Green America works to address the climate crisis by transitioning the US electricity mix away from its heavy emphasis on coal-fired power. But all of that work will be wasted if we transition from coal to an equally dangerous source – nuclear power. Nuclear power is not a climate solution. It may produce lower-carbon energy, but it is not clean energy.
Solar power, wind power, geothermal power, hybrid and electric cars, and aggressive energy efficiency are climate solutions that are safer, cheaper, faster, more secure, and less wasteful than nuclear power. Our country needs a massive influx of investment in these solutions if we are to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, enjoy energy security, jump-start our economy, create jobs, and work to lead the world in development of clean energy.
Thankfully, no new nuclear plants have been built in the US for over 30 years. That means that a whole new generation of concerned citizens grew up without knowing the facts about nuclear power – or remembering the terrible disasters at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. With the Nuclear Regulatory Commission now voting to allow the first new nuclear plants in the US, and after witnessing the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, it is time to remind everyone that nuclear is not the answer.
Currently around 400 nuclear plants exist worldwide. Nuclear proponents say we would have to scale up to around 17,000 nuclear plants to offset enough fossil fuels to address climate change. This isn’t possible, and neither are 2,500 or 3,000 more nuclear plants that many people frightened about climate change suggest. Here’s why:
1. Nuclear waste — The waste from nuclear power plants will be toxic for humans for more than 100,000 years. It’s untenable now to secure and store all of the waste from the plants that exist. To scale up to 2,500 or 3,000, let alone 17,000 plants is unthinkable.
Nuclear proponents hope that the next generation of nuclear plants will generate much less waste, but this technology is not yet fully developed or proven. Even if new technology eventually can successfully reduce the waste involved, the waste that remains will still be toxic for 100,000 years. There will be less per plant, perhaps, but likely more overall, should nuclear power scale up to 2,500, 3,000 or 17,000 plants. No community should have to accept a nuclear waste site, or even accept the risks of nuclear waste being transported through on route to its final destination. The waste problem alone should take nuclear power off the table.
President Obama took the proposed solution of a national nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, off the table, though members of the president’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future have suggested reopening discussion of this location. But the people of Nevada have said they don’t want a nuclear waste facility there, and we would need to transfer the waste to this facility from plants around the country, which puts thousands of other communities at risk.
2. Nuclear proliferation – In discussing the nuclear proliferation issue, Al Gore said, “During my eight years in the White House, every nuclear weapons proliferation issue we dealt with was connected to a nuclear reactor program.” Iran and North Korea are reminding us of this every day. We can’t develop a domestic nuclear energy program without confronting proliferation in other countries.
Here too, nuclear power proponents hope that the reduction of nuclear waste will reduce the risk of proliferation from any given plant, but again, the technology is not yet proven – and reduced risk doesn’t mean no risk of proliferation. If we want to be serious about stopping proliferation in the rest of the world, we need to get serious here at home, and not push the next generation of nuclear power forward as an answer to climate change. There is simply no way to guarantee that nuclear materials will not fall into the wrong hands
3. National Security – Nuclear reactors represent a clear national security risk, and an attractive target for terrorists. In researching the security around nuclear power plants, Robert Kennedy, Jr. found that there are at least eight relatively easy ways to cause a major meltdown at a nuclear power plant.
What’s more, Kennedy has sailed boats right into the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant on the Hudson River outside of New York City not just once but twice, to point out the lack of security around nuclear plants. The unfortunate fact is that our nuclear power plants remain unsecured, without adequate evacuation plans in the case of an emergency. Remember the government response to Hurricane Katrina, and cross that with a Chernobyl-style disaster to begin to imagine what a terrorist attack at a nuclear power plant might be like.
4. Accidents – Forget terrorism for a moment, and remember that mere accidents – human error or natural disasters – can wreak just as much havoc at a nuclear power plant site. The Chernobyl disaster forced the evacuation and resettlement of nearly 400,000 people, with thousands poisoned by radiation. The Fukushima disaster forced the evacuation of 150,000 people, and the costs of the clean-up are still being calculated.
Here in the US, the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979 triggered a clean-up effort that ultimately lasted for nearly 15 years, and topped more than two billion dollars in cost. The cost of cleaning up after one of these disasters is simply too great, in both dollars and human cost – and if we were to scale up to 17,000 plants, is it reasonable to imagine that not one of them would ever have a single meltdown? Many nuclear plants are located close to major population centers. For example, experts argue that if there was an accident at the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant outside of New York City, evacuation would be impossible.
And accidents aren’t limited to power plants. Also in 1979, another nuclear-related accident occurred at the Church Rock uranium mine in New Mexico, where more than 1,000 tons of radioactive mill waste was spilled into the Puerco River. The accident, occuring in a rural area of the Navajo Reservation, received little media attention, though it would have long-term consequences. A 2007 study found significant radiation still present in the area, and in 2008 Congress authorized funds for continued clean-up efforts. In the US, uranium mining occurs disproportionately on Native American lands, with Native communities facing the worst consequences of potential accidents.
