Death by Healthy Doses

 

by Walter Brasch

       

They buried Bouldergrass today. The cause of death was listed as “media-induced health.”

Bouldergrass had begun his health crusade more than a decade ago when he began reading more than the sports pages of his local newspaper, subscribed to his first magazine, and decided TV news could be informative if it didn’t mention anything about wars, famines, and poverty.

Based on what he read and saw in the media, Bouldergrass moved from smog-bound Los Angeles to a rural community in scenic green Vermont, gave up alcohol and a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit, and was immediately hospitalized for having too much oxygen in his body.

To burn off some of that oxygen, he joined America’s “beautiful people” on the jogging paths where the media helped him believe he was sweating out the bad karma. In less than a year, the karma left his body which was now coexisting with leg cramps, fallen arches, and several compressed disks. But at least he was as healthy as all the ads told him he could be.

To make sure he didn’t get skin cancer from being in the sun too long, he slathered four pounds of No. 35 sunblock on his body every time he ran, and went to suntan parlors twice a week to get that “healthy glow” advertisers told him he needed. He stopped blocking when he learned that suntan parlors weren’t good for your health, and that the ingredients in the lotions could cause cancer. So, he wore a jogging suit that covered more skin than an Arab woman’s black chador with veil—and developed a severe case of heat exhaustion.

From ultrathin models and billions of dollars in weight-reducing advertising that told him “thin was in,” he began a series of crash diets. When he was down to 107 pounds, advertising told him he needed to “bulk up” to be a “real man.” So, he began lifting weights and playing racquetball three hours a day. Four groin pulls and seven back injuries later, he had just 6 percent body fat, and a revolving charge account with his local orthopedist.

Several years earlier, Bouldergrass had stopped eating veal as part of a protest of America’s inhumane treatment of animals destined for supermarkets. Now, in an “enlightened” age of health, he gave up all meat, not because of mankind’s cruelty to animals, but because the media revealed that vascular surgeons owned stock in meat packing companies. Besides, it was the “healthy” thing to do.

He gave up pasta when he saw a TV report about the microscopic creepy crawlers that infest most dough.

He gave up drinking soda and began drinking juice, until he read a report that said apple juice had higher than normal levels of arsenic.

He ate soup because it was healthy and so Mmm Mmm Good, until he learned that soup had more salt than Lot’s wife. When he found low-salt soup, he again had a cup a day—until last month when he gave it up because a Harvard study revealed that soup cans contained significant amounts of Bisphenol-A-, which can lead to cancer and heart disease.

For a couple of years, lured by a multi-million dollar ad campaign and innumerable articles in the supermarket tabloids, Bouldergrass ate only oat bran muffins for breakfast and a diet of beta carotenes for lunch, until he found himself spending more time in the bathroom than at work. He eliminated the muffins entirely after reading an article that told him eating oatmeal, bran, and hood ornaments from Buick Roadsters were bad for your health.

Bouldergrass gave up milk when he learned that acid rain fell onto pastures and was eaten by cows. When he learned that industrial conglomerates had dumped everything from drinking water to radioactive waste into streams and rivers, he stopped eating fish. For awhile, based upon conflicting reports in the media, he juggled low-calorie, low-fat, and low-carbohydrate diets until his body systems dropped into the low end of inertia.

At the movies, he smuggled in packets of oleo to squeeze onto plain popcorn until he was bombarded by news stories that revealed oleo was as bad as butter and that most theatrical popcorn was worse than an all-day diet of sirloin.

When he learned that coffee and chocolate were unhealthy, he gave up an addiction to getting high from caffeine and sugar, and was now forced to work 12-hour days without any stimulants other than the fear of what his children were doing while he was at work.

Unfortunately, he soon had to give up decaffeinated coffee and sugarless candy with cyclamates since both caused laboratory mice to develop an incurable yen to listen to music from the Grand Funk Railroad.

