Safety notions to affect Utah's nuclear future

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 16 2008 12:00 a.m. MST

Editor's note: Last in a a four-day Deseret Morning News series examining Utah's energy future.

Whether nuclear power plants are ever built in Utah may depend on perceptions about their safety.

Nuclear power "now generates as much global electricity" as was produced by all sources 50 years ago, according to the World Nuclear Association, an industry group based in London. Nearly 440 nuclear reactors are at work around the world, and 15 countries rely on nuclear power for at least a quarter of their electrical needs.

"In Europe and Japan, the nuclear share of electricity is over 30 percent," the group notes. In fact, the association says the French depend on nuclear power for more than 75 percent of their electrical needs.

But in the U.S., it's only about 20 percent.

According to the federal Energy Information Administration, as of October 2005, 104 nuclear plants were operating in the U.S. Last year the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said utilities notified commissioners they intended to build about 24 new plants.

Why aren't more plants operating in this country?

Starting with Marie Curie's 1934 death from leukemia caused by radioactive material, the list of nuclear injury is a long one: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, above-ground bomb tests and underground tests that accidentally vented radiation, cancer among uranium miners and mill workers, Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl.

List of concerns

Invisible but deadly radiation generates fears about a nuclear power plant in one's back yard. On the other hand, one might expect that important policy matters, such as the recent proposal to build two nuclear power plant units somewhere in eastern Utah, would not be dismissed out of hand.

Yet fierce opposition to nuclear power is the position of many environmental groups.

Last April the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund issued an alarming report about global warming titled "The Carbon Boom: State and National Trends in Carbon Dioxide Emissions Since 1990."

Carbon dioxide is the greenhouse gas most blamed for global warming. The report concludes that CO2 pollution in the U.S. rose by 18 percent between 1990 and 2004 and that electrical power plants, particularly those burning coal, were responsible for 55 percent of the emissions increase.

"The Carbon Boom" calls for the federal government to "require steep cuts in carbon dioxide emissions." But it makes no mention of nuclear power plants, even though they generate electricity without emitting carbon dioxide.

"Our organizational view is that we do not think that nuclear power should be part of the solution to global warming," said Nathan Willcox, energy and clean air advocate for Environment America. (The group, based in Washington, D.C., was formed when U.S. PIRG divided itself into two sub-organizations.)

"If you look at all the technologies that are out there ... nuclear power is the most expensive and most dangerous way of cutting global warming pollution," he said. "It's no secret that the nuclear industry would not be afloat today if it was not for huge government subsidies."

However, Congress often subsidizes projects of facilities that it considers valuable.

Chernobyl figures vary

Greenpeace, often the spearhead of environmental activism, contends that nuclear power is unacceptable on safety grounds. "The Chernobyl accident, in the Ukraine, contaminated an area larger than 120,000 square kilometers (about 46,300 square miles) and contamination was even found as far as Lapland and Scotland," says a Greenpeace booklet with the blunt title "Nuclear Power Is Not The Answer to Climate Change."

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