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|May 1-7, 2008
Opposition to nuclear energy is shrinking as concerns about climate change mount
by Rick Montgomery
Save the polar bear? Go nuclear. That is one way to beat climate change, or so says the Nuclear Energy Institute. When the industry group posted on its website poll results reflecting shifting opinions about nuclear power, it tossed in a picture of a polar bear traipsing across the tundra.
But industry opponents see a more threatening beast in their midst, like a hungry grizzly emerging from the woods after decades of hibernation.
The nuclear question is back. And this time the environmental front is divided — a victim of its own success in sounding alarms about global warming.
Even in Pennsylvania, home to the Three Mile Island fright of 1979, Democrats in the lead-up to last week’s primary signaled a willingness to consider nuclear power as an alternative to carbon-coughing electric plants fueled by coal.
Few voters even pressed them on it.
“A whole generation has grown up here knowing nothing about Three Mile Island,” said Judith Johnsrud, an adviser to the Pennsylvania Sierra Club. The plant’s partial meltdown put proposals for new U.S. nuclear reactors on ice for a quarter-century.
Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, who calls herself “agnostic,” or uncommitted, on the issue, blends urgent warnings about shipping and storing radioactive waste with pledges to put the nuclear option on the table.
“We do have to look at it because it doesn’t put greenhouse gases into the air,” she has said.
Similar remarks come from Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, which has the most nuclear reactors of any state. Both candidates have received donations from nuclear companies’ employees.
The office of Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, also a Democrat, recently outlined her views on national energy policy in the wake of rejecting a coal-fired plant’s expansion in western Kansas: She “recognizes that diversifying our energy portfolio is important... and all options should be considered, including nuclear power.”
President Bush recently announced a goal of stopping the growth of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions by 2025. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, has proposed billions of dollars worth of tax breaks and federally-backed loans for nuclear development.
The nuclear industry, which produces most of France’s electricity, faces many unresolved obstacles to its growth in the United States.
Wary insurers and enormous construction costs — roughly $8 billion per reactor — demand federal aid and loan guarantees.
Plans to store waste at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain Repository remain in legal and political limbo. The Energy Department was slated to begin accepting spent fuel there a decade ago.
Still, eight power companies have applied for federal licenses for new reactors. About two dozen sites have been pitched for new nuclear facilities. Currently, 104 reactors provide about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity.
“What’s held us up in the past,” said Derrick Freeman, who directs legislative efforts for the Nuclear Energy Institute, “is that America took on a sour mood about nuclear power after Three Mile Island and the Chernobyl disaster” in the Soviet Union in 1986. The Chernobyl blast directly caused at least 50 deaths, and some areas around the plant remain off-limits.
“That [mood] has changed,” Freeman said.
A few years ago the group Environmental Defense reconsidered its opposition to nuclear energy and now considers it a “low-carbon option.”
While the public remains split, surveys show opposition to nuclear energy is slowly shrinking as concerns about climate change and energy dependency mount.
In a March survey by the Pew Research Center, 48 percent of respondents said they were opposed to “promoting the increased use of nuclear power,” down from 53 percent in 2005.
Last year, a Gallup poll found 50 percent of Americans favored nuclear expansion and 46 percent opposed it. In 2001, the results were flipped: 44 percent favored it and 51 percent were opposed.
Some polls show that support for nuclear power rises or falls with oil prices. That puzzles experts, who note, with rare exception, the two energy sources serve different functions. Nuclear fission makes electricity, powering lamps and TVs. Oil is refined into gasoline and for making petroleum-based products.
“You ask people where energy comes from, and it’s the proverbial switch on the wall,” said Ann Bisconti, who conducts surveys for the nuclear industry. “The public isn’t analyzing these issues in great detail.”
As the industry tries to capitalize on fears of global warming (its lobbyists say the nation has avoided 8 billion metric tons of carbon-dioxide emissions, thanks to nuclear plants), some anti-nuke groups are shifting their case away from the environment and toward economics.
“We’re not foolish enough to blow all our money on nuclear energy” when cheaper alternatives such as solar and wind power exist, said Jim Riccio, a nuclear policy analyst for Greenpeace International.
But Riccio also recognizes the attraction, even among his staff, to nuclear plants over coal-fired ones. For people younger than 35, melting icecaps trump possible meltdowns, he said.