He gave up pizza when the media reported that certain “health care investigators” claimed pizza was little more than junk food. But, he began eating several slices a day to improve his health when Congress, fattened by lobbyists campaigns, last month declared frozen pizza was a vegetable. He figured it made sense, since three decades earlier the Reagan administration had declared catsup to be a vegetable, and five years ago the Department of Agriculture decided butter-coated french fries were a vegetable.

Left with a diet of fruits and vegetables, he was lean and trim. Until he accidentally stumbled across a protest by an environmental group which complained that the use of pesticides on farm crops was a greater health hazard than the bugs the pesticides were supposed to kill. Even the city’s polluted water couldn’t clean off all the pesticides. That’s also when he stopped taking showers, and merely poured a gallon of distilled water over his head every morning.

For weeks, he survived on buckets of vitamins because the magazines told him that’s what he should do. Then, after reading an article that artificial vitamins shaped like the Flintstones caused dinosaur rot, he also gave them up.

The last time I saw Bouldergrass, he was in a hospital room claiming to see visions of monster genetic tomatoes squishing their way toward him. He was mumbling something about cholesterol and high density lipoproteins. Tubes were sticking out of every opening in his emaciated body, as well as a couple of openings that hadn’t been there when he first checked in.

In one last attempt to regain his health, Bouldergrass enlisted in Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move army. But the only movement he was doing was when the nurses flipped him so he wouldn’t get bed sores.

Shortly before he died, he pulled me near him, asked that I write his obit, and in a throaty whisper begged, “Make sure you tell them that thanks to what I learned from the media, I died healthy.”

[Walter Brasch, a robust figure of health, doesn’t follow anyone’s advice on what is or is not healthy. His latest book is the critically-acclaimed Before the First Snow, a social issues mystery novel. Brasch says the book is a great Christmas or Chanukah gift, and increased sales will improve his own mental, if not physical, health.]

         

 

 

Death by Healthy Doses

 

by Walter Brasch

       

They buried Bouldergrass today. The cause of death was listed as “media-induced health.”

Bouldergrass had begun his health crusade more than a decade ago when he began reading more than the sports pages of his local newspaper, subscribed to his first magazine, and decided TV news could be informative if it didn’t mention anything about wars, famines, and poverty.

Based on what he read and saw in the media, Bouldergrass moved from smog-bound Los Angeles to a rural community in scenic green Vermont, gave up alcohol and a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit, and was immediately hospitalized for having too much oxygen in his body.

To burn off some of that oxygen, he joined America’s “beautiful people” on the jogging paths where the media helped him believe he was sweating out the bad karma. In less than a year, the karma left his body which was now coexisting with leg cramps, fallen arches, and several compressed disks. But at least he was as healthy as all the ads told him he could be.

To make sure he didn’t get skin cancer from being in the sun too long, he slathered four pounds of No. 35 sunblock on his body every time he ran, and went to suntan parlors twice a week to get that “healthy glow” advertisers told him he needed. He stopped blocking when he learned that suntan parlors weren’t good for your health, and that the ingredients in the lotions could cause cancer. So, he wore a jogging suit that covered more skin than an Arab woman’s black chador with veil—and developed a severe case of heat exhaustion.

From ultrathin models and billions of dollars in weight-reducing advertising that told him “thin was in,” he began a series of crash diets. When he was down to 107 pounds, advertising told him he needed to “bulk up” to be a “real man.” So, he began lifting weights and playing racquetball three hours a day. Four groin pulls and seven back injuries later, he had just 6 percent body fat, and a revolving charge account with his local orthopedist.

Several years earlier, Bouldergrass had stopped eating veal as part of a protest of America’s inhumane treatment of animals destined for supermarkets. Now, in an “enlightened” age of health, he gave up all meat, not because of mankind’s cruelty to animals, but because the media revealed that vascular surgeons owned stock in meat packing companies. Besides, it was the “healthy” thing to do.

