrophic. Accidents at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and the Hanford Site in Washington state were cited as environmental catastrophes, though some debated whether their effects were worse than other sources of environmental disaster. Adhering to a precautionary approach, Fard said that additional research needs to be done before building more nuclear-power plants.

Proponents pointed out that many other countries have shifted and are shifting to nuclear energy. Still, in the United States, energy companies continue to make money on coal, a huge ongoing source of pollution. Coal energy lacks the extensive oversight required of nuclear power.

Marcia Fernandez, a proponent in the panel with Cravens, said that change may have to wait until “the old guard dies.” She said it is terribly difficult to get new ideas to stick with a generation who grew up through the duck-and-cover drills of the Cold War era.

“Children don’t have the fears of the older generations,” she said.

Cravens was as blunt about opposition: “Mental barriers [to accepting nuclear power] are as thick as the 4-foot walls surrounding a reactor.”