New Nukes, Same as the Old Nukes

The Obama administration has endorsed the construction of mini-reactors, promising to spend about $452 million over the next five years to create smaller, modular plants that supporters say can help the industry get past some of the problems that have plagued it in the past.

The hope, according to the Obama administration, is that it can revive nuclear power as a viable alternative to carbon-based fuel sources and, in turn, that its use will lead to less impact on the atmosphere.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the new, smaller reactor “could provide about 180 megawatts of power, about one-fifth the size of a typical nuclear reactor but still enough for tens of thousands of homes. It has an underground radiation-containment structure, meant to be safer and less expensive than those at larger plants.” It also is expected to be cheaper to construct because they could be built in a central location and shipped, rather than being erected on site.

These differences are supposed to result in greater safety and less cost, allowing the new reactors to be commercially competitive with natural gas.

The problem with this thinking, however, is that it ignores the environmental cost of nuclear power, which goes well beyond the safety concerns and difficulty of finding places to dispose of nuclear waste. The costs include the same kind of invasive actions that accompany the drilling for petroleum and natural gas.

A recent Pro Publica report underscores the potential danger. As Abraham Lustgarten explained in his Dec. 26 story, uranium mining in Wyoming is having a huge impact on potential water supplies there, creating a conflict between state and federal environmental agencies that “could have far-reaching implications, setting a precedent for similar battles sparked by the resurgence of uranium mining in Texas, South Dakota, New Mexico and elsewhere,” Lustgarten writes.

Rancher John Christensen leased access to drillers on his property, with “more than 200,000 gallons of toxic and radioactive waste from uranium mining” being injected into the aquifer below the rancher’s property.

The injection wells are part of a 25-year-old aquifer exemption agreement between the EPA and state officials, Pro Publica reports. “Over the last three decades, the agency has issued more than 1,500 such exemptions nationwide, allowing energy and mining companies to pollute portions of at least 100 drinking water aquifers.”

The exemption was supposed to allow for the production of more energy and was not expected to affect drinking water supplies because the depth of the aquifer was supposed to make it unlikely that the water would be used, until “shifting science and a changing climate … upended these assumptions.”

The drought that left the West dry and brittle for much of the growing season this year makes it clear that water is as valuable a commodity as fuel and that alternative energy sources that degrades water quality should be off the table.

The current vogue for natural gas and nuclear power is just part of our larger misguided approach to energy, which has us more concerned with cost and independence from foreign fuel than with the impact that our energy addiction is having on the planet.

Nearly every alternative that we have come up with has its drawbacks – wind is limited in potential scope and is aesthetically problematic and can be a danger to birds; hybrid vehicles use batteries that require the same kind of mining, but on a smaller scale, that nuclear and natural gas require.

Our first approach, therefore, should not be the discovery of new sources. Rather, we should be looking for ways to limit our energy footprint. This will entail a return to local economies – buying locally produced foods, redesigning communities to limit commutes – and doing what we can to make sure that our energy use is as efficient as possible.

Hank Kalet is a poet and freelance writer in New Jersey. He covers issues of economic need for NJ Spotlight. Email

From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2013

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