He gave up pasta when he saw a TV report about the microscopic creepy crawlers that infest most dough.

He gave up drinking soda and began drinking juice, until he read a report that said apple juice had higher than normal levels of arsenic.

He ate soup because it was healthy and so Mmm Mmm Good, until he learned that soup had more salt than Lot’s wife. When he found low-salt soup, he again had a cup a day—until last month when he gave it up because a Harvard study revealed that soup cans contained significant amounts of Bisphenol-A-, which can lead to cancer and heart disease.

For a couple of years, lured by a multi-million dollar ad campaign and innumerable articles in the supermarket tabloids, Bouldergrass ate only oat bran muffins for breakfast and a diet of beta carotenes for lunch, until he found himself spending more time in the bathroom than at work. He eliminated the muffins entirely after reading an article that told him eating oatmeal, bran, and hood ornaments from Buick Roadsters were bad for your health.

Bouldergrass gave up milk when he learned that acid rain fell onto pastures and was eaten by cows. When he learned that industrial conglomerates had dumped everything from drinking water to radioactive waste into streams and rivers, he stopped eating fish. For awhile, based upon conflicting reports in the media, he juggled low-calorie, low-fat, and low-carbohydrate diets until his body systems dropped into the low end of inertia.

At the movies, he smuggled in packets of oleo to squeeze onto plain popcorn until he was bombarded by news stories that revealed oleo was as bad as butter and that most theatrical popcorn was worse than an all-day diet of sirloin.

When he learned that coffee and chocolate were unhealthy, he gave up an addiction to getting high from caffeine and sugar, and was now forced to work 12-hour days without any stimulants other than the fear of what his children were doing while he was at work.

Unfortunately, he soon had to give up decaffeinated coffee and sugarless candy with cyclamates since both caused laboratory mice to develop an incurable yen to listen to music from the Grand Funk Railroad.

He gave up pizza when the media reported that certain “health care investigators” claimed pizza was little more than junk food. But, he began eating several slices a day to improve his health when Congress, fattened by lobbyists campaigns, last month declared frozen pizza was a vegetable. He figured it made sense, since three decades earlier the Reagan administration had declared catsup to be a vegetable, and five years ago the Department of Agriculture decided butter-coated french fries were a vegetable.

Left with a diet of fruits and vegetables, he was lean and trim. Until he accidentally stumbled across a protest by an environmental group which complained that the use of pesticides on farm crops was a greater health hazard than the bugs the pesticides were supposed to kill. Even the city’s polluted water couldn’t clean off all the pesticides. That’s also when he stopped taking showers, and merely poured a gallon of distilled water over his head every morning.

For weeks, he survived on buckets of vitamins because the magazines told him that’s what he should do. Then, after reading an article that artificial vitamins shaped like the Flintstones caused dinosaur rot, he also gave them up.

The last time I saw Bouldergrass, he was in a hospital room claiming to see visions of monster genetic tomatoes squishing their way toward him. He was mumbling something about cholesterol and high density lipoproteins. Tubes were sticking out of every opening in his emaciated body, as well as a couple of openings that hadn’t been there when he first checked in.

In one last attempt to regain his health, Bouldergrass enlisted in Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move army. But the only movement he was doing was when the nurses flipped him so he wouldn’t get bed sores.

Shortly before he died, he pulled me near him, asked that I write his obit, and in a throaty whisper begged, “Make sure you tell them that thanks to what I learned from the media, I died healthy.”

[Walter Brasch, a robust figure of health, doesn’t follow anyone’s advice on what is or is not healthy. His latest book is the critically-acclaimed Before the First Snow, a social issues mystery novel. Brasch says the book is a great Christmas or Chanukah gift, and increased sales will improve his own mental, if not physical, health.]

         

 

 

The High Cost of Freedom from Fossil Fuels

by WALTER BRASCH 

 

For a few hours on the afternoon of Nov. 1, the people of southern California were scared by initial reports of an alert at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. An “alert” is the second of four warning levels.

