a conversation about the surprising realities
and costs of nuclear energy with Claus Biegert
CG: Our world has been nuclearized over the last five decades, for energy and atomic weaponry. And the production, from the mining of uranium for both, to the storage of radioactive waste from both, you say has come at immense environmental and social cost, cost that much of the public is still unenlightened or unconscious or uncurious about. Despite all the hard evidence out there. What’s the root problem?
CB: Few people question where nuclear material comes from in the first place, or whether it’s wise to use it. It’s uranium, and it comes from the earth, and usually from the traditional homelands of indigenous peoples. Most of these people live in vital relationship with the earth, and these surroundings wind up destroyed and with them, their cultures. Making these mining activities a clear and ongoing violation of human rights.
CG: Why is the process of taking uranium from the earth so destructive?
CB: Because enormous amounts of rock have to be mined and milled to produce a tiny amount, just 0.1% or less, of uranium ore, that’s turned into yellowcake. Most is waste, and 85% of it radioactive in the extensive tailings left behind – that can be the size of small mountains (the largest is over 80 million tons in Europe; and in the US and Canada some approach 30 million tons) or submerged under vast areas of hazardous, dammed-up water. These toxic messes will remain contaminated for generations to come.
CG: So while an epic environmental disaster is unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, around the world the nuclear industry has been knowingly not accidentally poisoning many parts of the planet’s ecology and its people for decades, from Asia and Africa to Canada and the US?
CB: But none of this is referred to publicly or officially as anything disastrous because it’s a widely accepted aspect of the uranium mining business. Even though scientifically we know it’s highly toxic; that the nearby radiation indigenous people are exposed to are related to many cancers and other debilitating diseases, and to the unnatural sicknesses of local animal and plant life.
Likewise, uranium enrichment, a process that produces depleted uranium – which is only considered “raw material” by the marketplace and not radioactive waste. Some of this goes into the weapons industry, and some into the iron and steel industry where it winds up recycled into parts of structures people move and work in.
Something is terribly wrong with this picture.
CG: Clearly we need to realize and become actively concerned about where nuclear energy is coming from; how it is extracted and handled, and where nuclear waste is going to. Not unlike the way we’re concerned these days about how safe our food is, and where and how it’s grown.
CB: We must, and we must also face ourselves in the mirror, and ask how comfortable we are living with this situation.
CG: But isn’t nuclear an essential part of the world’s energy supply?
CB: Despite many world leaders suggesting this is the case, it’s only about 2.5% of total energy production, and electricity alone is only about 17%. Making the level of destruction to produce it far out of proportion; wholly unsustainable; unacceptable. To say nothing of the fact that a half-century later there’s still no place to permanently store all the nuclear waste that has been and is still being generated as we speak.
Imagine creating an entire industry with no solution for the back end of the process. No real answers; no real antidote. That’s the world nuclear business.
CG: When I was an Official Listener back in 1992 at the World Uranium Hearing that you held in Salzburg, one of the greatest revelations from the leading scientists present was that there’s no safe level of ionizing radiation, despite propaganda to the contrary.
I also heard first-hand from the indigenous peoples affected, from the immediate victims of the world’s nuclear pursuits; many who had never left their villages till then. Who told their stories, revealed the truth, sad truth, that brought so many of us there in Salzburg to tears.
CB: The Hearing was successful in opening a lot of eyes and minds to the dark realities, and in empowering these indigenous people by giving them allies in their struggle to preserve their lands, livelihoods and cultures. As well, in publishing their testimonies and sharing revealing scientific presentations and conclusions.
As you know, we also had a Declaration of Salzburg adopted by the United Nations, which I encourage your readers to look at. It’s something vital we can all stand for. Especially for the benefit of our younger and next generations.
CG: What other illusions or myths are we operating under?
CB: Generations of people were told by the nuclear industry, especially in the 1950s and 60s, that nuclear was a panacea and science would take care of everything. So most people stopped worrying about the profound issues and problems of going and being nuclear. But the industry and nuclear-driven governments have failed to protect us or the planet, and they still have no worthwhile answers.
We need to worry.
CG: Aside of course from what happened so chillingly in Chernobyl, the worst nuclear power plant accident in history; and Three Mile Island, which people have forgotten about. These raised red flags for a while, but all that urgent concern seems to have faded away from the mainstream consciousness.
CB: Unfortunately yes. And the industry and governments talk today about a nuclear energy renaissance. But this is just PR, because there’s a finite amount of mineable uranium left, which will be exhausted in 70-80 years; and in less time if many new reactors are built around the world. Why should we say yes to an industry that is so lethal, and one with such a short shelf life?