“The kids in my office, what they’re really concerned about is global warming. It’s the Vietnam of their generation,” he said. “But for all the time and money we’d need to commit to more nuclear plants, it may cost us the opportunity to stop global warming.”
Climate change was the stated reason that a Greenpeace co-founder, Patrick Moore, joined nuclear interests and became a co-chairman of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, which receives money from the Nuclear Energy Institute.
Moore now attacks Greenpeace and other nuclear opponents as being “stuck in the ’70s.”
In the 1970s, global warming wasn’t a worry. Activists at the time linked nuclear power to the Cold War arms race and mushroom-cloud imagery.
The anti-nuke film The China Syndrome topped the box office in March 1979, just weeks before the Three Mile Island accident.
Pumps at the Pennsylvania plant stopped running, and the No. 2 reactor overheated, resulting in the release of some radioactivity. Unlike the deadly and highly toxic explosion at Chernobyl, however, a worst-case scenario was averted at Three Mile Island, and reactors still operate there.
The threats are different for University of Kansas student Brian Sifton, who said he was “certainly open to nuclear.”
A coordinator for the green group KU Environs, Sifton acknowledged his concerns about how the country would handle the extra waste. But he cited a distinction between the “localized” fears of nuclear mishaps and the “globalized” effects of greenhouse gases.
“We’re a much more globalized world today,” and one nation’s gases may alter the planet for lifetimes to come, he said.
“The environmental movement is fractured down the middle on this... Given everything, unfortunately, I think you have to be open to nuclear.”
Then again, Sifton was only 3 when Three Mile Island became a rallying cry. He doesn’t remember the Chernobyl tragedy, either.
Back to Top
Is nuclear energy as cheap or clean as they say it is?
by Pamela White
With news of global climate change growing more alarming day by day, some are stepping forward to suggest that nuclear energy — a form of energy that Americans had largely rejected by the 1980s — is the best and fastest way to reduce the United State’s enormous carbon footprint. The term “nuclear renaissance,” promoted by the nuclear-energy industry, is finding its way into news articles featuring interviews with well-known environmentalists like Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, who hold up low-carbon nuclear power as the answer to global warming.
But behind the seeming swell of interest in nuclear energy is a well-funded lobbying effort that has funneled millions into Congress and the Bush administration, earning billions in subsidies for itself — as well as a preferential treatment during Vice President Dick Cheney’s secret energy talks. While the Bush administration promotes the benefits of nuclear energy as part of its Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), which would essentially put the United States at the head of a cartel that exports nuclear energy, some energy experts caution that nuclear is not the power panacea it’s being made out to be.
If you think gas is expensive…
LeRoy Moore, one of the founders of Boulder’s Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center and a lay expert on nuclear issues, says there are many reasons why the United States shouldn’t shift its effort toward nuclear energy, starting with cost.
It takes at least 15 years and $10 to $16 billion — conservative estimates — to build a single two-reactor nuclear power plant. The United States currently has 104 nuclear power plants that generate about 20 percent of the nation’s electrical power. At the moment, there are plans by the nuclear-power industry to build at least 28 additional reactors in the United States at 19 sites around the country. But for the United States to replace coal-burning power plants with nuclear power would require the construction of not dozens, but hundreds more nuclear reactors.
“We would have to have a new reactor opening every few months for 30 years,” Moore says. “If you calculate the cost of that, it would be a trillion dollars to construct the things. If this could actually be accomplished in 30 to 40 years — and I think it’s totally unrealistic — you’d have to start over, because most of the reactors would be ending their period of useful life.”
Proponents of nuclear power say that most nuclear reactors are still operational after 40 years, and some have gotten licenses to operate for another 20 years, bringing their potential life spans up to 60 years. Even so, a 60-year lifespan means a continuous building effort at a high cost.
“That’s just the economic side of it,” Moore says. “It’s for these kinds of reasons, plus questions of safety, that Wall Street really doesn’t support this industry. The only way they can go is if they get continued government subsidies. I don’t think the subsidies are going to come in at the levels I’ve just referred to.”
Last year, Congress funneled $18.5 billion into the nuclear-power industry in the form of government subsidies, including research subsidies, loan guarantees, tax credits and construction subsidies. More subsidies are expected to make it out of Congress this year as part of the congressional effort to address global warming.
“That’s a lot of money, but it’s a drop in the bucket to what it would take to have a ‘nuclear renaissance’ in the United States,” Moore says.