Workers first detected an ammonia leak in a water purification system about 3 p.m. Ammonia, when mixed into air, is toxic. The 30 gallons of ammonia were caught in a holding tank and posed no health risk, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Agency (NRC).  

During the 1970s and 1980s, at the peak of the nuclear reactor construction, organized groups of protestors mounted dozens of anti-nuke campaigns. They were called Chicken Littles, the establishment media generally ignored their concerns, and the nuclear industry trotted out numerous scientists and engineers from their payrolls to declare nuclear energy to be safe, clean, and inexpensive energy that could reduce America’s dependence upon foreign oil.

Workers at nuclear plants are highly trained, probably far more than workers in any other industry; operating systems are closely regulated and monitored. However, problems caused by human negligence, manufacturing defects, and natural disasters have plagued the nuclear power industry for its six decades.

It isn’t alerts like what happened at San Onofre that are the problem; it’s the level 3 (site area emergencies) and level 4 (general site emergencies) disasters. There have been 99 major disasters, 56 of them in the U.S., since 1952, according to a study conducted by Benjamin K. Sovacool Director of the Energy Justice Program at Institute for Energy and Environment  One-third of all Americans live within 50 miles of a nuclear plant.

At Windscale in northwest England, fire destroyed the core, releasing significant amounts of Iodine-131. At Rocky Flats near Denver, radioactive plutonium and tritium leaked into the environment several times over a two decade period. At Church Rock, New Mexico, more than 90 million gallons of radioactive waste poured into the Rio Puerco, directly affecting the Navajo nation.

In the grounds of central and northeastern Pennsylvania, in addition to the release of radioactive Cesium-137 and Iodine-121, an excessive level of Strontium-90 was released during the Three Mile Island (TMI) meltdown in 1979, the same year as the Church Rock disaster. To keep waste tanks from overflowing with radioactive waste, the plant’s operator dumped several thousand gallons of radioactive waste into the Susquehanna River. An independent study by Dr. Steven Wing of the University of North Carolina revealed the incidence of lung cancer and leukemia downwind of the TMI meltdown within six years of the meltdown was two to ten times that of the rest of the region.

At the Chernobyl meltdown in April 1986, about 50 workers and firefighters died lingering and horrible deaths from radiation poisoning. Because of wind patterns, about 27,000 persons in the northern hemisphere are expected to die of cancer, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. An area of about 18 miles is uninhabitable. The nuclear reactor core is now protected by a crumbling sarcophagus; a replacement is not complete. Even then, the new shield is expected to crumble within a century. The current director at Chernobyl says it could be 20,000 years until the area again becomes habitable.

In March, an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale and the ensuing 50-foot high tsunami wave led to a meltdown of three of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors. Japan’s nuclear regulatory agency reported that 31 radioactive isotopes were released. In contrast, 16 radioactive isotopes were released from the A-bomb that hit Hiroshima Aug. 6, 1945.  The agency also reported that radioactive cesium released was almost 170 times the amount of the A-bomb, and that the release of radioactive Iodine-131 and Strontium-90 was about two to three times the level of the A-bomb. The release into the air, water, and ground included about 60,000 tons of contaminated water. The half lives of Sr-90 and Cs-137 are about 30 years each. Full effects may not be known for at least two generations. Twenty-three nuclear reactors in the U.S. have the same design—and same design flaws—as the Daiichi reactor.

About five months after the Daiichi disaster, the North Anna plant in northeastern Virginia declared an alert, following a 5.8 magnitude earthquake that was felt throughout the mid-Atlantic and lower New England states. The earthquake caused building cracks and spent fuel cells in canisters to shift. The North Anna plant was designed to withstand an earthquake of only 5.9–6.2 on the Richter scale. More than 1.9 million persons live within a 50-mile radius of North Anna, according to 2010 census data.

