|ur Turn From Pueblo Chiefton
Velma Campbell, Jane Fraser and Jamie Valdez Guest columnists
Pueblo and its residents face many challenges, but nuclear energy is not the solution to any of them. A nuclear plant would pose a series of extreme risks to our community in both the near-term and distant future.
Just as proponents of coal promote “clean coal” (there is no such thing), nuclear proponents describe nuclear technology as clean and renewable. It is neither. A nuclear plant generates electricity from radioactive material that must be replaced at least every 24 months because it wears out. This spent fuel is radioactive waste and must be isolated for thousands of years. The vessels in which the waste is stored can corrode and leak over a much shorter time with the potential for contamination of water.
Nuclear proponents have been promising for decades that new technology will allow reuse of spent fuel and that politicians will finally designate a permanent storage place for that fuel. There is no solution for dealing with that nuclear waste anywhere in the world. If Pueblo allows a nuclear plant to be built here, we are signing up to store hazardous nuclear waste on site, in Pueblo, for decades, perhaps centuries. Kicking environmental problems down the road for future generations is exactly the approach that caused our climate crisis.
Nuclear proponents point to the need to dispose of waste from wind and solar installations at the end of their useful lives. They are correct, but such waste does not need to be safeguarded for thousands of years. Recycling of solar panels is possible and is happening. There is waste, and then there is nuclear waste.
Nuclear power plants use water, a lot of it, for cooling. NuScale claims its plants use less water than other reactors and that its plants can be air cooled but NuScale has yet to build an operating plant. In any case, water is still used to cool the radioactive spent fuel, which must be submerged in a large pool of water for five years; more spent fuel is added at least every 24 months. That water becomes contaminated and must be treated before it can be discharged.
Clusters of cancer cases have been found near nuclear plants. While the Nuclear Regulatory Commission claims that such clusters are not related to the plants, they also refuse to fund the National Academy of Sciences to study the issue. Regulations limiting radiation exposure are based on the damage radiation causes in adult males; females, especially young females, are affected more by radiation exposure. Some are proposing that the Xcel plant in Pueblo be repurposed as a nuclear plant; this location could be hazardous to those who live nearby. Workers in the plant also face health risks.
The fact that nuclear power is being praised for its potential to create more jobs than solar and wind shows that nuclear technology is complicated. Nuclear plants require highly trained personnel to run them and carry high risk of accidents and high potential for those accidents to have severe consequences. The litany of past nuclear accidents includes Windscale, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima Daiichi. Due to climate change, extreme weather events are becoming more common, increasing the risks of nuclear plants. A nuclear power plant is an attractive target for terrorists and hackers.
So-called advanced nuclear plants, including Small Modular Reactors, are unproven technology. A modular design means the plant has several smaller and less powerful reactors instead of one large reactor; such a design increases the probability of failure in one or more modules. The Union of Concerned Scientists found that the new designs they analyzed “are not likely to be significantly safer than today’s nuclear plants. In fact, certain alternative reactor designs pose even more safety, proliferation, and environmental risks.” The smaller reactors produce more nuclear waste per unit of electricity generated. While the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved the NuScale design, the NRC is now seeking comments on whether to allow the design to be used in US projects, and some issues are still to be resolved. NuScale’s first plant is scheduled to begin construction in 2025 and the first module to be operational in 2029. NuScale persuaded the NRC to allow NuScale plants to operate without backup electrical power, arguing that its design makes it fail safe in the case of loss of power; however, we believe that NuScale’s imperative to lower costs drives that decision more than an imperative to keep people safe.
Again and again the nuclear power industry has promised that new nuclear technology would have none of the waste, safety, and operational
problems of the past, and again and again they have been shown wrong. Northern Colorado’s experience with the Fort St. Vrain nuclear power plant is just one more story in this sad history. One of the first generation of a new nuclear plant design, the plant only worked 8% of the time between its commissioning in 1979 and its shutdown a decade later.
Optimistic projections for safety are matched by optimistic projections of costs for nuclear energy, starting with the infamous 1954 statement that nuclear energy would be “too cheap to meter;” it’s not and never has been. Unlike the decreasing costs for electricity from solar and wind, nuclear power has actually been getting more expensive. Proponents of small reactors argue that factory- made units will be made in large volumes with associated lower costs, but the prospects for construction of a large number of nuclear plants are bleak. In 2010 a nuclear plant was proposed for Pueblo and it turned out that the proponents had a financial interest in the outcome. Now the for-profit companies and the investor owned utilities that would benefit from a nuclear power plant in Pueblo similarly stand to make profits and do not prioritize the best interests of Pueblo residents. The power would likely serve northern Colorado, with no reduction in the high electricity rates in Pueblo County. If the power actually went to Pueblo, electric rates might actually increase, along with decreased property values and potential contamination of our air and water.
Pueblo has long been a dumping ground for dirty industry that no one else wanted. We sold our clean air to get the coal-burning Xcel plant. Surprisingly little is known about the air quality in our region because little data is collected, a convenient situation meaning that our degrading air quality is hidden. We need to have higher goals for Pueblo than to take the industries no one else wants. The nuclear industry is preying upon smaller communities like Pueblo that they think are desperate enough to accept their dangerous plants.
In 2017 Pueblo was recognized by SolSmart as one of the nation’s solarfriendly communities. Recent actions, such as proposed changes to zoning regulations for solar installations and this move toward nuclear energy, suggest that our leaders have decided to abandon our solar-friendly status in favor of nuclear energy. That is a disservice to this community, its people, and our economic and environmental future.
We do support the immediate and widespread use of one type of nuclear energy: the sun, located safely 93 million miles from earth, and reliably generating solar and wind energy for us every day. Solar and wind installations pose minimal safety risks, generate waste that can be managed, and produce the cheapest electricity available now. Unlike nuclear technology, renewable technology is getting safer, cheaper, and more efficient. Renewable energy can provide reliable power when it is backed up by storage and grid connections (Colorado, unlike Texas, has robust connections to regional and national grids). Less well publicized is an even cheaper source of electricity: increased efficiency in the use of electricity. Pueblo County has an outstanding weatherization program for incomequalified homes in southeastern Colorado; such programs should be expanded ten-fold and building codes should be strengthened especially because such efforts often provide savings in peak demand for power.
Finally, some nuclear proponents will challenge those who object to siting a nuclear plant in Pueblo to come up with better solutions to the issues Pueblo faces and we have made some suggestions here. Indeed, Pueblo has challenges and Pueblo needs wise leaders. If advocating for a nuclear plant in Pueblo is the best idea our elected officials can come up with, perhaps they should step aside for others who do have better ideas.
Velma Campbell is a local public health physician specializing in occupational/ environmental medicine.
Jane Fraser is a retired professor of engineering, with PhD in industrial engineering.
Jamie Valdez is a Pueblo native and climate activist; he chairs the Sangre de Cristo group of the Sierra Club and is a community organizer for Mothers Out Front.
A version of this article with live links to sources can be obtained from janemfraserphd@ gmail.com.