Environmental Externalities of Nuclear

Environmental externalities are an important cost associated with energy, but are a much more dispersed cost. Most of the other economic factors discussed in this report have related directly to the costs of energy companies, unless paid for by subsidy. For example, energy companies will have to buy the fuel, account for the reliability of an energy source, and build the necessary capital development. However, the environmental costs of an energy source are something not only paid for by energy companies, but by everyone to some degree. We all have a vested interest in the environment in varying degrees of capacity, which means we all foot the bill in some kind of way for environmental externalities.

Each energy source has some kind of environmental externality which is either obviously seen or more hidden. However, comparing environmental effects can be difficult as the effects are generally in completely different metrics. For example, how many birds and bats would have to be killed by wind farms in order to equal the amount of pollutions given off by a coal electricity generator? How much radioactivity exposure is equivalent to the environmental damages caused by liquid natural gas spills? It is like comparing apples to oranges.

Being emission-free is a popular concept and buzzword among many people. Out of the primary sources of energy which have been examined in this paper, wind, solar, and nuclear are all emissions free during the production of electricity. Hydro and geothermal are both emission free as well.

However, while this may be the case, emissions are not the only form of environmental effects related to energy production. A lot of the environmental externalities faced by energy production are faced during the mining of fuels, instead of the generating of electricity. For natural gas, reserves must be drilled to at depth. For renewables, rare earth elements must be mined. For coal and nuclear, mining also needs to take place.

When it comes to the environmental effects of nuclear energy, almost all of it has to do with the release of radioactivity, which is a unique from other forms of energy, which most concerns deal with emissions, animal deaths, etc. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, there are two forms of radioactive waste associated with nuclear power: low level waste and high level waste. Low level waste is radioactivity associated with the mining of uranium which would include mill tailings and tools that came into contact with the uranium during mining. The current and common practice with dealing with low level waste is to seal it with barrier so that radon is unable to escape into the environment.

High level waste is more difficult, as this is the spent reactor fuel after electricity has been produced. High level waste is generally dealt with on a case by case basis. For Fort St. Vrain, the former nuclear power plant in Colorado, fuel is kept on site and is under the discretion of the Department of Energy. Thought there is currently no permanent repository for nuclear waste disposal in the United States.

The environmental effect, and in turn the health effects, of high levels of radiation should not be understated. After large amounts of radiation were introduced from Chernobyl, 42,000 people had to be evacuated within a 30 kilometer distance. Out of the 129 firefighters responding to the accident, 17 died of radiation sickness, and 13 others became seriously ill. Furthermore, residents experienced increased higher rates of thyroid cancer.

According to the EPA:

Ionizing radiation has sufficient energy to cause chemical changes in cells and damage them. Some cells may die or become abnormal, either temporarily or permanently. By damaging the genetic material (DNA) contained in the body’s cells, radiation can cause cancer. Fortunately, our bodies are extremely efficient at repairing cell damage. The extent of the damage to the cells depends upon the amount and duration of the exposure, as well as the organs exposed.

What does it mean to be agnostic on energy?

Simplistically, it means that we support the free market methods of finding a preferable energy source, whether it be renewables, fracking, nuclear energy, or some other energy production method.

It seems that there are many conservatives and libertarians across the United States that are against renewable energy, namely wind and solar, in and of itself. However, this shows a complete misunderstanding of the free market position. Oil and natural gas are not libertarian sources of energy, whatever that may mean. The whole point of a free market is that it is undesigned. There are no winner and losers chosen, but instead our energy source is “chosen” through consumer demand, prices, supply, and a multitude of other factors.

The truth is that I have a soft spot for renewable and clean energy. The environment is important to me, and I wish for people for years to come to enjoy the same Rocky Mountains I have enjoyed my entire life. I hope most people would think it would be absurd to claim otherwise. However, I still do not think it is appropriate for the government to mandate or skew markets for the sake of what a few may determine is a preferable energy supply, as it would most certainly be arbitrary.

For example if I were to choose, I would probably choose nuclear energy as a preferable form of energy production as it is clean, really awesome (totally not a value statement), and relatively effective. However, nuclear energy is not perfect as it can be really expensive to build the infrastructure for and takes incredibly specialized professionals to do the job. If some environmental leftists were to choose, I assume they would choose wind energy. Wind energy production doesn’t create emissions, and the wind is a resource that won’t be going away anytime soon. However, wind is not a reliable enough source of energy to depend on and the materials used to build these farms are not environmentally friendly either. Similar things could be said about solar energy. If a traditional conservative were to choose, they might choose hydraulic fracturing, which is relatively cheap and cleaner than crude oil drilling. However, fracking is not emissions-free and is also not currently politically desirable in many ways.

