EDITORIAL: The Washington Post Editorial Board’s Epic Fail on ‘Carbon-Free’ Nuclear Power

(EnviroNews DC News Bureau)EDITORIAL: A repeated theme in the legendary and utterly hilarious cult classic film The Big Lebowski features the character of a belligerent Vietnam veteran, Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), yelling at his bowling mate and buddy Theodore Donald Kerabatsos (Steve Buscemi), “Shut the fuck up Donny! You’re out of your element!” Over and over again Walter shouts this rather harsh statement at Donny, every time his docile pal pipes up and tries to talk about things Walter feels he simply fails to understand. These scenes were the first thing that came to mind when members of the EnviroNews USA Editorial Board read a recent opinion piece on “carbon-free” nuclear power from the Washington Post‘s (WaPo) Editorial Board titled, A bankruptcy that’s bad news for climate policy.

In response to this editorial, published by one of America’s most respected investigative news sources on politics, the EnviroNews USA Editorial Board (the Board) has this to say to the 141-year-old publication: Shut the fuck up WaPo! You’re out of your element! WaPo should stick to bowling on politics and stay in its lane. Here’s why:

Not once, but twice in its short opinion writeup, WaPo‘s editorial board flippantly refers to nuclear power as “carbon-free.” This statement could not be further from the truth. A minor investigation on the part of WaPo‘s editorial team would have quickly revealed that this statement is outright nonsense — yet the publication’s editors chose to let it fly. But why?

From an investigative reporter’s point-of-view, it would be low-hanging fruit to discover, not only is nuclear energy not carbon-free, it is on the contrary carbon-intensive.

Thus far, WaPo has issued no official correction or retraction. It did however choose to publish a very short letter to the editor criticizing the editorial, authored by Paki Wieland from Northampton, Massachusetts. The letter, titled, Plenty of carbon used in nuclear energy, reads:

The April 2 editorial “Nuclear energy in peril” referred to nuclear energy as carbon-free. It is not carbon-free.

If we look at nuclear power in whole, from the uranium mining to the dismantling of nuclear power plants, there is an extraordinary use of energy, from the initial devastation of the environment where the uranium is mined to the costly cleanup.

The impact on the environment continues through every phase of nuclear-energy production. A deep look into the issue of nuclear power would lead to overwhelming evidence to support ending nuclear power as a source of energy.

While it is good WaPo‘s opinion editors chose to publish this dissenting viewpoint, it is far from an official correction or retraction of the original piece. It is also the opinion of the EnviroNews Board that WaPo should make a correction or retract its editorial entirely.

An examination of nuclear energy from point A, where the drill bit hits the ground in the initial quest for uranium, to the process of uranium enrichment and zirconium-clad fuel rod production, on to energy generation, power plant dismantlement, nuclear waste disposal and finally uranium mine remediation, nuclear power presents anything but a clean and green energy paradigm. Au contraire, what can be observed is a dirty, deadly, carbon-loaded process that litters the environment with radioactive isotopes and radon gas, while dumping plenty of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere along the way. To top it all off, nuclear power facilities require an enormous amount of concrete, which releases heavy doses of CO2 as it dries. Does that all sound “carbon-free?” If so, sit tight, we’re just getting started.

To be fair, at present, it is safe to say there is no truly carbon-free form of energy. Even wind and solar require components fabricated with CO2 processes to ultimately reach completion and generate electricity. But they accomplish this without the myriad problems accompanying nuclear projects — problems like: extraordinary cost, decades-long permitting and construction, fierce public opposition, and incalculable environmental damage that will undoubtedly span centuries — all this and more, while acting stupendously as sitting-duck terrorist targets.

But instead of us just beating up on WaPo for the duration of this in-depth editorial for its ludicrous labeling of nuclear power as “carbon-free,” let us continue by examining the primary essence of WaPo‘s piece: that somehow, the bankruptcy of Westinghouse Electric Company, a nuclear reactor manufacturer and industry giant, is a terrible tragedy regarding humankind’s need to quickly reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change. The perpetuation of this notion can only be described as an epic fail on the part of the editors at the Washington Post, and must be chalked up as the propagation of pure rubbish.

WaPo‘s editorial commences by stating:

The bankruptcy of Westinghouse, the venerable American nuclear-reactor maker now owned by Japan’s equally prestigious Toshiba, is a blow to two of the greatest names in global business — a devastating one. More important for the United States, and the planet, is what the debacle means for the future of nuclear energy, which still supplies 19.5 percent of this country’s electricity, all of it carbon-free.

Allow us to digress for a paragraph at this juncture, and first mention the victims of Fukushima, where the “equally prestigious” Toshiba Corporation supplied the now-melted Unit 3 mixed plutonium fuel (MOX) reactor at the Daiichi power plant, in part leading to the evacuation of some 154,000 people. Toshiba continues to flounder and flop in cleanup efforts on the ground there today, as TEPCO, the plant’s operator, admits that technology to remove the melted fuel-cores hasn’t even been invented yet. But let’s examine WaPo‘s statements a bit further.

