Recently, The New Mexican has published two opinions (“Getting over fears of nuclear,” My View, July 7; “Holtec storage project should go forward,” My View, June 30), praising nuclear energy and dismissing those who disagree as “ignorant” and having “superstitious fears.” We were told to “do our patriotic duty” and embrace it. Patriotism has nothing to do with which energy source one chooses, and the irresponsible claims made by these authors must be refuted.
• It is nuclear energy, not renewable sources, that is limiting. Renewable technologies are much cheaper, can be deployed immediately and bring stable, local jobs. According to the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, it takes six to 12 years to build a nuclear power plant. Some of that time is due to planning safety redundancies, but no one should argue that safety is superfluous in a complex project like a reactor. Nuclear power is a useless solution to climate change because, by the time enough plants are deployed, it will be too late. There are no safety issues with solar panels, wind turbines and storage systems.
• Small modular reactors were touted by one author as “producing virtually no radioactive waste.” This is ridiculous. The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research notes that small modular reactors produce the same types of waste as large reactors, although somewhat less in volume. However, spreading them around the countryside only creates a more expensive and complex waste management problem.
• New Mexico is one of the worst places to bury long-lived and deadly radioactive waste. It sits atop the Rio Grande rift, one of the thinnest parts of the Earth’s crust on this continent. Rifts are unstable geologically, which is clearly visible in the many eroded volcanoes that are ubiquitous in New Mexico.
• Comparing nuclear waste to city garbage and volunteering to accept it is the height of irresponsibility. In 77 years, we have made 80,000 tons of radioactive waste, and we still don’t know what to do with the first cupful. We debate and agonize over the politics and economics of radioactive waste storage, which distracts us from the real problem — radioactive decay. This is not decay of organic matter like garbage; it is governed by the laws of physics, which in this case is a slow process that no technology can speed up. Indeed, it decays so slowly that if someone had buried it 200 million years ago, most of it would still be here.
Radioactive waste like iodine-129 must go through 20 half-lives before most of it is gone, making it deadly for 314 million years. Twenty half-lives of plutonium-239 is almost 500,000 years. But it then becomes other radioactive substances that also have to decay, each through 20 half-lives. Plutonium turns into 12 other radioactive substances after it decays, some with half-lives of millions of years.
• Holtec, one of the companies wanting to turn deadly waste into private profit by burying it in our state, has been cited for violations by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has made casks illegally that violate the Waste Policy Act, and has been involved in a bribery scandal. Is this a company you want managing waste in your beautiful state?
Humans have never had to think along such time frames, and every time we choose to make more nuclear waste, we demonstrate that we don’t have a clue how to do it. Future generations will have to live with nuclear waste’s deadly dangers without having gotten one benefit of the energy it produced. It is incumbent on us to develop an ethical code that addresses the far more challenging issue of moral obligation, not to export into the future risks we are not prepared to bear in the present.
Cynthia Weehler lives in Santa Fe.