BY NIELS S. NOKKENTVED - Idaho Statesman
Published: 07/14/09An Eagle-based company wants to build a 1,600-megawatt nuclear power plant in Elmore County.
The U.S. Congress is considering a bill that proposes the nation build 100 new nuclear power reactors over the next 20 years.
Idaho Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson has embraced nuclear power, and like others, promotes it as cheap and clean. They argue also that nuclear energy emits no greenhouse gases. But it is unclear which part of the nuclear energy cycle they're referring to. Nuclear power is neither cheap nor clean.
The two main reasons no new power plants have been built in the United States since the late 1970s are the high cost of construction and the uncertainty of the regulatory approval process. Only federal subsidies make nuclear power "cheap."
The nuclear fuel cycle starts with mining, which relies on trains, trucks and heavy equipment that run on diesel fuel. Refining the ore and turning it into nuclear fuel creates large amounts of radioactive and toxic tailings and waste. Uranium, for example, gives off radioactive radon gas, the second leading cause of lung cancer in this country.
And operating a nuclear power plant requires an outside source of electric power. Reactors emit small amounts of radiation and heat in the form of steam or hot water, and they produce waste for which we have no disposal solution.
Uranium mining and milling have a sordid history in the West. In the Southwest, Navajo homes once were built of radioactive mine tailings, and their land is riddled with more than 1,000 abandoned mines. Mining companies hired local residents to work at low wages without telling them of the health risks. When the ore played out, some companies simply walked away.
In one example, Uranium Reduction Co. began processing ore from the Moab area's rich uranium ore deposits in the 1950s. In 1962, the company sold the mill to Atlas Minerals Corp., which ran it until declaring bankruptcy in 1998. The federal government took over the site in 2001.
Today a 94-foot tall pile of radioactive and toxic mill tailings covers 130 acres and holds 12 million tons of radioactive waste - about 750 feet from the third largest river in the West, three miles from Moab, less than a mile from Arches National Park and across the mouth of Moab Wash.
The unlined pile leaks an average of 57,000 gallons per day into the Colorado River upstream of Lake Mead, which supplies drinking and irrigation water to southern California, Las Vegas and parts of Arizona. Similar piles at 38 mill sites in the West - 22 of them abandoned - hold 140 million tons of radioactive tailings.
The story doesn't end with refining the ore. Producing reactor fuel involves a process that concentrates one form, or isotope, of uranium that can sustain a nuclear reaction. The leftovers, known as "depleted uranium," remain radioactive. About 750,000 tons of depleted uranium already awaits disposal. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently issued warnings about disposing of large amounts of this material as "low level" waste - the current proposed practice.
Most industry supporters - who claim nuclear power produces no greenhouse gases - want to ship spent fuel from power plants, mainly in the eastern part of the country, by diesel-powered trains to a proposed waste disposal facility in Jackass Flats, Nev. - a site known as Yucca Mountain.
Niels S. Nokkentved has degrees in journalism and environmental studies and has worked as natural resource reporter for 20 years, including more than 12 years of covering nuclear waste issues at the Idaho National Laboratory.