Pick your poison


Thursday, February 1
As a co-founder of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore was once a bitter foe of nuclear energy.

Now, as chairman of Greenspirit Industries and a consultant to the Vermont Energy Partnership, he supports nuclear energy as one way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Why the change of heart? Because he believes the dangers from global warming and climate change outweigh any potential dangers from nuclear energy.

At least in Windham County, it's a controversial idea. For the people who want to see Vermont Yankee shut down in 2012 when its current license expires, nuclear energy has no redeeming environmental values.

One can argue that the Vermont Energy Partnership, a corporate-backed group that supports the continued operation of Vermont Yankee, may be paying Moore to serve as a "greenwasher," someone hired to make a dirty and dangerous technology seem clean and environmentally friendly.

But Moore can't be dismissed that easily. In a visit to the Reformer on Wednesday, he brought up many good points about why nuclear energy should still be part of Vermont's energy mix.

To Moore, Vermont is a success story because it has the lowest per capita carbon dioxide emissions of any state in the country, mainly because two-thirds of Vermont's electricity comes from Vermont Yankee and Hydro-Quebec's hydroelectric facilities.

While increased use of wind, solar, hydro and biomass for producing electricity is important, Moore also believes none of these sources can provide the base load power that Vermont Yankee generates.

Some tout natural gas as a clean source of energy, but Moore said that utilities companies have so many gas-fired plants that existing stocks of natural gas in North America can't supply them all. That's why we're seeing proposals for liquified natural gas (LNG) terminals off the New England coast -- because we're now having to import natural gas from overseas.

Coal isn't feasible, he said, because utility companies are finding out that the technologies to burn coal more cleanly cost more than the power plants themselves. Given the pollution from coal-burning power plants and the health and environmental damage that comes from mining coal, it is simply not an option.

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Moore maintains nuclear energy is safe and clean, compared to burning fossil fuels and that the biggest objection to nuclear power, the highly radioactive waste it produces, can be turned into a power source through the reprocessing of spent fuel.

Fuel reprocessing, something that other nations have been doing for years, has been at a standstill since the 1970s, when the federal government -- out of fears of nuclear weapons proliferation -- banned it in the United States. Since then, the waste has been piling up at nuclear plants around the country.

Certainly, if the waste could be safely recycled, it would go a long way toward reducing the piles of radioactive material accumulating at nuclear plants. It might be easier said than done though, given the massive resistance to anything involving nuclear energy.

Moore doesn't discount the importance of energy efficiency and conservation or the use of alternative fuels. Both are important in reducing greenhouse emissions. But he believes nuclear power should not be automatically taken off the table, for it is the least worst source of electricity generation.

It is true that compared to coal-burning plants, nuclear energy looks good. But we are still dealing with energy production from one of the deadliest materials known to man and the waste generated in the production of nuclear fuel is considerable.

There are 265 million tons of uranium tailings, the discarded material from the mining process, piled up in the southwestern United States -- mostly on Navajo and Pueblo tribal lands. It's estimated that one in five tribal members recruited to mine uranium ore are dead or dying from cancer.

Then there is uranium-238, also known as depleted uranium, a discarded nuclear plant byproduct, stored in thousands of leaking barrels in former government enrichment facilities such as Oak Ridge, Tenn., Paducah, Ky., Portsmouth, Ohio, and Hanford, Wash. -- places where the groundwater is too contaminated to drink.

Moore admits that most of this waste was generated by the military during the Cold War, when the United States was going all out to produce nuclear weapons and didn't care about health or environmental impacts. The civilian nuclear industry has been more responsible and safety conscious, but just because a deadly accident hasn't happened at an American nuclear plant doesn't mean that it will never happen.

The debate over the relative risks of burning fossil fuels versus nuclear fission to generate electricity isn't a clean-cut debate. "Pick your poison" might sound glib, but that's pretty much at the core of the debate. Add all the geopolitical and environmental dilemmas, and it's even tougher to choose.

The hurdles of safety and security are considerable for nuclear power; as considerable as the hurdles of cost efficiency for wind and solar power and the difficulty of burning fossil fuels cleanly. But the argument still comes down to the fact that climate change is here, it's happening and it needs to be dealt with to ensure our continued existence on this planet. That's why we need to weigh every option.

We may need nuclear power in the near term, but in the long term, we need something else that's cleaner, safer and less harmful. That is where we should be going.


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