Although nuclear plant security is designed to protect against significant and extended forms of terrorism, the NRC believes as many as one-fourth of the 104 U.S. nuclear plants may need upgrades to withstand earthquakes and other natural disasters, according to an Associated Press investigation. About 20 percent of the world’s 442 nuclear plants are built in earthquake zones, according to data compiled by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The NRC has determined that the leading U.S. plants in the Eastern Coast in danger of being compromised by an earthquake are in the extended metropolitan areas of Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Chattanooga. Tenn. The highest risk, however, may be California’s San Onofre and Diablo Canyon plants, both built near major fault lines. Diablo Canyon, near San Luis Obispo, was even built by workers who misinterpreted the blueprints.  

Every nuclear spill affects not just those in the immediate evacuation zone but people throughout the world, as prevailing winds can carry air-borne radiation thousands of miles from the source, and the world’s water systems can put radioactive materials into the drinking supply and agriculture systems of most nations. At every nuclear disaster, the governments eventually declare the immediate area safe. But, animals take far longer than humans to return to the area. If they could figure out that radioactivity released into the water, air, and ground are health hazards, certainly humans could also figure it out.  

Following the disaster at Daiichi, Germany announced it was closing its 17 nuclear power plants and would expand development of solar, wind, and geothermal energy sources. About the same time, Siemens abandoned financing and building nuclear power plants, leaving only American-based Westinghouse and General Electric, which own or have constructed about four-fifths of the world’s nuclear plants, and the French-based Areva.

The life of the first nuclear plants was about 30–40 years; the newer plants have a 40–60 year life. After that time, they become so radioactive that the risk of radiation poison outweighs the benefits of continuing the operation. So, the operators seal the plant and abandon it, carefully explaining to the public the myriad safety procedures in place and the federal regulations. The cooling and decommissioning takes 50–100 years until the plant is safe enough for individuals to walk through it without protection. More critical, there still is no safe technology of how to handle spent control rods.

The United States has no plans to abandon nuclear energy. The Obama administration has proposed financial assistance to build the first nuclear plant in three decades, and a $36 billion loan guarantee for the nuclear industry. However, the Congressional Budget Office believes there can be as much as 50 percent default.  Each plant already receives $1–1.3 billion in tax rebates and subsidies. However, in the past three years, plans to build nuclear generators have been abandoned in nine states, mostly because of what the major financiers believe to be a less than desired return on investment and higher than expected construction and maintenance costs.

A Department of Energy analysis revealed the budget for 75 of the first plants was about $45 billion, but cost overruns ran that to $145 billion. The last nuclear power plant completed was the Watts Bar plant in eastern Tennessee. Construction began in 1973 and was completed in 1996. Part of the federal Tennessee Valley Authority, the Watts Bar plant cost about $8 billion to produce 1,170 mw of energy from its only reactor. Work on a second reactor was suspended in 1988 because of a lack of need for additional electricity. However, construction was resumed in 2007, with completion expected in 2013. Cost to complete the reactor, which was about 80 percent complete when work was suspended, is estimated to cost an additional $2.5 billion.

The cost to build new power plants is well over $10 billion each, with a proposed cost of about $14 billion to expand the Vogtle plant near Augusta, Ga. The first two units had cost about $9 billion.

Added to the cost of every plant is decommissioning costs, averaging about $300 million to over $1 billion, depending upon the amount of energy the plant is designed to produce. The nuclear industry proudly points to studies that show the cost to produce energy from nuclear reactors is still less expensive than the costs from coal, gas, and oil. The industry also rightly points out that nukes produce about one-fifth all energy, with no emissions, such as those from the fossil fuels.

For more than six decades, this nation essentially sold its soul for what it thought was cheap energy that may not be so cheap, and clean energy that is not so clean.