The editorial adds:

Once billed as “too cheap to meter,” nuclear energy never quite lived up to its potential, either economically or environmentally. Yet nations that abandon it, as Germany did in the wake of Fukushima, add greatly to the costs and logistical challenges of meeting carbon-reduction goals. The United States should keep using nuclear energy during what is bound to be a long transition from the current energy mix to a completely renewable system, but it needs to rethink how best to do that… Government and the private sector need to support new reactor designs.

Shut the fuck up Wapo! You’re out of your element! Sadly, the lost-in-left-field editorial falls directly in line with a popular “greenwashing” movement that urgently touts nuclear power as the sole means by which humanity can save itself from the fossil fuel emissions causing climate destabilization doom. Extensive research conducted at EnviroNews demonstrates this is simply and egregiously fictitious, and represents a farcically false choice at best.

Bill Gates, and even former NASA climate scientist Dr. James Hansen, have jumped on this dangerous bandwagon as well, iterating time and again in on-the-record appearances, that countries should build as many nuclear reactors as they can as fast and furiously as possible, in an effort to save humanity from the perils of a crumbling climate (Note: Bill Gates, the billionaire “philanthropist” and “humanitarian,” also happens to be the Chairman of the Board of TerraPower — a fourth generation nuclear power reactor company, and is involved in multiple other radioactive schemes). But Arnie Gundersen of Fairewinds Associates, a nuclear expert, former engineer and reactor operator turned industry whistleblower, disagrees with this train of thought entirely, and says advances in nuclear technology simply cannot be made quickly enough to solve the climate conundrum — for several reasons.

In November of 2016, Gundersen authored an analytical report for TruthOut, the progressive publishing site, titled, Nuclear Power Is Not “Green Energy”: It Is a Fount of Atomic Waste. Excerpts from the piece are relevant as background for this editorial and read thusly:

Entering the 21 century, renewables began to appear more feasible [than nuclear], so the atomic power industry latched on to NASA’s James Hansen’s 1988 prognosis of the global buildup in CO2 resulting in global climate change as a new justification for existence. Armed with this new marketing ploy, nuclear power lobbyists flooded Capitol Hill looking for financing to fund the 21st century “nuclear renaissance.”

Does the nuclear industry’s latest claim that it is the world’s salvation from increasing levels of CO2 hold up under scrutiny? No. The evidence clearly shows that building new nuclear power plants will make global warming worse.

Nuclear power lobbyists and their marketing firms want us to believe that humankind’s current CO2 atmospheric releases would have been much worse were it not for those 438 power plants now operating. How much worse? The World Nuclear Association industry trade group estimates that an additional 1.1 gigatons of CO2 would have been created in 2015 if natural gas plants supplied the electricity instead of those 438 nukes. Worldwide, all those nuclear power plants made only a three percent dent in yearly CO2 production. Put another way, each of the 438 individual nuclear plants contribute less than seven thousandths of one percent to CO2 reduction. That’s hardly enough to justify claims that keeping your old local power plant running is necessary to prevent the sea from rising.

Can new atomic power reactors really help cut CO2 by 2050? Unfortunately, what is past is prologue. The World Nuclear Association claims that 1,000 new nuclear power plants will be needed by 2050 to combat CO2 buildup and climate change. The MIT estimate also assumes 1,000 nuclear power plants must be in operation by 2050. Using the nuclear trade association’s own calculations shows that these new power plants will offset only 3.9 gigatons of CO2 in 2050; 3.9 gigatons out of 64 gigatons is only 6.1 percent of the total CO2 released to the atmosphere in 2050, hardly enough for the salvation of the polar bears.

If those 1,000 nuclear power plants were cheap and could be built quickly, investing in atomic power reactors might still make sense. However, Lazard Financial Advisory and Asset Management, with no dog in the fight, has developed a rubric which estimates that the construction cost of those new power plants will be $8,200,000,000,000. Yes, that’s $8.2 trillion to reduce CO2 by only 6 percent.

Furthermore, WaPo, alongside Gates, Hansen and others, in all their scientific brilliance, always seem to fail in providing a solution to deal with the deadly, mutagenic, carcinogenic waste-stream left behind by nuclear power — a perpetually piling problem, as endless tons of spent fuel and other radioactive waste continue to stack up around the world — on-site at power plants, and at waste facilities, many of which are in crisis mode already attempting just to handle what they have now. Places like Washington State’s Hanford and the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) in New Mexico have suffered plutonium leaks and explosions, as they flail about fervently trying to find a fix. While WaPo, Gates and Hansen say we should build reactors full steam ahead, none of them offer a solution for the waste issue. In fact, WaPo‘s writeup scarcely makes mention of that problem at all — and it’s no small problem either.

In regards to nuclear waste, WaPo‘s editorial board did however write this, as part of its opinion:

A long-term solution for radioactive waste disposal is also in order — specifically, using the Yucca Mountain site that has long since been determined to be safe, but has been blocked by politics.