So when we set up a system that chooses winner and losers, the winner is only dependent on who the chooser is, which is not something that I think anyone is particularly interested in.

However, that does not mean we can’t have an effect on the energy being used today. We certainly can, but we can’t use government preferences for these ends. Consumer demand is a powerful element of a market, and it is something that we all can affect. If you are interested in cleaner energy, educate people about it. Make people really desire having cleaner energy or whatever form of energy you think is best. This isn’t an impossible task, but it is more difficult than using the government as a tool to your ends.

Furthermore, as surprising as this may sound, we must check our own privileges when discussing sound energy policy. Yes, the environment is important and we should protect it, but this does come with a higher bill. While this higher bill is mostly affordable to the high and middle class, the same can’t be said for the less fortunate and lower class. While they would certainly benefit from a cleaner environment, I am not sure they would find the tradeoff of being able to afford more food, better clothes, and so on desirable. However in a free market of energy, they could make such a choice if they so desire.

When it comes down to it sound energy policy is quite difficult, and even more so when you think the government should pick winners and losers in the market. People think that it is so easy when they post things to Facebook like “of course the government needs to subsidize renewable energy” yet they know very little about the costs of such a policy and who it effects. Likewise, people think it is so easy to say “oil and gas is the cheapest therefore the best”, but they don’t even bother to consider the externalities of such a decision or how different people may value its environmental effects.

Trevor Burrus, a research fellow at the Cato Institute, recently wrote about the difficulties of gun policy in which he explains that the gun control argument is not as obvious of an argument as its advocates would like you to believe and the gun rights argument is not as obvious of an argument as its advocates would like you to believe. The same could be said about energy policy, and most policy matters. It is hard. It is nuanced. There is no cure all policy or energy source, for that matter.

This is why I am agnostic on energy sources, and this is why the free market is so important. There are certainly market failures in addressing issues throughout history, but freeing up the market takes the hard decisions out of the hands of an arbitrary decider, or deciders, and into a complex system in which we all are a part of.

Nuclear Energy: But What about Rocky Flats Plant?

Nuclear energy can be a touchy subject to Coloradans. The only real commercial power plant to exist in the state was Fort St. Vrain, and then there is an even bigger and more widely known elephant in the room: Rocky Flats. If you don’t know what Rocky Flats is, it is a controversial nuclear weapons development facility near Golden, Colorado that was opened in 1952. When it was built, the information of what the facility was doing and the materials it was using was mostly secret due to national security interests because of our contentions with the Soviet Union. Transparency was certainly not a virtue of the Cold War Era. Due to our lack of knowledge in the nuclear area at this time, there were some precautions taken to eliminate contamination, but not all the proper precautions were taken. As a result the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and a few other governmental organizations had investigated the site and found huge breaches in safety for the surrounding public, the environment, and plant workers. Production halted in 1989, and cleanup began in 1992.

While the current contamination of surrounding areas, which include residential and agricultural areas, are not high enough to warrant cleanup by the EPA, the site is still highly monitored by the EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), as it is listed as a Superfund site by the EPA. Public outcry against the site was huge back in the early 90s, and there is still a lot of public contention today.

However, it is wrong to conflate a commercial nuclear plant with a nuclear weapons plant. Rocky Flats Plant was used to create nuclear weapon triggers called “pits”, while commercial nuclear plants create electricity. The Rocky Flats Plant used weapons grade plutonium, while nuclear power plants use regular enriched uranium. While plutonium was used at the Rocky Flats site, uranium is normally used for weapons as it is more readily found than plutonium, but the uranium used for electricity in commercial plants is still much different than the uranium used in weapons. To put this in perspective, weapons grade uranium has drastically higher levels of 235U (the isotope used to create both electricity and weapons) than the concentration of the enriched uranium (also the 235U isotope) used in electricity generation. Weapons grade uranium has over 90% 235U, while the enriched uranium used in electricity is 0.7% to 25%.

With this perspective, it is clear to see why weapon development has a much higher chance of contamination and a more severe effect from contamination than electricity generation. While there are possible health and environmental concerns with nuclear power, to use weapons development as evidence against it is groundless.

