My Turn: The truth about Seabrook’s footprint

  • Seabrook nuclear power plant in Seabrook is shown in this Dec. 10, 1997, file photo. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 6/23/2016 12:15:23 AM

Based on a very fashionable myth, a recent “My Turn” argued that nuclear power in general, and Seabrook Station in particular, are “good for the state and the environment” (Monitor Opinion, June 13).

The fashionable myth: Nuclear is supposedly “carbon-free energy,” or “zero-carbon electricity.” For years, the media have allowed this purported fact to become entrenched, unquestioned conventional wisdom. It is way-past time to expose “carbon free” nuclear energy as an Inconvenient Lie.

It may be fair to say relatively little carbon is emitted just from nuclear power plants, but to generate electricity, nuclear reactors are just a tiny piece of the whole huge nuclear fuel cycle – a gargantuan nuclear-industrial complex consisting of at least seven separate mega-industries, each spewing its own copious CO2 emissions: 1) uranium ore mining; 2) uranium ore milling; 3) fuel fabrication; 4) fuel enrichment; 5) reactor construction; 6) reactor decommissioning; and 7) eons of nuclear waste “management.” (Not accounting for the impact of transportation between all these processes.)

All competing energy systems – fossil fuels, nuclear or non-hazardous renewables – generate “off site” carbon footprints in their “food chains,” but the basic point nuclear advocates conveniently overlook is that those energy technologies’ climate impacts can be fairly compared only by looking at their whole systems. When that is done, nuclear power’s supposed carbon advantage goes up in smoke.

Many scientifically rigorous studies have quantified and compared nuclear power’s carbon footprint to other technologies’; Van Leeuwen and Smith’s study, for example.

The details can be and are debated, but it is beyond debate that the carbon footprint of the nuclear fuel cycle is at best in the same ballpark (and in many cases much greater) than that of alternative technologies, such as improved efficiency, wind turbines, hydroelectricity, solar photovoltaic, solar-thermal power, biomass, etc.

Dr. Helen Caldicott is widely recognized both as a scientist and nuclear opponent. She may not be neutral, but she succinctly illustrates one fact of nuclear power’s carbon conundrum:

“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.”

That economic reality may be bleak, but remember, fuel enrichment is just one of the seven industries that make up the nuclear fuel cycle.

So without even beginning to consider all the uniquely odious non-carbon health and safety risks by which nuclear power ultimately threatens the viability of life on Earth, it is worth remembering that every time we turn on the switch to “green” Seabrook electricity, we actually are switching on an endless haze of coal pollutants, sooty and noxious in the extreme.

(Rob Blakeney lives in Deering.)




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