It Ain’t Sustainable – Part 1

When we think of being healthy, most of us understand that we need to eat well and exercise.  We also understand that we need to stop doing things that are unhealthy, like smoking and eating fast food.  It is the same with sustainability; by eliminating things we do that are not sustainable, we can approach a more sustainable life that will ensure a future for our children and the generations that follow.  By definition, things that are not sustainable are things that simply cannot go on much longer.  They do not make sense economically or ecologically.

We constantly do things as Americans that are not sustainable.  When I say as Americans, I mean us, collectively.  Americans use 25% of the world’s resources yet we are only 6% of the population.  We are the equivalent of someone that is obese and still consumes 4 times the amount of food we actually need.   Many of us do things individually to feel more responsible like recycling bottles and cans, or replacing our light bulbs with more efficient ones.  Yet, we are losing the fight to stop pollution and the irresponsible use of fossil fuels that will eventually destroy much of the life on Earth.

My goal here is to raise awareness about major facets of American life that are not sustainable, are directly harmful to the planet, and could be eliminated if we had the political will to tackle the problems.  The space here is far too small to address all these problems.  So, in this column, I want to focus on Nuclear Energy.  “What!?” some of you are exclaiming, but nuclear energy is being touted as an answer to our energy problems, a clean panacea for our climate change woes.  For those of you that have been led to believe that, I have one word, FUKUSHIMA.  You might argue that the ongoing disaster was caused by a huge earthquake and massive tsunami; and you would be right.  Unfortunately, that does not change the fact that we have over 100 nuclear reactors that are built to the similar specifications; and 23 of them are the exact same GE-designed Mark I reactors that have melted down in Japan.  Most of these reactors are outdated and in need of trillions of dollars of work to bring them up to par.  Many of them are built near fault lines and on the ocean like those at Fukushima.

Besides outmoded technology, worn and corroded hardware and bad design flaws, all these reactors have something else that represents a present and growing danger most people are not aware of, spent fuel rods.   According to the Institute for Policy Studies as of May 2011:

“U.S. reactors have generated about 65,000 metric tons of spent fuel, of which 75 percent is stored in pools …  Spent fuel rods give off about 1 million rems of radiation per hour at a distance of one foot — enough radiation to kill people in a matter of seconds. There are more than 30 million such rods in U.S. spent fuel pools.  No other nation has generated this much radioactivity from either nuclear power or nuclear weapons production.”

“For nearly 30 years, Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) waste-storage requirements have remained contingent on the opening of a permanent waste repository that has yet to materialize. Now that the Obama administration has cancelled plans to build a permanent, deep disposal site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, spent fuel at the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors will continue to accumulate and are likely [to]remain onsite for decades to come.”

Many of our reactors contain more spent fuel than the Fukushima complex.  Most of the pools were not designed to be permanent.  Many reactors are storing 3 or 4 times the spent fuel they were designed to hold.  Over 66 incidents of significant loss of spent fuel cooling water has occurred over the last 30 years.  We generate over 2,000 metric tons of nuclear waste a year.  A major “accident” or terrorist attack could render large areas of our country uninhabitable.

I hope readers are starting to understand the risks involved with nuclear power and the challenges these power plants are creating for Americans.  Most of what I have presented here addresses the general threats that nuclear power presents to us.  As in most cases, the “devil is in the details.”  I will present more details in “It Aint Sustainable – Part 2”.  Until then, give it some thought.

Doug Bennett is local talk show host on KKRN, 88.5 FM; community organizer; and retired general contractor.

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