Why the so-called nuclear renaissance ought to be aborted.

In 1990, the inland Inuit of Nunavut, a vast, autonomous native region of northern Canada, voted almost unanimously to prohibit the prospecting and mining of uranium on its land. The inhabitants knew well the hazards of uranium from the experience of the Dine and other neighboring tribes devastated by previous mining ventures on their homelands. Uranium at the time was about seven dollars a pound on the world market. Referendum aside, the calculus of mining, milling, and shipping U3O8 almost anywhere in the world at that price was not much better than break-even. So prospectors in Nunavut packed up and went home. But some things have happened to change their plans. The planet has continued to heat up, carbon dioxide has been recognized as a global toxin, and burning fossil fuels to make energy has come to mean more evidence of human folly.


Photo by Nagy Gabor via Flickr.

Before long, the sagging, moribund but allegedly CO2-free industry of nuclear power was being reconsidered. A “nuclear renaissance” was predicted that would expand the global nuclear production from the current 438 power plants operating in thirty-one countries to over one thousand by 2025. China and India have each announced plans to build scores of nukes, the tired old Washington nuclear lobby has been rejuvenated, and there is talk of a “hydrogen bonus”—using new nuclear capacity to produce hydrogen—fuel for a new clean and green economy.

Current world production of uranium is inadequate to the task. In 2004, global production was 46,500 tons of U3O8; world consumption was 79,000 tons. The difference was made up with secondary sources (stockpiles, decommissioned weapons, and recycled waste.)1 But those sources are shrinking, so demand is growing for fresh sources of radioactive fuel. When U.S. energy policy went nuclear about the same time as some large mines flooded in Canada and Australia, hedge fund speculators dove into the market and uranium shot up to 138 dollars a pound, settling back eventually to about half that price, but still almost ten times the seven dollar low. Within weeks of the price jump, there were thousands of uranium claims staked around the world, hundreds of them in Nunavut.

The frequently repeated notion that nuclear power is a carbon-free energy source is simply untrue.

One by one, newly formed prospecting companies helicoptered supplies into barren Arctic field camps across the region, each staffed with geologists, engineers, pilots, cooks, and as many Inuit helpers as possible. One camp opened in 2004, and six more opened the following year. There were eight by 2006, and when I arrived in April 2008, there were twenty-eight uranium prospectors drilling the tundra of Nunavut.2 Huge mining companies from around the world with names like Uranor, Areva, and Titan had opened community liaison offices around the territory, all of them promising partnerships and royalties to impoverished Inuit villagers—and jobs. The unemployment rate in some Nunavut communities is close to 70 percent.

Aside from the combined intentions of countries like China, Russia, India, Finland, and Italy to build hundreds of nuclear power plants over the next two decades, 3 the driving force of the nuclear renaissance is a claim that nuclear power, once up and running, is a carbon-free energy source. The assertion is that a functioning nuke creates no greenhouse gases and thus contributes nothing to global warming or chaotic weather. That part is almost true, but the claim ignores the total environmental impact of nuclear energy, which includes a long and complicated chain of events known in the industry as the “nuclear cycle.” The cycle begins with finding, mining, milling, and enriching uranium, then spans through plant construction and power generation to the reprocessing and eventual storage of nuclear waste, all of which creates tons of CO2. At every stage of the cycle, greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere from burning diesel, manufacturing steel, and cement, and in the circumpolar regions of the planet, by disturbance of the tundra, which releases huge amounts of methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas.

A major challenge facing a resurgent nuclear industry is the astronomical and escalating capital cost of nuclear power and the clear negative return on investment.

Even the claim that a functioning nuclear power facility is CO2 free is challenged by the fact that an operating plant requires an external power source to run itself and that electricity is almost certain to come from a fossil-fueled plant. So the frequently repeated notion that nuclear power is a carbon-free energy source is simply untrue. The estimated contribution of atmospheric carbon from the entire nuclear cycle ranges from 5 to 30 percent of an equal power output from fossil fuel generation, depending on who you ask and what they’re comparing nuclear to. Of course, the nuclear industry, in its quest to appear pure and carbon-free, contests all such analysis, repeating an industry mantra that the nuclear cycle’s carbon output is “about the same as solar’s.” The truth almost surely lies somewhere in between those numbers and depends how much fossil-fueled power is used in mining, transportation, refining, construction, reprocessing, storage, and the carbon content of the fuel that is powering comparative systems. Either way, it all begins with mining, which, together with the milling of uranium (which almost always takes place near a mine), are substantial CO2 creators.

