Obama's uranium power plan will set US back thirty years
A call for a new Peoples' Movement against nuclear folly
Barack Obama is shedding another of his earlier radical cloaks as his administration shells out US$8.3 billion towards uranium-fuelled power, misrepresenting it as free of greenhouse gas emissions.
At least one big coal company, Southern, has welcomed his announcement. This follows a similar lead to its confrere Duke Energy which, earlier this month, lent support to Obama's precarious carbon capture, storage, and trading game plan. See:
Comment by Nostromo Research: No nuclear utility has been constructed in the USA since the Three Mile Island power plant in Pennsylvania sustained a partial "core meltdown" in 1979. Nonetheless, around 50 plants, then under construction, were allowed to complete.
Just seven years later, a much worse disaster at the Tchernobyl reactor in Ukraine galvanised public opinion in many countries against nuclear power. As a partial consequence of these two events (and the collapse of the USSR itself in 1991) demand for uranium plummeted in 1992. The "yellowcake" (U308) selling price fell below the cost of production; mines were mothballed or producers cut back their output, simply fulfilling existing contracts.
By 2001, the uranium market looked all but dead. Over the past four years, however, established uranium companies have revived a number of projects, or expanded existing ones. There's also been a significant growth in the fortunes of junior uranium exploration companies from Canada, the US and the UK. The renewed activity has been spurred primarily by a carefully-cultivated mis-perception that nuclear power is "clean" and the plants delivering it will be "economic" to build and run (thanks to technical improvements in fuel separation and burning).
Even if such were true, there is no practical way that nuclear power could swiftly "fill the gap" between projected electrical demand and current energy output in many countries (especially African states, where the new exploration boom is at its height).
No one knows how to reduce the 15-20 year lead time required between planning and opening of the plants, without dangerously compromising their operating standards, thus risking "new Tchernobyls". Just last November, more than 200 workers, re-furbishing a closed nuclear reactor in Canada, reportedly suffered from a massive uncontrolled, release of alpha radiation - the most damaging of the three types. (See article below).
Meanwhile, the best-prepared plans of mines and men are dismally failing to address the legacy of millions of tonnes of existing radioactive uranium wastes - such as those in Kazakhstan and in the US itself. See:
Although Tchernobyl has become a byword for nuclear disaster, few people now seem to remember the lessons thrown up by what occurred three decades ago at Three Mile Island . The plant had been advertised by its manufacturers, Babcock and Wilcox, as virtually fault-proof - something the Ukrainian plant manifestly wasn't from the outset.
The sudden, involuntary, release of 13 million curies of radioactive gases was officially said not to have contributed to contraction of any human cancers. Nonetheless, that claim has been disputed.
Another nuclear history - the Peoples own
But Three Mile Island should go down in a different history, too: one more closely related to recent community struggles against uranium in Canada, Namibia, Malawi, Australia and Ireland - to name just a few countries.
In 1980, as a result of what happened in Pennsylvania the year before, an alliance on Native Americans, environmentalists and farmers convened a "Survival Gathering" on Lakota land in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
The week-long gathering was attended by some 10,000 people from all over the earth. Their prime, though not only, goal was to combat threats posed by uranium mining and nuclear companies (notably Rio Tinto and Union Carbide), not only to the sacred Black Hills (Paha Sapa) but elsewhere too. At the time it was by no means certain that the nuclear industry would be significantly beaten back for long.
This event (replicated on a much smaller scale since in Wisconsin) led directly to the founding of People Against Rio Tinto (Partizans). It also stimulated formation of an alliance which organised the historic World Uranium Hearing in Salzburg in 1992 - although by then the industry once again appeared to be in the doldrums.
Eighteen years later, and the need to mount a similar event seems as compelling as it was the last time the nuclear gorgon began raising its various ugly heads.
Obama Steps Up Nuclear Investment
17 February 2010
WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama announced $8.3 billion in loan guarantees on Tuesday to build the first U.S. nuclear power plant in nearly three decades in a move designed to help advance climate legislation in Congress.
Obama, a Democrat who is trying to win Republican support for a bill to overhaul U.S. energy practices, said the United States needed to increase its supply of nuclear power to meet its energy needs and fight climate change.
The government backing, in the form of a loan guarantee, will go to help Southern Co. build two reactors at a plant in Georgia state.
"Even though we've not broken ground on a ... new nuclear power plant in 30 years, nuclear energy remains our largest source of fuel that produces no carbon emissions," Obama said after touring a union education center in Lanham, Maryland.
"To meet our growing energy needs and prevent the worst consequences of climate change, we'll need to increase our supply of nuclear power. It's that simple," he said.
Obama is pushing for a law that would cap greenhouse gas emissions from industry and expand the use of renewable fuel sources such as wind and solar.
The administration hopes that by reaching out to Republicans on the nuclear issue -- a top priority for key opposition lawmakers such as former presidential candidate John McCain -- support for the stalled bill will grow.
That hope may not come to fruition.
Republicans are eager to expand nuclear power and offshore drilling but are resistant to Obama's proposal for a greenhouse gas emissions trading system similar to the European Union's.
Obama said the climate bill, which contains a cap-and-trade system, would help create incentives for cleaner fuels such as nuclear. He said his administration would work to develop what he saw as common ground on the bill with Republicans.
"We're not going to achieve a big boost in nuclear capacity unless we also create a system of incentives to make clean energy profitable," Obama said.
