Nuclear pebbles


As somebody who lives on Alameda Point I was encouraged to read that one of the huge empty buildings not far from our home is to be made useful. (“Nuclear Reasearch Coming to Alameda,” Nov. 16). Kairos Power, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Energy, will be working in this space on a nuclear pebble cooling system — one that uses molten salt. Apparently this has the potential of solving “the most worrisome problem of nuclear power — potential meltdown.” The inference being that if this research is successful, then nuclear power will be rendered relatively safe.

There are problems related to nuclear power production that will not be solved by the pebble cooling system. One huge one is uranium mining. This has contaminated large areas of the southwest United States, as well as many other areas worldwide — often on the lands of indigenous peoples. When uranium is mined and exposed to air and water, radioactivity is released into the environment. Open-pit mines scar the land, while in-situ mines pollute aquifers and put communities’ water supplies at risk. 

After uranium ore is mined, the milling process treats the ore to extract uranium from the rock. More than 99 percent of the rock is left over from this process in the form of a toxic sludge referred to as tailings. Tailings are radioactive for 800,000 years and contain 85 percent of the ore’s original radioactivity, along with the processing chemicals. Cleanup and maintenance of tailing piles is costing taxpayers billions. 

The problem of what to do with nuclear waste is a huge one and yet to be resolved. In 2012 there were 70,000 tons of irradiated fuel with no safe and permanent home to go to. And according to the National Resources Defense Council, there are still some 4,000 abandoned uranium mines scattered across the landscape of the West, and decades after the closure of operations, a significant number remains to be cleaned up.

So yes, I’m encouraged to learn that one of the empty cavernous buildings over here on the Point is to be made useful. But it’s very disappointing, disturbing even, to read of the purpose to which this building will be put. Time, money and labor spent on the nuclear industry would have been better spent on the development and production of equipment for solar energy or wind farms. Uranium, like coal, is best left in the ground. 


Emmanuel Williams