Smile Politely

Carbon or radiation?: A false dilemma

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has decided, with little input from the campus community and absolutely no input from the wider Champaign County community, to take on a vanity-driven project: to be the first university to commission a nuclear microreactor. Residents of Champaign County should soundly reject this reckless and dangerous project.

The plan to build a nuclear power plant on campus has been sold as a shortcut to meeting campus carbon reduction goals. (You will notice that the original document does not call for nuclear power.) University administration needs a shortcut because they are unable to conserve adequately, continue to build less-than-energy-efficient buildings, and maintain operating the energy-gobbling Petascale facility, to name a few reasons.

Nuclear power is not a form of renewable energy. Nuclear power is neither clean, safe, nor cheap and has no place in and around a busy campus community. Excess carbon is dangerous for the planet — so is nuclear radiation. It is trading one type of environmental disaster for another.

Nuclear power generation is the singular most dangerous form of energy production. Have we learned nothing from the accidents at Fukushima, Chernobyl, or Three Mile Island? If these names are not familiar to you, please look them up.

It strains belief that any campus administrator would claim that nuclear power is “clean.” Is “clean” defined as no visible waste? We cannot see viruses, but they, as we know quite well, can be devastating. Some claim this new technology to be safe. Safe? Radiation can and does cause severe burns, cancer, and death in manufacture, use, and disposal, as well as in fission products, in leakage, core meltdowns, and human error. In the 70s we were also sold on the ‘safety’ of nuclear power. Now we focus on ways to dispose of the hazards created by these facilities and remove them from our communities across the country — excepting, it would seem, at the University of Illinois where we welcome hazardous and dangerous nuclear fission.

Spent radioactive fuel and the products of fission are hazardous to human and animal survival. Plutonium 241, with a brief half-life of 14.4 years, is highly radioactive for most of that time. Uranium 235, or HEULU, which is the choice fuel for nuclear microreactors, can cause harm for an unimaginable amount of time. Uranium 235 has a half-life of 750 million years. There is no safe storage. How does the U of I plan to now, and/or in the distant future, store the fuel and waste without hurting us?

The fact that the State of Illinois already has dangerous nuclear power plants is no rationale for bringing on more problems. No commissioned nuclear plant is careless about accidents. They all attempt to be safe. That is why nuclear reactors are encased in thick layers of concrete, and guards are stationed at the entrance. Workers must be painstakingly careful to avoid contamination. Are these precautions we are willing to take to hedge our bets about the safety of a reactor? Will we expect countless generations into the future to continue to take these precautions? What happens when the reactor is no longer viable? Where will the U of I-created “Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation” be then? Champaign-Urbana (if it exists that far in the future) will be a Superfund site at best.

Between 2006 and 2016, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has documented 61 events and 102 conditions in US nuclear facilities that were close to resulting in a nuclear meltdown. Nuclear meltdown results in radiation release, poisoning living beings, soil, and waterways for miles around the area, rendering the entire area uninhabitable. Suggesting this ‘new’ technology is safe requires far more than lip service from its proponents, which is all we have seen thus far.

We can find more environmentally-responsible ways to boil water for $20 million (the amount the U of I expects to pay for its share of the project). In fact, that is a small fraction of the cost of putting this reactor online. The rest is being bankrolled by the Department of Energy and private interests. For those of a certain age, this must sound familiar. When do we decide if we should spend taxpayer dollars on this scheme? What future-looking, environmentally-safe energy projects will be shelved in order to chase this imprudent course of action?

Here is a petition that will be presented to the U of I administration. Please sign it if you think the community needs to be included in any talk of commissioning a nuclear reactor. This petition is only asking for community involvement. Another petition could be created to reject this very dangerous plan outright.

Champaign County community: do not simply take nuclear advocates’ word; educate yourselves on this critical matter.

Gina Cassidy is a Graduate Student in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Top photo by Anna Longworth.

Related Articles