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."

Referring to the Chernobyl reactor accident of 1986, the worst on record, it continues, "The precise death toll will never be known, but may be more than 100,000, with millions of lives crippled. Chernobyl's economic impacts are estimated to be in the order of hundreds of billions in U.S. dollars."

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission estimate of Chernobyl's death count is dramatically smaller. "Thirty-one people died in the Chernobyl accident and its immediate aftermath, most in fighting the fires that ensued.... Delayed health effects could be extensive, but estimates vary," says a commission fact sheet.

An exclusion zone around the plant, about 19 miles across, is closed to all except those with authorized access, it adds.

In 2005, the Chernobyl Forum, which included 18 United Nations agencies, released a report on consequences of the accident. The World Health Organization summarized the findings: "A total of up to 4,000 people could eventually die of radiation exposure."

Dr. Burton Bennett, chairman of the forum, is quoted by the group as saying, "This was a very serious accident with major health consequences, especially for thousands of workers exposed in the early days who received very high radiation doses, and for the thousands more stricken with thyroid cancer.

"By and large, however, we have no profound negative health impacts to the rest of the population in surrounding areas, nor have we found widespread contamination that would continue to pose a substantial threat to human health, with a few exceptional, restricted areas."

Another NRC pamphlet, "Answers to Questions" about nuclear power, notes that 100,000 people were evacuated from the area around Chernobyl following the accident.

"Multiple operator errors, combined with the Chernobyl reactor design, allowed a large amount of radioactivity to escape into the environment," according to the pamphlet. It says the reactor's design was unique to those used in the Soviet Union.

"It had no containment structure to prevent radioactivity from escaping. The Chernobyl plant also had other design flaws. In addition, operators performing experiments made a series of crucial mistakes that caused an uncontrollable reaction."

According to the NRC, a plant such as Chernobyl could not be licensed to operate in the U.S. The NRC requires that U.S. reactors have sturdy reactor containment buildings. Such a feature probably prevented serious release of radiation during the Three-Mile Island accident of 1979, which melted part of the reactor core.

Terror risk small

In 2003, responding to the terror attack on the World Trade Center, the Electric Power Research Institute said that if a terrorist attack damaged a reactor's core, "the consequences to the public are not likely to be severe." It says that "even for extreme types of scenarios" the plant's containment features would prevent a significant fraction of the radiation from escaping. Also, "core damage tends to occur over several hours or a longer period, thus allowing time for emergency response measures to be taken." Longer-term recovery from the accident is likely, it says.

Coal mining claimed the lives of 399 workers in America since the beginning of 1996, including 24 in Utah, according to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. Nine died in the Crandall Canyon disasters last year.

Matthew Faraci, public affairs officer for MSHA, said that since 1986, uranium mining-related fatalities in the U.S. totaled nine people. One of the deaths occurred at White Mesa Mill south of Blanding.

In the early days of digging uranium for nuclear bombs, shockingly unsafe conditions resulted in hundreds of deaths, especially in the Four Corner states, according to Raye C. Ringholz, writing in the Utah History Encyclopedia.

Navajo miners were hit with devastating cancers. Campaigns on their behalf prompted Congress to pass a compensation law in 1990. Strong regulations, requiring radiation monitors, now are in place.

Also in the past, careless disposal practices left towering piles of uranium mill waste, such as the vast tailings pile beside the Colorado River near Moab. More recently, regulations were tightened on disposal of waste and the federal government is cleaning up or overseeing the cleanup of waste sites.

The U.S. Department of Energy is moving the Moab waste — amounting to about 16 million tons of radioactive tailings at an overall cost recently estimated as at least $500 million — to a safe disposal site 30 miles north, near Crescent Junction, Grand County. A congressional deadline for the project's end is 2019.

Tailings produced in Utah by the state's only active mill, White Mesa, are regulated by state rules, said Dane Finerfrock, director of the Utah Division of Radiation Control.

Strong safety rules

The division has many safety rules that apply to the mill, including controls on radiation exposure and groundwater protection. "We have inspectors who perform inspections at the mill site," Finerfrock said.

Spent fuel rods, also a product of nuclear reactor technology, are stored in immense casks at the power plants that produced them. Proposals to temporarily store many in Tooele County were rejected by the Interior Department in 2006.

Also, a federal project to build a long-term repository for fuel rods at Yucca Mountain, Nev., seems stalled.

Meanwhile, spent fuel rods continue to accumulate at power plants. What would happen to spent fuel rods from a nuclear plant in Utah?

Transition Power Development plans to build two nuclear units, generating 3,000 megawatts of electricity, somewhere in eastern Utah. It has acquired options on water the units would need, and the cost of the plant's two units would be about $3 billion.

In an October interview, Rep. Aaron Tilton, R-Springville, one of the project's principals, predicted that eventually America will reprocess its spent fuel. But if his plant comes online, there won't be any spent fuel to process for 30 or 40 years, he said. By then, reprocessing may be a reality.

Reprocessing technology is well advanced in some foreign countries. World Nuclear Association estimates that France, England, India, Russia and Japan have the capacity to reprocess 5,500 tons yearly for civilian uses.

Most of the separated uranium remains in storage although its conversion and enrichment has been demonstrated, it adds, "along with its reuse in fresh fuel."

The U.S. halted reprocessing research three decades ago because of concerns about nuclear proliferation. Lately, the federal government has been taking another look at the technology.

Most dangerous?

Which is more dangerous, nuclear power or coal power?

Max W. Carbon, professor emeritus of nuclear engineering at the University of Wisconsin, contends that nuclear power has a phenomenally good safety record.

Since the "n-generation" began about 1960, he said, "we have had less than 50 known deaths related to nuclear power." By comparison, direct coal-mining deaths in a little more than a decade number nearly 400.

Carbon said the overall hazards of coal power generation are far worse than the danger from coal mining.

The Energy Information Administration reported that in 1990, American coal-burning power plants emitted 1.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide; in 2003, the figure was 1.9 billion tons.

Air pollution from coal-burning power plants is a deadly scourge, according to Dr. Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.

"The nationwide network of coal plants, which I think is in the neighborhood of 600 or 700, put out a total volume of air pollution that ... has been calculated to cause approximately 22,000 to 26,000 premature deaths every year," he said.

On average, he said, one coal plant causes 30 to 50 premature deaths yearly.

The most significant pollutants from coal-burning plants are sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide compounds and particulates.

Nitrogen oxides and volatile chemicals combine to form ozone, he added. In the summer, nitrogen oxides contribute to ozone, a special concern that time of the year. In the winter, nitrogen oxides contribute to particulates, a main air pollution concern then. "The nitrogen oxide compounds kind of serve as a double-whammy," Moench said.

In 2003, a power outage temporarily shut down 100 coal-burning power plants in the Midwest. Researchers had the presence of mind to measure air pollution hundreds of miles downwind from the plants.

Sulfur dioxide pollution had decreased about 90 percent within 24 hours. Particulates were down 70 percent, and ozone had decreased about 50 percent, Moench said.

Meanwhile, as emissions of carbon dioxide continue to heat up the Earth's atmosphere, Moench said "we're seeing migration of tropical disease further north." Mosquitos, a major disease vector, are living in more northerly and higher locations because the newly warmer areas can support them. Mosquitoes carry diseases as they migrate.

Within the past few years, Salt Lake City had its first case of West Nile virus, Moench said. "That wouldn't have happened before."

E-mail: bau@desnews.com