Every uranium mine has a different carbon footprint, depending on location, ore grade and distribution, depth of veins, and distance from mine to railhead. I asked as many mining experts as I could find in Nunavut what the local carbon output of the large Kiggavik-Sissons deposit might be. No one was willing to hazard real numbers, but the extraction plan is revealing.

U3O8 uranium ore will be mined from an open pit by huge diesel-powered machines and trucks that will be shipped by rail to Churchill, Manitoba, then barged almost one thousand kilometers to a yet-to-be-constructed port on Baker Lake. From there, they will be driven up a seventy-five mile all-weather road that is also yet to be built. Fuel for the machinery and the mill will be hauled into the site along the same road by diesel-fueled tanker trucks. All electricity at the mining camp will be provided by diesel-powered generators. Ore will be milled and refined right at the mine site in a facility powered by diesel, and the resultant uranium oxide (a.k.a. yellowcake) will be hauled to the Baker Lake port and tug-barged one thousand kilometers back to the railhead at Churchill. In winter months, when Hudson Bay is frozen, yellowcake packed in fifty gallon drums will be flown from a yet-to-be paved airstrip to Toronto, then trucked to Port Hope, Ontario, where most Canadian uranium is refined and shipped to reactors around the world—never, according to national policy, to weapons facilities.

Incidentally, if perchance one of those barges should overturn in a storm and a ton or so of yellowcake is released into open water, the western shores of Hudson Bay would experience a major insult to their ecosystems that would last for thousands of years. And an inland radionuclide spill could permanently poison the drinking water of caribou and Inuit alike, as it has near so many former uranium mines around the world; over 70 percent of them were on indigenous lands.

A major challenge facing a resurgent nuclear industry is the astronomical and escalating capital cost of nuclear power and the clear negative return on investment. Wall Street investment bankers long ago backed away from underwriting nuclear energy and still won’t touch it, nor will venture capitalists anywhere in the world. The U.S. hasn’t begun construction on a nuclear power plant for three decades. But a new generation of smaller, faster, and allegedly much safer reactors are moving toward the drawing boards—eleven in nine American states. And there are currently thirty-one more license applications before the American Nuclear Regulatory Commission, all cheered on by putative environmentalists like Stewart Brand, James Lovelock, Fred Krupp, Christine Todd Whitman, and Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore,4 the latter two of which are subcontractors of Hill and Knowlton, a public relations firm which recently received an eight million dollar check from the Nuclear Energy Institute to create something called the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition.

A nuclear revival simply cannot happen anywhere in the world without massive government support.

Former presidential candidate John McCain says the U.S. should emulate France, almost 80 percent of whose energy is nuclear, and calls for forty-five new nukes to be built in the U.S. by 2030, with a long term goal of one hundred. And although defeated in the recent presidential election, he stubbornly refuses to support any energy bills lacking sufficient subsidies to meet those goals. President Barack Obama has not always been so sanguine about nukes, but his hometown is ringed by eleven of the country’s generating reactors, and he accepted generous campaign donations from Exelon, a leading nuclear construction firm, also headquartered in Chicago. Obama refuses to “eliminate nuclear power from the table.”

Once touted as an energy source “too cheap to meter,” nuclear power became, according to The Economist, “too costly to matter.” In 1985, Forbes, America’s most conservative business magazine, described the nuclear industry as “the largest managerial disaster in history.”5 That’s not the sort of publicity any industry needs in financial centers like London or New York, where investors are trying to make, not lose, money. Without finance capital, the entire global nuclear industry has become reliant on government support—in some countries, like France and China, for the entire nuclear program; in less socialist countries, like the U.S., in the form of generous subsidies, loan guarantees, and tax incentives to for-profit companies like Westinghouse, Bechtel, Exelon, Entergy, and the Shaw Group, along with direct government investment in R&D, insurance, and fuel processing.

“As someone who was raised in a dog-team culture, and who now flies to Africa in jumbo jets, I know firsthand the effects of technological culture—something which your people had four hundred years to adapt to—on people being asked to absorb the same experience in less than a generation.”

