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Nuclear Power, Weapons, and Waste

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Summary: The United States has always linked nuclear weapons and nuclear power. Their production over the past half century has caused unprecedented environmental damage, cost the US taxpayers trillions of dollars, and sparked and sustained nuclear weapons proliferation. Nuclear proponents are now working to resuscitate their industry.

Background and Current Situation: In June 1942 the United States initiated the nuclear age with the top-secret Manhattan Project to develop the world’s first atomic bombs. Within three years, the project went from the first sustained nuclear chain reaction to the atomic bombs targeting Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, where nearly 120,000 people died immediately and thousands more later from radiation-induced illnesses. The Manhattan Project cost $20 billion (in 2004 dollars) and, at its peak, employed 130,000 people, mostly in Washington, New Mexico, and Tennessee.

After World War II, US nuclear weapons work did not pause, and this country has built 65,000 nuclear bombs and exploded more than a thousand of them. What became known as the Department of Energy Nuclear Weapons Complex has major sites in 13 states. Nuclear weapons research, testing, and production cost American taxpayers an average of $4.15 billion per year during the Cold War years (1948-1992).

After a brief dip in spending in the mid-1990s, US nuclear weapons spending has continued to rise substantially above Cold War expenditures, and in the Bush Administration has asked Congress for more than $6.4 billion for nuclear weapons work next year. This money goes to maintain an arsenal of nearly 10,000 nuclear bombs and to develop new weapons that offer no real protection against the most likely dangers. Instead, the continuing US embrace of nuclear weapons encourages global proliferation. It also perpetuates the serious radioactive and toxic pollution already contaminating all sites involved in nuclear weapons work, including the Idaho National Laboratory. Though tens of billions of dollars have already been spent, no DOE site will ever be entirely cleaned up, and crucial water resources continue to be imperiled by old and new pollution.

The US began to expand its nuclear endeavor into power generation in the 1950s. The primary driver for nuclear power was not the much ballyhooed but entirely fictitious claim that it would be “too cheap to meter.” Instead, it was the fear that the Soviet Union would make the US look bad by developing the “peaceful atom” while the US continued to build bombs. The first nuclear electricity was generated at the Experimental Breeder Reactor I at Idaho’s National Reactor Testing Station, now the Idaho National Laboratory. The first nuclear-propelled Navy vessel, the USS Nautilus, launched in 1955; its reactor prototype was built at INL. Mostly through the efforts of the US Navy and Westinghouse, the first US commercial power reactor came on line in Shippingport, Pennsylvania, in 1957. Its irradiated fuel rods are at INL.

Right from the beginning, nuclear power systems were pushed forward despite serious safety concerns, were directly and then indirectly subsidized by the US government, and their manufacturers accepted heavy losses in the hope of jumpstarting the industry. Forty-five percent of the US nuclear power-generating capacity was built between 1963 and 1967, but no new nuclear power plant commissioned after 1973 has been successfully constructed and operated.

Update: The DOE’s weapon design labs continue to push for new, more “usable” nuclear bombs. The House of Representatives rejected the “extreme nuclear weapons goals” embodied in earth-penetrating nuclear bombs and “mini-nukes.” The weapons labs’ latest thrust is called the Reliable Replacement Warhead.

Nuclear proponents, including the Bush Administration, hope to convince Main Street and Wall Street to renew support for nuclear power with increased government subsidies and looser safety regulations. They also argue that nuclear power will solve global warming. It will not. Nuclear power is simply too costly and takes too long to develop to offer a real alternative to fossil fuel in the short time we have to address global warming. They also argue, again inaccurately, that the nuclear waste problem can be solved through reprocessing. The Administration has also proposed the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, a scheme that “supplier” nations would manufacture nuclear fuel rods, ship it to other countries to use in their reactors, and then take back the irradiated fuel and reprocess it.

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