Nuclear Energy: What about Chernobyl?

Ever heard of Godwin’s Law? It is a joke created by Mike Godwin that says that as a conversation on the internet, whether it be a comment section on Facebook or forum, grows longer that the probability of someone comparing an idea or argument to Hitler or Nazis becomes inevitable. I think something similar could be said about Chernobyl when discussing nuclear power. Chernobyl seems to always come up when discussing nuclear power.

In case you do not know, Chernobyl was a nuclear power facility located in the Ukranian state of the Soviet Union in which a unit, namely Unit 4, exploded and caught fire in 1986. 31 workers of the plant were killed. It is estimated that the disaster is the cause of over 7,000 cases of cancer throughout Ukraine, and the environmental effects has been catastrophic.

However, the takeaway from the story of Chernobyl is not the horrors of nuclear power, but the horrors of Soviet-style socialism and leadership. According to Grigori Medvedev, an engineer at Chernobyl, construction and safety checks for the plants were rushed for the sake of hitting deadlines and receiving bonuses provided by the Kremlin, safety violations were constantly overlooked for the sake of good reports to superiors, most of the workers at the time of the explosion were poorly trained, and managers decided to take the plant to very low power causing the plant to become unstable.

Chernobyl was a formula for disaster, but I think to blame the disaster on the dangers of nuclear power is a red herring. While there are many dangers to producing nuclear power, most of them can be avoided with proper procedures and precautions. Soviet leadership is 100% to blame for the Chernobyl disaster.

There are many things we use every day that provide potential dangers, but with proper precautions and procedure disaster is avoided. The same can be said with nuclear energy.

If you are interested in learning more about the Chernobyl disaster and what happened on that April day in 1989, I would highly recommend Grigori Medvedev’s book: The Truth About Chernobyl.

Nuclear Energy: Uranium Mining in Colorado

Colorado has a long and controversial history with uranium mining. While uranium did not get into extremely high demand until the early 1950s due to the Cold War and the development of nuclear weapons, Colorado began similar mining with radium in the 1910s and vanadium in the 1930s, which were popular for more commercial uses like paints and clays. Both radium and vanadium are indicator minerals for uranium, hence why their mining and extraction are so interrelated.

The first uraninite, also known as pitchblende, found in the United States was found near Central City, Colorado. While most the uranium used for nuclear weapons, specifically the Manhattan Project, came from Congo and Canada, Colorado, through the Uravan mining district, produced about 850 tons of uranium ore for weapons testing. Prospecting and mining continued to expand after World War II as the largest uranium deposit to be found in Colorado was discovered in the late 1940s. Due to recession, the scaling down of the Cold War, and uranium being released from weapon stockpiles, uranium mining decreased dramatically in the 1980s due to a large decrease in price. During the boom of uranium mining in Colorado (1948-1978), it is estimated that Uravan belt had over 1,200 mines and mined 63 million pounds of uranium.

Currently, Colorado ranks third for the most known uranium reserves in the United States, just behind Wyoming and New Mexico. Since 2009, there has been no major uranium mining in the state of Colorado, and there are currently no active mines. However, there are 31 permitted projects in Colorado.

While uranium mining has the potential to be a very lucrative industry in the future, especially if nuclear energy becomes more popular, it does come with externalities to the environment and public health. When it comes to describing nuclear waste, it is generally described in two tiers: low-level waste and high level waste, which refer to their level of radioactivity. Uranium mining, which produce mill tailings, is the source of low-level waste, while high-level waste refers mostly to used reactor fuel after the uranium has been used to generate electricity. According to the Energy Information Administration, “by volume, most of the waste related to the nuclear power industry has a relatively low-level of radioactivity”, meaning most of the waste comes from the extraction of uranium.

Mill tailings from uranium mining, which has the presence of its indicator mineral radium, will break down into radon, which is a radioactive gas that can collect in the atmosphere if special precautions are not taken. Furthermore environmental contamination can occur from the tools used if special precautions also are not taken.

While it is important to keep in mind the externalities of uranium mining when discussing nuclear energy, we must remember that these kinds of trade-offs exist almost anywhere in energy production. Wind and solar energy, as well as hybrid and electric cars, fluorescent lightbulbs, and Ipods, have very similar externalities to nuclear power as they use rare earth elements like lanthanum, cerium, scandium, terbium, and several others. When comparing the externalities of uranium mining to the externalities of other rare earth element mining, the risks are almost identical.