It is necessary to ask the critical question. Even if there were no human, design, and manufacturing errors; even if there could be assurance there would be no accidental leaks and spills of radioactivity; even if there became a way to safely and efficiently dispose of long-term radioactive waste; even if all of this was possible, can the nation, struggling in a recession while giving subsidies to the nuclear industry, afford to build more nuclear generating plants at the expense of solar, wind, and geothermal energy?

 

[Walter Brasch’s latest book is Before the First Snow, a fact-based novel that looks at the nuclear industry during its critical building boom in the 1970s and 1980s.]

 

 

The High Cost of Freedom from Fossil Fuels

by WALTER BRASCH 

 

For a few hours on the afternoon of Nov. 1, the people of southern California were scared by initial reports of an alert at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. An “alert” is the second of four warning levels.

Workers first detected an ammonia leak in a water purification system about 3 p.m. Ammonia, when mixed into air, is toxic. The 30 gallons of ammonia were caught in a holding tank and posed no health risk, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Agency (NRC).  

During the 1970s and 1980s, at the peak of the nuclear reactor construction, organized groups of protestors mounted dozens of anti-nuke campaigns. They were called Chicken Littles, the establishment media generally ignored their concerns, and the nuclear industry trotted out numerous scientists and engineers from their payrolls to declare nuclear energy to be safe, clean, and inexpensive energy that could reduce America’s dependence upon foreign oil.

Workers at nuclear plants are highly trained, probably far more than workers in any other industry; operating systems are closely regulated and monitored. However, problems caused by human negligence, manufacturing defects, and natural disasters have plagued the nuclear power industry for its six decades.

It isn’t alerts like what happened at San Onofre that are the problem; it’s the level 3 (site area emergencies) and level 4 (general site emergencies) disasters. There have been 99 major disasters, 56 of them in the U.S., since 1952, according to a study conducted by Benjamin K. Sovacool Director of the Energy Justice Program at Institute for Energy and Environment  One-third of all Americans live within 50 miles of a nuclear plant.

At Windscale in northwest England, fire destroyed the core, releasing significant amounts of Iodine-131. At Rocky Flats near Denver, radioactive plutonium and tritium leaked into the environment several times over a two decade period. At Church Rock, New Mexico, more than 90 million gallons of radioactive waste poured into the Rio Puerco, directly affecting the Navajo nation.

In the grounds of central and northeastern Pennsylvania, in addition to the release of radioactive Cesium-137 and Iodine-121, an excessive level of Strontium-90 was released during the Three Mile Island (TMI) meltdown in 1979, the same year as the Church Rock disaster. To keep waste tanks from overflowing with radioactive waste, the plant’s operator dumped several thousand gallons of radioactive waste into the Susquehanna River. An independent study by Dr. Steven Wing of the University of North Carolina revealed the incidence of lung cancer and leukemia downwind of the TMI meltdown within six years of the meltdown was two to ten times that of the rest of the region.

At the Chernobyl meltdown in April 1986, about 50 workers and firefighters died lingering and horrible deaths from radiation poisoning. Because of wind patterns, about 27,000 persons in the northern hemisphere are expected to die of cancer, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. An area of about 18 miles is uninhabitable. The nuclear reactor core is now protected by a crumbling sarcophagus; a replacement is not complete. Even then, the new shield is expected to crumble within a century. The current director at Chernobyl says it could be 20,000 years until the area again becomes habitable.

In March, an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale and the ensuing 50-foot high tsunami wave led to a meltdown of three of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors. Japan’s nuclear regulatory agency reported that 31 radioactive isotopes were released. In contrast, 16 radioactive isotopes were released from the A-bomb that hit Hiroshima Aug. 6, 1945.  The agency also reported that radioactive cesium released was almost 170 times the amount of the A-bomb, and that the release of radioactive Iodine-131 and Strontium-90 was about two to three times the level of the A-bomb. The release into the air, water, and ground included about 60,000 tons of contaminated water. The half lives of Sr-90 and Cs-137 are about 30 years each. Full effects may not be known for at least two generations. Twenty-three nuclear reactors in the U.S. have the same design—and same design flaws—as the Daiichi reactor.