Um, no. Shut the fuck up WaPo! You’re out of your element! — again. Yucca Mountain has been blocked by Nevadans, who overwhelmingly oppose the idea — including their lawmakers, like Republican Governor Brian Sandoval and most of their legislators, both Republican and Democrat, who have filed over 200 contentions against the application. But Yucca was ultimately stopped by the courts — specifically, the Federal Court of Appeals, which ruled in 2004 that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) failed to demonstrate it could keep the waste safe for hundreds of thousands of years as would be required — not just 10,000 years as was initially proposed. Additionally, since Yucca Mountain was designated by Congress back in 1987 to serve as the country’s sole long-term nuclear waste repository, it has been discovered the site is seismically active and sits on top of an aquifer, making it scientifically unsuitable and dangerous for such a purpose. Where on Earth is WaPo getting its information? WaPo may however get its wish, as Trump has included $120 million for the restart and development of Yucca Mountain in the preliminary 2018 budget proposal.

The more nuclear plants humanity revs up, the more nuclear waste piles up, increasing evermore the amount of radiation in the environment, and making Earth a more dangerous place to live. If governments and the nuclear industry focused their resources and efforts on a way to effectively deal with the waste, we might be able to have a different conversation about building new nuclear plants. But the fact remains, the industry has no solution for the waste, yet it wants to charge full throttle into the construction of at least 1,000 new reactors, which will generate new mountains of deadly waste, without a solution for it. This is a dangerous gamble for the planet to say the least.

There are yet further carbon emissions from the nuclear industry’s endless games that are seldom factored into the conversation at all. For example, the essential future cleanup of 15,000 abandoned uranium mines (in the U.S. alone), left in total ruin — most of which were never remediated at all. These destructive festering messes off-gas radon continuously into the open air as the uranium decays away to other isotopes, while blowing around radioactive dust and leeching off tailings into water supplies. To remediate all 15,000 of these mines would take thousands of diesel-powered trucks and bulldozers and would emit an enormous amount of carbon in the process — and that carbon from cleaning up old dead mines needs to be factored into nuclear’s footprint. The industry should not get a pass on carbon emitted for its own cleanup operations.

Furthermore, to adequately remediate all the government’s other Manhattan Project disasters will add yet another chunk of CO2 to the world’s carbon conundrum. Hanford alone will take another 70 years and at least $110 billion to clean up — and that cleanup is almost certainly going to be powered by fossil fuels.

It’s not only Hanford of course, it’s dozens of other “legacy” superfund sites from the government’s bomb-making fun as well. These legacy sites, as well as many other disastrous situations that never received superfund designation, float free in the wind and are a far cry from finished. It will take loads of carbon to clean up all these sites as well. Was the Washington Post thinking about these factors when it wrote its erroneous editorial?

Last but not least, we must account for the baffling amount of greenhouse gasses already released by the nuclear industry from the Manhattan Project onward — gasses that in many cases, are still floating freely in the atmosphere today, eroding the climate in real time. Many of these gasses will continue to damage the climate for years, and in some cases, decades to come. CO2 for instance, once emitted into the air, remains for 20-200 years.

A prime example of epic greenhouse gas releases from antiquated nuclear projects can be observed when examining the Manhattan Project’s gaseous diffusion plant at Paducah, Kentucky. The simply massive complex required three allocated coal-fired power plants to meet its needs, and in addition, released enough CFC-containing freon into the atmosphere that 10 percent of the hole in the ozone layer is attributed to the activities from that one facility alone. Paducah, when in full swing, was said to be by far the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter — and all this for only a few paltry pounds of bomb-grade uranium 235. Today, the baffling complex, like others of its kind, sits adrift under DOE control, with mountainous heaps of depleted uranium (DU) on-site — dangerous material that nobody has any real answers for. Let us not forget that uranium carries a half-life of around 4.5 billion years, meaning it will remain radioactive in the environment for about 45 billion years — or about ten times the age of the earth itself. Lastly on the topic of Paducah, the facility continues to leak technetium 99 and other isotopes into the aquifer below, which has given birth to a nightmarish radioactive groundwater plume that continues to flow toward the Ohio River and other waterways.

Most parents teach even their pre-school-age children to abide by one simple rule: you must clean up your current mess before you can have more toys and make another. Shouldn’t humanity demand the same standard for the most dangerous industry on Earth? Shouldn’t the people insist that the nuclear industry clean up the many thousands of messes it’s made in all corners of the globe, before giving it another pass to stomp on the accelerator with its ambition to build 1,000 new, not carbon-free, nuclear power reactors?

The Washington Post‘s attempt to advocate for nuclear power, using a flat-out wrong point-of-view is horrendous writing at best, and downright dangerous at worst. WaPo should take great care before jumping on a greasy greenwashing campaign that falsely claims the only way humanity can save itself from the perils of climate destabilization is by building as many nuclear power reactors as possible. WaPo should be ashamed of itself and should strive for a higher standard from its editorial board if it wishes to pipe up on nuclear issues again. Or, perhaps WaPo should continue in its efforts to roll strikes on politics and “Russiagate,” instead of throwing embarrassing gutter-balls on the farcically fabricated notion of “carbon-free” nuclear power.

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