EARTHWORKS

While Japan struggles to avert catastrophe, don't forget nuclear power's hidden costs

Alan Septoff's avatar
By Alan Septoff

March 22, 2011

Given recent events in Japan, it's impossible to remain ignorant of the potential catastrophe associated with nuclear power.

And many have rushed to condemn nuclear power because of the public health and safety risks associated with a catastrophe.

What's been almost lost in this rush:  the less obvious costs of nuclear power.  Costs that, in a truly free market, the nuclear power industry not the public would cover. 

Instead these hidden costs which in some cases are potentially so high as to be incalculable -- are borne by taxpayers, communities and the environment.

Most directly connected to the situation in Japan: private insurers will not cover nuclear power plants.  One catastrophe, and the costs could wipe out an insurance company and its reinsurer.

Unfortunately, rather than allow nuclear power to be priced out of the market as too risky and too expensive, the U.S. government has stepped in with the Price Anderson act. Essentially, Price Anderson makes U.S taxpayers the insurers of the 104 nuclear power plants around the country. Taxpayers for Common Sense recently wrote on the subject in their March 18, 2011 newsletter:

"The nuclear industry is one of the most heavily subsidized energy sectors and has been since its development in the 1940s. One practically incalculable subsidy is the Price Anderson Act, which is the federal assumption of liability in the event of a catastrophic accident."

Less obviously connected to the unfortunate situation in Japan, there is another reason we should be skeptical of nuclear power even where no catastrophic tragedy occurs. Instead it's a slow motion public health and environmental tragedy: the irresponsible mining of uranium to fuel nuclear plants.

Under past and current law, uranium mining has polluted communities, groundwater and surface water. A generation of Navajo still awaits compensation for lives cut short from mining uranium unaware of the risks. And in the late 1990s, the EPA and Army Corp of Engineers sampled water sources which serve approximately 30% of the Navajo Nation. They found that 17% of the 226 surveyed water sources had elevated radionuclides.

With respect to uranium miner safety, we appear to have learned a lesson. But with respect to the risks to the environment and clean water, we have not. At least not yet.

Despite the fact that uranium mining generates thousands of tons of toxic waste, the U.S. government is starting the permitting process for new uranium mines within a stone's throw of the Grand Canyon. And despite the fact that no "in situ leach mine has ever operated without polluting groundwater, new in-situ leach uranium mines are being permitted as well.

Fortunately, as part of President Obama's budget, he has proposed reforming the laws that govern uranium (and other hardrock) mining. If these reforms are enacted, land managers will be able to prevent new mines where they would impact sensitive resources like drinking water or landmarks like the Grand Canyon. Additionally, mining companies would pay a fair return to taxpayers so that past irresponsible mining could be cleaned up where the original polluter cannot be found.

Let's hope that next year, President Obama moves to eliminate the Price Anderson insurance subsidy too -- as he has for oil subsidies.

If we are to subsidize energy, let it be for a truly clean energy economy based on conservation and renewables not the expensive and discredited dirty energy sources of the past.

Tagged with: uranium, price anderson, nuclear power, mining

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