About five months after the Daiichi disaster, the North Anna plant in northeastern Virginia declared an alert, following a 5.8 magnitude earthquake that was felt throughout the mid-Atlantic and lower New England states. The earthquake caused building cracks and spent fuel cells in canisters to shift. The North Anna plant was designed to withstand an earthquake of only 5.9–6.2 on the Richter scale. More than 1.9 million persons live within a 50-mile radius of North Anna, according to 2010 census data.

Although nuclear plant security is designed to protect against significant and extended forms of terrorism, the NRC believes as many as one-fourth of the 104 U.S. nuclear plants may need upgrades to withstand earthquakes and other natural disasters, according to an Associated Press investigation. About 20 percent of the world’s 442 nuclear plants are built in earthquake zones, according to data compiled by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The NRC has determined that the leading U.S. plants in the Eastern Coast in danger of being compromised by an earthquake are in the extended metropolitan areas of Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Chattanooga. Tenn. The highest risk, however, may be California’s San Onofre and Diablo Canyon plants, both built near major fault lines. Diablo Canyon, near San Luis Obispo, was even built by workers who misinterpreted the blueprints.  

Every nuclear spill affects not just those in the immediate evacuation zone but people throughout the world, as prevailing winds can carry air-borne radiation thousands of miles from the source, and the world’s water systems can put radioactive materials into the drinking supply and agriculture systems of most nations. At every nuclear disaster, the governments eventually declare the immediate area safe. But, animals take far longer than humans to return to the area. If they could figure out that radioactivity released into the water, air, and ground are health hazards, certainly humans could also figure it out.  

Following the disaster at Daiichi, Germany announced it was closing its 17 nuclear power plants and would expand development of solar, wind, and geothermal energy sources. About the same time, Siemens abandoned financing and building nuclear power plants, leaving only American-based Westinghouse and General Electric, which own or have constructed about four-fifths of the world’s nuclear plants, and the French-based Areva.

The life of the first nuclear plants was about 30–40 years; the newer plants have a 40–60 year life. After that time, they become so radioactive that the risk of radiation poison outweighs the benefits of continuing the operation. So, the operators seal the plant and abandon it, carefully explaining to the public the myriad safety procedures in place and the federal regulations. The cooling and decommissioning takes 50–100 years until the plant is safe enough for individuals to walk through it without protection. More critical, there still is no safe technology of how to handle spent control rods.

The United States has no plans to abandon nuclear energy. The Obama administration has proposed financial assistance to build the first nuclear plant in three decades, and a $36 billion loan guarantee for the nuclear industry. However, the Congressional Budget Office believes there can be as much as 50 percent default.  Each plant already receives $1–1.3 billion in tax rebates and subsidies. However, in the past three years, plans to build nuclear generators have been abandoned in nine states, mostly because of what the major financiers believe to be a less than desired return on investment and higher than expected construction and maintenance costs.

A Department of Energy analysis revealed the budget for 75 of the first plants was about $45 billion, but cost overruns ran that to $145 billion. The last nuclear power plant completed was the Watts Bar plant in eastern Tennessee. Construction began in 1973 and was completed in 1996. Part of the federal Tennessee Valley Authority, the Watts Bar plant cost about $8 billion to produce 1,170 mw of energy from its only reactor. Work on a second reactor was suspended in 1988 because of a lack of need for additional electricity. However, construction was resumed in 2007, with completion expected in 2013. Cost to complete the reactor, which was about 80 percent complete when work was suspended, is estimated to cost an additional $2.5 billion.

The cost to build new power plants is well over $10 billion each, with a proposed cost of about $14 billion to expand the Vogtle plant near Augusta, Ga. The first two units had cost about $9 billion.

