Dear EarthTalk: Nuclear power seems like such a clean and cost-effective alternative to burning fossil fuels. Why are so many environmentalists against it?
—Paul Franklin, Missoula, MT
Unlike fossil fuels, nuclear power spares us the carbon dioxide that promotes global warming and the airborne pollutants that cause respiratory harm. But the technology does have a serious downside: It generates radiation that can cause a host of genetic abnormalities, notably cancer. The lymphatic system, bone marrow, intestinal tract, thyroid and the female breast are most vulnerable to the effects of radiation, especially in children and adolescents.
When most people think of the dangers of nuclear energy they think of the highly publicized accidents that occurred at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 and Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986. Studies have turned up very little environmental damage from the Three Mile Island accident, which was quite minor, compared to Chernobyl. Although casualty figures are in dispute, Ukranian officials blame that accident for at least 4,300 deaths beyond the 30 that occurred during the meltdown and immediately afterwards. And there is little disagreement that the accident caused as much as a 100-fold increase in thyroid cancers among children in the Ukraine and in nearby Russia and Belarus. According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Health, in the Ukraine alone more than 2.32 million people, including 452,000 children, have been treated for radiation-linked illnesses, including thyroid cancers and blood cancers like leukemia.
A nuclear accident, however, does not have to occur for radiation to escape and pose a health threat. The waste from power plant operations is also radioactive, and already the U.S. nuclear industry has left behind a legacy of nearly 100,000 tons of it. Scientists have not yet found a way to store nuclear waste—which stays radioactive for thousands of years—such that they can guarantee it won’t harm people, even when it is buried miles below ground. The nuclear industry and the Bush administration are proposing that Yucca Mountain in Nevada be a central repository for the nation”s nuclear waste, but transporting the waste there from its widely dispersed locations poses even greater concerns for the health of citizens in the areas through which the transporting trucks and barges would pass.
Meanwhile, some environmentalists are advocating for more nuclear energy, but primarily as a stopgap measure to stave off global warming. Among them is noted scientist and author James Lovelock, considered by many to be one of the ideological leaders of the modern environmental movement. Lovelock argues that global warming is happening too fast and that renewable sources of energy like wind and solar are not developing fast enough to reverse that trend. “I don’t see nuclear as the ultimate solution,” he said. “I see it as a kind of medicine, which is an unpleasant medicine in some ways that we have to take while we”re curing ourselves of fossil fuels.”