Friday, June 9, 2006

Is nuclear energy clean?

The topic of nuclear power came up in an email discussion last night. Here's how I responded:

Contrary to the industry mythology, nuclear energy is not anywhere approaching clean.

There is a lot of fossil-fuel based energy used in everything from building the plants and mining the various materials involved, to shipping supply materials and waste around and moving workers around to support the plants.

Leaving that aside, there's a tremendous amount of environmental destruction in the wastelands created by uranium mining, and wider areas of impact due to water flows and airborne effluents. Then there's the pollution of water systems and air by the nuclear processes at the plants.

There's also tremendous waste and inefficiencies from the building of mega-projects like nuclear plants. One of those inefficiencies that results in a lot of waste is that the plants are kept far away from the major centres that use their generated electricity. So a massive infrastructure for electricity distribution has to be maintained, and a lot of the electricity is lost in the transport.

It's true that the nuclear process itself does not produce the pollutants associated with "global warming", but that does not mean it is not having a negative environmental impact.

Then there's the myth of "cheap" energy. I was listening to a report that said the last nuclear plant built in Ontario went from initial projected costs of about $3 billion to over $18 billion. That's just the cost overruns in building it - nevermind the debt build-up from running it. All energy bills in Ontario come with an added tariff that is specifically for paying down a little of the nuclear debt in that province.

That's not even accounting for the costs associated with the eventual decommission of reactors, and long-term management of the wastes.

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