"As long as producing carbon pollution carries no cost, traditional plants that use fossil fuels will be more cost-effective than plants that use nuclear fuel."
EPA FIGHT, BOOST FOR SOUTHERN
Obama's Democrats and opposition Republicans are at odds over several aspects of how to fight climate change.
U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska is spearheading legislation that would prevent the Environmental Protection Agency having the power to regulate greenhouse gases -- an option Obama is preserving if Congress does not act.
As well some entities, such as Texas, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Iron and Steel Institute, are initiating legal challenges to stop the EPA from acting unilaterally on greenhouse emissions.
Carol Browner, the president's top energy and climate advisor, said the White House would oppose any move to limit the EPA's regulatory authority.
"We will work against that. We do not want to see that passed," she told Reuters Insider in an interview.
Expanding nuclear energy is one area Obama and Republicans have embraced as a way to generate power and create jobs.
Atlanta-based Southern, a leading U.S. producer of electricity, welcomed the nuclear announcement. Its shares rose 1.6 percent. The administration said the project would generate 3,500 construction jobs and 800 permanent positions once the reactors go into operation.
"It's an important endorsement in the role nuclear power must play in diversifying our nation's energy mix and helping to curb greenhouse gas emissions," Southern Chief Executive David Ratcliffe said in a statement.
Supporters of nuclear power argue more reactors will be needed for the United States to tackle global warming effectively because nuclear is a much cleaner energy source than coal-fired power plants, which spew greenhouse gases.
Nuclear power is controversial, however, because of its radioactive waste, which is now stored on site at reactor locations around the country. Remembering the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, many Americans still harbor concerns about nuclear power's safety.
Obama said a commission with Republican and Democratic leaders and nuclear experts was examining the waste issue.
The two reactors, which some experts estimate will cost $8.8 billion to build, could be in service in 2016 and 2017.
Southern has one of the largest fleets of coal-fired power plants in the nation and would suffer if Washington were to institute restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions.
U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the department plans to offer loan guarantees to at least half a dozen projects but declined to lay out a timeframe for further announcements.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)
The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission says as many as 217 workers may have been exposed to radioactivity at the Bruce nuclear power station on the shores of Lake Huron while refurbishing a reactor in late November. It is believed to be one of the largest mass exposures to radiation at a Canadian nuclear site.
Nuclear watchdog investigates possible mass radiation exposure
Martin Mittelstaedt Environment Reporter, Globe and Mail
16 February 2010
The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission says as many as 217 workers may have been exposed to radioactivity at the Bruce nuclear power station on the shores of Lake Huron while refurbishing a reactor in late November.
It is believed to be one of the largest mass exposures to radiation at a Canadian nuclear site.
The station operator, Bruce Power, said a preliminary review of the radiation exposure indicates no one received an excessive dose. The company is taking the incident "very seriously," said John Peevers, a Bruce spokesman, while cautioning that "all indications are that there is nothing there approaching the regulatory limit" for radiation.
The CNSC, Canada's nuclear safety watchdog, indicated the estimated number of people who may have been affected in a regulatory filing Tuesday in Ottawa. The incident will be discussed by its commissioners at a meeting Thursday and conditions around the reactor are being monitored by CNSC staff.
The CNSC said the workers were exposed to alpha contamination, a dangerous form of radiation that, if breathed in or ingested, poses a risk of cancer. Preliminary dose calculations indicated that an "action level for inhalation of airborne radioactivity may have been exceeded," the CNSC said.
"Preliminary dose calculations were conservatively interpreted as a potential indication that an action level for inhalation of airborne radioactivity may have been exceeded," the CNSC said.
The CNSC did not provide an explanation of what the "action level" was. But Mr. Peevers said Bruce has an exposure limit stricter than federal regulations, at 80 per cent of the maximum radiation permitted for nuclear employees.
Ottawa allows atomic workers to receive up to 50 millisieverts of radiation per year on the job, an amount 12.5 to 25 times the natural background radiation Canadians are exposed to from such sources as solar radiation, building materials and radioactive elements in soil.
One millisievert is the radiation a person would get from approximately 10 chest X-rays.
The precise number of people exposed is not known. Mr. Peevers said some workers do not appear to have received any extra radiation.
Nuclear critic Shawn-Patrick Stensil of Greenpeace said the CNSC estimate would make the Bruce workers the largest group he is aware of that has ever been exposed to radiation from a power plant in Canada.
Work in the area was stopped until the radiation was cleaned up. The CNSC said all those who may have breathed in the contaminants have been removed from any tasks exposing them to radioactivity until their doses are determined.
All of the contaminants were contained in the station, and there was no danger to the public, nor releases to the environment, according to the CNSC.
Bruce Power is Canada's only private nuclear-station operator. It leases from the Ontario government two generating plants, known as Bruce A and B, which have four reactors apiece. The stations supply about 20 per cent of the province's electricity.
The company is currently refurbishing Bruce A, a $5.25-billion project that is one of the largest construction undertakings in Canada outside of the oilsands. The overhaul includes repairs at two reactors that are already about two years behind schedule.
Alpha radiation suggests the workers came into contact with a leak from a damaged bundle of nuclear fuel.
The reactor where the incident occurred has been mothballed since 1997. Mr. Peevers said the damage happened 30 years ago when Ontario Hydro, a provincially owned utility, operated the plant.