The American nuclear industry, which now supplies about twenty percent of U.S. electrical energy, has already received over 145 billion dollars in direct and indirect subsidies.6 That number will look small if the U.S. government commits itself to a full nuclear renaissance, as the cost of nuclear construction, in constant dollars, is now three times what it was in 2001 when The Economist declared it too costly to matter. And that’s a conservative estimate. An Areva-designed Evolutionary Power Reactor (the current rage) sells for between three and four billion dollars, twice the price of a coal plant producing the same kilowatts. But throw in construction costs, delays, overruns, and interest, and we’re looking at something closer to eight or nine billion dollars per plant.

Whatever the cost of an individual plant, a nuclear revival simply cannot happen anywhere in the world without massive government support. The nuclear industry does not deny the subsidies or claim that they could survive without them. Its argument is that almost everything worthwhile in a complex economy, including wind and solar power, and now banking and finance, needs to be subsidized somehow. Adam Smith rolls over in his grave.

Before I left the barren, windswept reaches of the far north, I visited Sheila Watt-Cloutier, former president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, a multinational council representing the 150,000 Inuit living in Alaska, Canada, Russia, and Greenland. She was also a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize won by Al Gore. Her modest Iqaluit home is perched on the shoreline of Frobisher Bay, which was still frozen solid in May. As we chatted about Inuit culture and circumpolar politics, I watched Iqaluit hunters and fishermen heading down the sparkling sunlit Frobisher ice field in dog sleds and snowmobiles. One was driven by her son-in-law, Qajaac Ellsworth, who was taking her only grandson on his first hunt, a vital rite of passage in any native community. Sheila beamed with pride but was apprehensive about the future of Inuit culture, as technology and industry offer their alluring enticements. She is opposed to neither but is concerned about the speed of their approach, as her people experience the jarring transition shared by so many natives around the world from a traditional land-based hunting culture to a modern wage-based economy.

“As someone who was raised in a dog-team culture, and who now flies to Africa in jumbo jets, I know firsthand the effects of technological culture—something which your people had four hundred years to adapt to—on people being asked to absorb the same experience in less than a generation. It’s very disrupting… shocking, in fact. Add to that a ruined economy in a society plagued by substance abuse and suicide, and even uranium mining begins to seem appealing.”

She was reluctant at first to speak out against uranium, even though the Inuit Circumpolar Conference still advocates a “nuclear-free Arctic.” “I’d rather my children were doing that,” she says. “It is they who will face the long-term consequences.” And it is the children, she told me, along with the elders, who are most concerned about the impact of uranium mining on Inuit society. “My generation, which was educated in government schools, is more assimilated than the generations before and after us, and in some respects too open to outside influence.”

Later in the afternoon, she relented and agreed to discuss, ever so cautiously, what is clearly a sensitive topic in Nunavut. “Mining,” she said, “is the easy way out. And we’re moving too quickly to embrace it. It could run counter to everything we are trying to do to recover our culture. We need to step back and ask ourselves what kind of society we are trying to create here. Will we lose awareness of how sacred the land is and our connection to it? And what will become of our hunters? Hunting is how Inuit men build character. How is character built in a mine? How do we train skilled hunters to adjust to menial work? Will mining solve our high suicide rate? Do we want to abandon or rebuild institutions we have relied on for generations? Or are we just going to allow ourselves to become dependent on new industries, substances, and systems?” She paused for a moment to watch the hunters head down Frobisher Bay, then turned back for one last question: “Do we want to lose the wise culture we have relied on for generations?”

The answers to these questions are of vital consequence not just to the Inuit but to the whole world. Even if expansions of the U.S. and European nuclear industries are delayed by economic troubles at home, that won’t likely stop China, India, and other developing nations from expanding their nuclear programs. No matter what form it takes, one thing seems clear: if the nuclear renaissance is going to happen, uranium mining is going to expand, and indigenous people like the Inuit of Nunavut will bear a considerable proportion of its ill effects.

1 Uranium File

2 See Nunavut Overview 2007

3 World Nuclear Association (Nuclear Renaissance File)

4 Industry file

5 Industry file (Alternet)

6 Joseph Romm, The Self Limiting Future of Nuclear Power (in Industry folder) and Public Citizen Summary in General file.

Mark Dowie is an investigative historian living in Point Reyes Station, California. An earlier version of this article was published by Resurgence. His last piece for Guernica, Eviction Slip, appeared in the April 2008 issue.

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