Added to the cost of every plant is decommissioning costs, averaging about $300 million to over $1 billion, depending upon the amount of energy the plant is designed to produce. The nuclear industry proudly points to studies that show the cost to produce energy from nuclear reactors is still less expensive than the costs from coal, gas, and oil. The industry also rightly points out that nukes produce about one-fifth all energy, with no emissions, such as those from the fossil fuels.

For more than six decades, this nation essentially sold its soul for what it thought was cheap energy that may not be so cheap, and clean energy that is not so clean.

It is necessary to ask the critical question. Even if there were no human, design, and manufacturing errors; even if there could be assurance there would be no accidental leaks and spills of radioactivity; even if there became a way to safely and efficiently dispose of long-term radioactive waste; even if all of this was possible, can the nation, struggling in a recession while giving subsidies to the nuclear industry, afford to build more nuclear generating plants at the expense of solar, wind, and geothermal energy?

 

[Walter Brasch’s latest book is Before the First Snow, a fact-based novel that looks at the nuclear industry during its critical building boom in the 1970s and 1980s.]

 

 

New Worldwatch report calls for commitment to environmental sustainability in forming American economic policy

Crossposted from the Worldwatch Institute.

Entire sets of assumptions, beliefs, and practices will need to be overturned if the United States is to build a sustainable economy in the decades ahead, according to a new report from the Worldwatch Institute, Creating Sustainable Prosperity in the United States: The Need for Innovation and Leadership. The report assesses the country’s environmental record and calls for a broad range of policy innovations in the areas of renewable and non-renewable resource use, waste and pollution, and population growth that would help boost the sustainability of the U.S. economy while maintaining people’s overall well-being and quality of life.

The report notes that the country has a long tradition of environmental leadership, dating back to President Theodore Roosevelt, who established the U.S. National Park Service in 1916. During the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. became a world leader in environmental policy, establishing a series of progressive laws and institutions, including the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts and the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Yet U.S. leaders have lagged behind many other countries, including in Europe and Asia, in developing a more sustainable economic processes and energy infrastructure, according to the report. Although the technological and policy tools needed to create sustainable economic activity have advanced rapidly around the world, U.S. output continues to be bolstered by unsustainable practices such as closed loop recycling (recycling waste from one product to make another), heavy dependence on fossil fuels, disregard for renewable resources, and resource use that is strongly connected to economic growth.

“The United States once set the world standard in confronting its environmental problems—protecting wild lands, establishing an environmental protection agency, and acting assertively to limit pollution of all types,” noted Robert Engelman, Executive Director of Worldwatch. “Americans benefited economically and in many other ways from these efforts. Yet today the country’s government plays no role in global efforts to create sustainable societies. We need a powerful citizens’ movement to help policymakers see that any efforts to make the United States enduringly prosperous are doomed to fail so long as we forget that we are living on a finite planet and cannot change the laws of physics and biology to suit our ambitions.”

The report outlines a series of cogent and practicable policy measures that can be instituted today to put the United States on a more sustainable path. These include shifting from an income tax to a progressive consumption tax, creating more standard eco-labeling for products, encouraging more producer “take-back” opportunities, and promoting a more feasible renewable energy market. A deceleration of population growth will also make the creation of a sustainable economy far easier, the report notes.

Rising awareness of the environmental challenges facing our planet, as well as the focus on finding ways to bolster the American economy, presents policy makers with the opportunity to make important and far-reaching decisions. The question is whether the United States builds sustainable prosperity through prudent choices now, or declines into sustained impoverishment because it failed to steward its assets when it had the choice.

What do you think is the most important step governments can take to support sustainable economies?

Gary Gardner is a Senior Fellow at the Worldwatch Institute. Jenna Banning is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project of the Worldwatch Institute.

For the press release on the report, visit Worldwatch Institute's Press Room.

For more on the importance of developing a green economy, see “Officials cite sustainable agriculture as key to UN Green Economy Initiative,” “Worldwatch report focuses on China’s green future”  and “Rio+20: Creating Green Economies to Eradicate Poverty.”

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