The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) has published a document called ‘Myths & Facts About Nuclear Energy’. The NEI – ‘the policy organization of the nuclear energy and technologies industry and participates in both the national and global policy-making process’ – describes the document as a collection of ‘Synopses of Common Myths About Nuclear Energy and Corresponding Facts That Refute Them’.

In this series of posts we're presenting some Corresponding Facts that Refute the NEI's Corresponding Facts.

The ‘Myth’: Nuclear energy is ‘dirty.’

NEI’s ‘Fact’: Nuclear energy is one of the cleanest energy sources in America. In 2009, the nation’s 104 nuclear plants produced 70 percent of the low-carbon electricity generated in the United States. This avoided the emission of 644 million tons of CO2, the equivalent of taking 125 million cars off the road. A University of Wisconsin study found that nuclear energy’s life-cycle emissions (including construction and all aspects of plant operation) are less than hydro, solar and biomass and on par with wind and geothermal, all of which are considered “clean” energy supplies.

Here we have some classic industry spin. When it comes to nuclear power, the industry wants you to think of electricity generation in isolation. It wants you to focus on ‘low-carbon’ electricity and not think about the environmental catastrophes caused by uranium mining and nuclear waste. Uranium mining isn’t even mentioned in the NEI document.

And yet the production of nuclear fuel is a hugely intensive process. Uranium must be mined, milled, converted, enriched, converted again and then manufactured into fuel. You’ll notice the NEI’s ‘fact’ doesn’t mention the carbon footprint of all steps in the nuclear chain prior to electricity generation. Fossil fuels have to be used and that means CO2 emissions.

Not only that, there is not a uranium mine in the world that has not blighted the environment and the lives of the people living close by. Look at Caetite in Brazil, Kakadu in Australia, Wollaston Lake in Canada [], Akokan and Arlit in Niger, and the Najavo people in the US, to name just a few. Does that legacy of contamination make you think nuclear power is clean? Uranium mining is the industry’s dirty little secret.

We’ll talk about nuclear waste in a later post.

(For more information read Greenpeace’s briefings ‘Nuclear Power: a dangerous waste of time’  and ‘Left in the dust: AREVA’s radioactive legacy in the desert towns of Niger’. See also Nuclear Myths and Facts #1: No new nuclear plants have been built in the past 30 years and Nuclear Myths and Facts #2: New nuclear plants are too expensive to build.)