5. Cancer — There are growing concerns that living near nuclear plants increases the risk for childhood leukemia and other forms of cancer – even when a plant has an accident-free track record. One Texas study found increased cancer rates in north central Texas since the Comanche Peak nuclear power plant was established in 1990, and a recent German study found childhood leukemia clusters near several nuclear power sites in Europe.
According to Dr. Helen Caldicott, a nuclear energy expert, nuclear power plants produce numerous dangerous, carcinogenic elements. Among them are: iodine 131, which bio-concentrates in leafy vegetables and milk and can induce thyroid cancer; strontium 90, which bio-concentrates in milk and bone, and can induce breast cancer, bone cancer, and leukemia; cesium 137, which bio-concentrates in meat, and can induce a malignant muscle cancer called a sarcoma; and plutonium 239. Plutonium 239 is so dangerous that one-millionth of a gram is carcinogenic, and can cause liver cancer, bone cancer, lung cancer, testicular cancer, and birth defects. Uranium mining and transportation increase background radiation and cancer risks worldwide, not only at nuclear power-plant sites. Because safe and healthy power sources like solar and wind exist now, we don’t have to rely on risky nuclear power.
6. Not enough sites – Scaling up to 17,000 – or 2,500 or 3,000 — nuclear plants isn’t possible simply due to the limitation of feasible sites. Nuclear plants need to be located near a source of water for cooling, and there aren’t enough locations in the world that are safe from droughts, flooding, hurricanes, earthquakes, or other potential disasters that could trigger a nuclear accident. Over 24 nuclear plants were at risk of needing to be shut down in the summer of 2008 because of the drought in the Southeast. No water, no nuclear power.
There are many communities around the country that simply won’t allow a new nuclear plant to be built – further limiting potential sites. And there are whole areas of the world that are unsafe because of political instability and the high risk of proliferation. In short, because of geography, local politics, political instability and climate change itself, there are not enough sites for a scaled-up nuclear power strategy.
7. Not enough uranium – Even if we could find enough feasible sites for a new generation of nuclear plants, we’re running out of the uranium necessary to power them. Scientists in both the US and UK have shown that if the current level of nuclear power were expanded to provide all the world’s electricity, our uranium would be depleted in less than ten years.
As uranium supplies dwindle, nuclear plants will actually begin to use up more energy to mine and mill the uranium than can be recovered through the nuclear reactor process. Dwindling supplies will also trigger the use of ever lower grades of uranium, which produce ever more climate-change-producing emissions – resulting in a climate-change catch 22. To increase our access to uranium, there will be heightened pressure to open new mines and expand existing mines, including in fragile or protected areas, bringing increased risk to mine workers and local communities, and contributing to the overall issue of increases in background radiation local to the mines and globally.
8. Costs – Some types of energy production, such as solar power, experience decreasing costs to scale. Like computers and cell phones, when you make more solar panels, costs come down. Nuclear power, however, will experience increasing costs to scale. Due to dwindling sites and uranium resources, each successive new nuclear power plant will only see its costs rise, with taxpayers and consumers ultimately paying the price.
What’s worse, nuclear power is centralized power. A nuclear power plant brings few jobs to its local economy. In contrast, accelerating solar and energy efficiency solutions create good-paying, green-collar jobs in every community.
Around the world, nuclear plants are seeing major cost overruns. For example, a new generation nuclear plant in Finland is already experiencing numerous problems and cost overruns of 25 percent of its $4 billion budget. The US government’s current energy policy providing more than $11 billion in subsidies to the nuclear energy could be much better spent providing safe and clean energy that would give a boost to local communities, like solar and wind power do. Subsidizing costly nuclear power plants directs that money to large, centralized facilities, built by a few large companies that will take the profits out of the communities they build in.
9. Private sector unwilling to finance – Due to all of the above, the private sector has largely chosen to take a pass on the financial risks of nuclear power, which is what leads the industry to seek taxpayer loan-guarantees and insurance from Congress in the first place.
As the Nuclear Energy Institute reported in a brief to the US Department of Energy, “100 percent loan coverage [by taxpayers] is essential … because the capital markets are unwilling, now and for the foreseeable future, to provide the financing necessary” for new nuclear power plants. Wall Street refuses to invest in nuclear power because the plants are assumed to have a 50 percent default rate. The only way that Wall Street will put their money behind these plants is if American taxpayers underwrite the risks. If the private sector has deemed nuclear power too risky, it makes no sense to force taxpayers to bear the burden.
And finally, even if all of the above strikes against nuclear power didn’t exist, nuclear power still can’t be a climate solution because there is …
10. No time – Even if nuclear waste, proliferation, national security, accidents, cancer and other dangers of uranium mining and transport, lack of sites, increasing costs, and a private sector unwilling to insure and finance the projects weren’t enough to put an end to the debate of nuclear power as a solution for climate change, the final nail in nuclear’s coffin is time. We have the next ten years to mount a global effort against climate change. It simply isn’t possible to build 17,000 – or 2,500 or 17 for that matter – in ten years.
With so many strikes against nuclear power, it should be off the table as a climate solution, and we need to turn our energies toward the technologies and strategies that can truly make a difference: solar power, wind power, and energy conservation.