Are nuclear technologies cleantech?
That’s a tough one. In the mid-90s “The Washington Times” ran a photo of me holding a Geiger counter at the edge of a nuclear-chemical company that had been contaminating my neighborhood with radioactive cobalt-60 (for over a decade) and was in violation of a string of health, safety, fire and building codes, as well as regulations guiding the safe handling of low-level radioactive material. “The Washington Post” thought the situation warranted coverage only when an inspector from the state’s department of the environment reported that the company’s owner had (it appeared) bribed the inspector with tickets to a basketball game and then (it was documented) threatened to kill – or was it shoot? – the inspector if he didn’t change the regulations to bring the company into compliance. (I’m not making this up.) Nobody monitored the company’s handling of chemicals, some of which the company radiated and sold as flocculants to the local coal-fired power plant.
Things might have gone better had I the ‘je ne sais quoi’ of Julia Roberts (in “Erin Brokovitch”) or John Travolta (in “A Civil Action”)…or had I wisdom and humor as deep as Yucca Mountain, as protracted as the Rocky Flats legal battles, as hot as the radwaste at Hanford or Barnwell (where the company was supposed to ship its waste but didn’t, opting instead to dump it at the local trash transfer station or pile it up on-site, uncontained.) After 9-11, the local paper reported that the company’s dump trucks set off radiation monitors going into the trash transfer station. (That trash is hauled by rail to a trash burner.)
By 2001, almost 20 years to the month after the first ‘uncontrollably released’ hot spots were discovered on neighboring lawns, the company had been blocked from building a radwaste processing facility for its own and imported waste; it could not import hot cobalt-60 until it had anted up the previously-mandated decommission funding. By then, I had left my home with hair that had, spurred by stress, gone from brown to silver, a wrecked relationship and disgust for a system that continues to this day to fail this politically-weak, rural community. Only one person in the nuclear industry stood up for us, albeit quite tentatively and from afar.
Aside from all of that, can the myriad applications of nuclear technology be marketed as cleantech? Of course.
TheNuclear Energy Institute is running an ad campaign, “The Clean Air Energy.” The NEI places its ad before E&ETV “On Point” interviews and on E&ETV’s front page: “Know a kid today? They demand lots of electricity and clean air. Don’t tell them you have to sacrifice the environment for technology. Today nuclear energy provides one-fifth of America’s electricity. Tomorrow it could supply even more. And nuclear power plants don’t burn anything so they don’t pollute the air. We need reliable electricity for the 21st century but we also need clean air. With nuclear energy we can have both. Nuclear. The Clean Air Energy.”
This is marketing; the nuclear industry, fully taking advantage of concerns of climate change and air quality, asserts that nuclear power emits no greenhouse gases and air pollutants. Yet, Dr. Helen Caldicott and theNuclear Policy Institute say nuclear power does emit greenhouse gases. (I’m intrigued by the small voice, the Helen Caldicott kind of voice, which can carry seeds of truth and speaks in contrast to well-funded and deafening chants.) The NEI website asserts that nuclear is reliable, economical, safe and secure. It includes a site (in bright primary Crayola colors) called ‘Science Club’ to teach children about nuclear and includes ‘Teacher’s Lounge,’ ‘4 Your Class Project,’ and ‘Fun & Games.’
But is “The Clean Air Energy” cleantech?
That depends how narrow the definition. This is how theCleantech Venture Network defines cleantech: “The concept of “clean” technologies embraces a diverse range of products, services, and processes that are inherently designed to provide superior performance at lower costs, greatly reduce or eliminate environmental impacts and, in doing so, improve the quality of life.”
Here’s what “The Clean Air Energy” is not. It is not renewable (a resource that’s naturally replenished in a relatively short period of time), that’s certain. It’s not green (an energy resource with few negative impacts – in the form of wastes and emissions – on the environment and on human health). ‘Clean energy’ is renewable and green; so nuclear is not ‘clean energy.’ It’s an ‘alternative’ to fossil fuels, but an old technology that grew out of Eisenhower’sAtoms for Peace:
“It is not enough to take this weapon out of the hands of the soldiers. It must be put into the hands of those who will know how to strip its military casing and adapt it to the arts of peace. The United States knows that if the fearful trend of atomic military build up can be reversed, this greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon, for the benefit of all mankind… The Atomic Energy Agency [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] could be made responsible for the impounding, storage, and protection of the contributed fissionable and other materials. The ingenuity of our scientists will provide special safe conditions under which such a bank of fissionable material can be made essentially immune to surprise seizure.” (Psst, if you want some “other materials” with shorter half-lives, just follow the rabbits under the chain link fence.)
I wouldn’t say, not exactly, that nuclear technologies have improved my own quality of life nor offered peace of mind. They have, however, been proximate and personal. Before the debacle with the nuclear-chemical cowboy, there was an English professor at my boarding school in New Hampshire. He propped against his desk a large black and white photo of himself and a trail of boys in jackets and ties protesting the Seabrook nuclear plant; I often fixated on that photo (and not so much on Walker Percy’s “Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World.”) The top floor of my grandmother’s condo at North Hampton Beach commanded a view of Seabrook. My siblings and I peered at it – out at sea beyond the rocks where we had played with starfish – through her binoculars. In New York, my mother worked a night job at a tennis club near the Indian Point nuclear power plant. My favorite plant nursery in Pennsylvania was within view of Three Mile Island. Writ on the global national security scene, as for decades, we now have India (today a democracy, tomorrow a who-knows-what) negotiating nuclear power arrangements with the U.S., as the world eyes Iran’s nuclear power plans suspiciously. Nuclear has never been a comfortable presence in my life (which brings us back to the NEI’s Science Club…younger generations may be swayed with marketing and public relations.)
But is it cleantech?
Cutting greenhouse gases and air pollutants to meet demand for electricity is not the only concern to the nation – nor should it be the only criteria for cleantech. Add in quality of life concerns – national security, human health, transportation and storage of radioactive waste, foreign relations, safety, human error and political ineptitude, and the full-cycle economic costs of nuclear technology – and nuclear power is precluded from meeting the definition. Even the term ‘advanced energy’ doesn’t ring quite right.