Nukes An Environmental Lesson on McCain's Nuclear Ambitions

John McCain’s energy plan includes the construction of 45 new nuclear power plants by 2030, and 55 more in the future. The Republican presidential candidate also supports the plan to open Yucca Mountain, Nevada, as the permanent facility to store the 57,650 tons of high-level radioactive waste that have accumulated since 1968—enough to cover a football field seven yards deep.

The U.S. has 104 functioning nuclear power plants in 31 states. Uranium mining, required to run the reactors, involves crushing rock and using solvents to remove the radioactive material, leading to soil and water contamination. Byproducts of uranium mining and nuclear power plants include sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide and other volatile organic compounds.

A 2003 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology determined that approximately 1,500 new nuclear reactors would have to be constructed worldwide by mid-century for nuclear power to have any effect on reducing greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere. Data is not accessible for the total industry emissions, but individual mines and power plants must report their air emissions to the Environmental Protection Agency. Following are the emissions for a nuclear generating station, and the allowable emissions for a uranium mine (actual emissions are likely higher than the allowed emissions):

Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station
Tonopah, AZ
Reported emissions:
55.257 tons of nitrogen oxide
0.716 tons of sulfur dioxide
29.262 tons of VOCs (volatile organic compounds)

Denison Mines/ International Uranium
Blanding, UT
Class Code: Potentially uncontrolled emissions, < 100 tons per year
Allowable emissions:
5 tons of carbon monoxide
81 tons of nitrogen dioxide
62 tons of sulfur dioxide
214 tons of total particulate matter

High-level radioactive waste is the spent or used uranium fuel from the plant, and there currently is no long-term method for its disposal. A single nuclear plant produces, on average, 20 tons of radioactive waste annually. The Department of Energy submitted an 8,600-page application to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to open Yucca Mountain as the country’s first repository for high-level radioactive waste. Currently the waste is stored at 121 temporary locations in 39 states.

In the year 2030, with McCain’s proposed plan, the U.S. will have a total of 184 nuclear power plants in operation producing 3,680 metric tons of waste annually. This will bring the total amount of high-level radioactive waste generated to at least 135,000 tons—over twice the amount today.

The construction, maintenance and operation costs of nuclear power plants are difficult to estimate for future projects. The amounts are reported by the National Energy Institute in cents per kilowatt-hour. In 2007, nuclear power plants generated a total of 806,487 million kilowatt-hours of electricity.

Westinghouse Electric Company, LLC has started construction on four AP1000 power plants in China and has signed engineering, procurement and construction contracts with two U.S. utilities for four AP1000s in the U.S. A study by the Institute of Nuclear Power Operators determined that the new technology will require about one-third less staff than currently operating nuclear plants. Westinghouse is also projecting that the new technology will produce less nuclear waste than current plants but does not have hard estimates.