They even call it green energy because it doesn’t emit Co2.
The fact is, there are many countries in the world, like Austria, Ireland, Portugal, New Zealand and Denmark, who don’t have and don’t want nuclear energy. And get along fine without it. Australia is rich in uranium deposits but has no reactors.
CG: So why did you create the Nuclear-Free Future Awards in 1998?
CB: All over the world there are courageous, inventive and inspired but unsung people standing up against this destruction; "counter-nuclear" champions who are working hard to educate and motivate the public.
These are people with great visions and smart solutions; who often risk their careers, even their lives to achieve a nuclear-free world. Our goal is to shine a light on them and their efforts; to recognize and financially support their work, because it’s important for every single one of us on the planet. They deserve our thanks.
We say nuclear-free instead of anti-nuclear, because we have a vision of a wiser future, one that uses safe and sustainable energy. Even if the world will never be fully nuclear free, it can be much freer of nuclear than it is. Including weapons. Our society started the Nuclear Age. Our society has the power to end or seriously diminish it.
CG: The next Nuclear-Free Future Awards are going to be presented in New York City, this September 30th at Cooper Union; open and free to the public. Can you tell us more about the event.
CB: We will recognize the following laureates and award them each $10,000: Oleg Bodrov in Russia for Education, Bruno Barrillot in France for Solutions, and The African Uranium Alliance for Resistance, as well as two individuals honorarily: Henry Red Cloud, from Pine Ridge, South Dakota, the Lakota Nation. He’s the fifth-generation grandson of famous Oglala Chief Red Cloud who was the first Indian to speak at Cooper Union, 140 years ago. And actor Martin Sheen, who has dedicated so much of his life fighting for peace through a nuclear-free world.
They will tell their front-line stories to the audience in Cooper Union's Great Hall and to all the people tuning in from around the world to the planned podcast.
CG: What should we all be thinking about right now, Claus?
CB: About why we allow the production of energy that is harming our lives and that of our children in visible and invisible ways, and seriously damaging the near and long-term health of our planet.
We should be thinking about how we can be more aware – and more responsible – as citizens of the wider world; and as protectors of the Nature that sustains us all. Become defenders of the purity of the natural resources like the oceans and skies we share: the world’s commons.
Everyone has a responsibility, a voice, and the ability to act.
Will we wait for another Chernobyl, maybe an even larger one, to get us to think and behave differently? Or will we take some initiative now.
It's time to realize that there's nothing safe or peaceful about nuclear.
CG: How can we be more enlightened, or helpful?
CB: Learn the truth. Also learn about groups like ours, and support some of them by volunteering or donating. The Nuclear-Free Future Awards directly supports individuals working for these essential goals with awards of money. You can also listen to the awardees in their own words on our site…or by coming to the September 30 (2010) event, or listening to the podcast.
Engage in conversations about these topics with your circles of friends and family and colleagues.
Take personal responsibility, and tell your elected officials this nuclear state of affairs that sacrifices so many innocent lives and precious parts of our natural world is unacceptable.
CG: What’s the greatest opportunity we have as a society?
CB: To wake up and work together in whatever small or larger ways we can to change course from our unwise ways of treating the earth to much wiser ways.
A message and spirit to take to heart is what the great Native American Chief Seattle said back in 1854 to President Franklin Pierce: The earth does not belong to man: man belongs to the earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood, which unites one family. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.
And John Mohawk Sotsisowah, the great Iroquois philosopher, who said in 1979: the war of the future will be between destroyers of nature and defenders of nature.
CG: Thanks so much Claus for all your thoughts and all your vital efforts.
is a strategic story developer and high-level interviewer, with a 25-year history helping leading and emerging companies worldwide platform and tell their stories. Choosing a Nuclear-Freer Future is the 21st in a series of thought pieces to help us think, act and communicate in wiser ways. Others can be found at
Claus Biegert is a long time radio host, documentary filmmaker, author, and journalist in Germany since 1973. He co-leads the Nuclear-Free Future Awards (NFFA) www.nuclear-free.com An independent group founded in 1998, the NFFA works closely with The Alternative Nobel Prize among others, and has been called by Berlin newspaper Taz “the most important anti-nuke award in the world.” Each year’s laureates, from grass-roots activists to enlightened politicians, are nominated by a distinguished advisory board and selected by an international jury.
For more information about the September 30th 2010 Nuclear-Free Future Award ceremony, at the Great Hall of Cooper Union; free to the public, email firstname.lastname@example.org
share this conversation with a colleague or friend