Some states allow the energy industry to pass costs onto consumers, which means some portion of the high cost of these facilities would come from the pockets of people heating their homes. The subsidies themselves come, of course, from the wallets of taxpayers.
“One of the main problems with nuclear is that it is pretty expensive,” says Arjun Makhijani, and engineer specializing in nuclear fusion and president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER). “It’s been that way for some time. And the costs of nuclear are escalating pretty rapidly, even as the cost of solar is going down.”
The decreasing value of the dollar makes everything more expensive in a globalized market, driving up the costs of construction. The United States now competes with the rapidly escalating demand from India and China for steel and other raw materials, further driving up costs. Skilled labor has become more expensive, as well.
“Wind energy is cheaper today than nuclear, and solar energy is going to be cheaper than nuclear within just a few years,” Makhijani says. “It’s very clear that one of the things that makes solar somewhat more expensive is essentially the small scale of manufacturing. As soon as the manufacturing facilities are in place and the scale is right, solar will become cheaper than nuclear.”
If the United States were to invest in a “nuclear renaissance,” it would be using scarce resources for expensive power, a solution that makes no sense to Makhijani.
“You can actually reduce CO2 much better by going for efficiency with renewable sources,” he says.
If you think carbon is dirty…
The notion that nuclear energy is clean energy is misleading. Although nuclear power plants don’t spew greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, they generate toxic, radioactive waste — waste that is deadly for thousands of centuries.
That waste begins when uranium ore is mined. Not only does the mining process devastate the landscape like coal mining, it also leaves behind tons of radioactive uranium tailings that present a real health hazard to anyone living nearby.
On parts of the Navajo reservation where uranium mining once provided scarce jobs, cancer rates are 17 times higher among Navajo teenagers than the American population at large. Miners, too, suffer from radiation-related cancers and illnesses.
But it isn’t sympathy for Navajo miners and children that soured America’s brief flirtation with nuclear energy. The plug was pulled after a series of events — a reactor fire at Browns Ferry, Ala., in 1975, the meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island in 1979, and the catastrophic meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986, which demonstrated vividly how dangerous nuclear power could be.
The impact of Chernobyl, the world’s worst nuclear accident, is still being felt around the world, particularly in Belarus, which received 70 percent of the fallout from the disaster and saw a sharp increase in childhood cancers, thyroid cancer, leukemia and other radiation-related illnesses as a result. Swedish scientists blame an estimated 849 cases of cancer on radioactive fallout from the disaster. An estimated 6.7 million people were exposed to radiation as a result of the accident, in which human error led to an explosion. Some estimates claim that 4,000 people worldwide will eventually die as a result of Chernobyl, while other estimates go as high as 93,000.
The explosion hasn’t only proved to be deadly; it’s also been very expensive. The United Nations estimates the damage to Belarus’ economy at $235 billion. The cleanup effort, which is ongoing — the sarcophagus that houses the still-deadly reactor is in the midst of being replaced at a cost of $800 million — continues to require global financial involvement. The “exclusion zone” around the plant remains one of the most radioactive places in the world.
Although proponents of a “nuclear renaissance” say nuclear power is safer than before, pointing to France’s success at generating about 70 percent of its energy from nuclear reactors, there are still unresolved problems relating to the radioactive waste that nuclear power plants generate.
Even the safest nuclear power plant produces spent fuel rods that are so toxic they must be stored in water for some 10 years before they can be placed into concrete containers for dry storage. Even brief exposure is deadly.
Currently, spent fuel rods are stored on-site at the nuclear power plants that generate them. However, the federal government has been trying to create a long-term plan for the safe storage of nuclear waste that would require these containers of spent fuel rods to be transported to a central location.
In 1987, Congress chose Yucca Mountain to be that site. Located in Nevada about 100 miles from the nearest population center, the facility was supposed to house up to 77,000 tons of nuclear waste in tunnels bored into the volcanic rock 1,000 feet below the mountain’s summit. At the time, some officials even engaged in a discussion about how best to warn future inhabitants of the region — whoever happens to be living in Nevada 100,000 years from now — that the site contained deadly radioactive material. But that was the government getting ahead of itself.
The selection of this particular site had more to do with politics than science, critics say. In the end, concerns over the safety of transporting nuclear waste long distances through urban centers, along highways and railways, together with possible seismic activity at the site and lack of scientific agreement over the impact of groundwater on the containment of the radioactive waste, brought any plans to use Yucca Mountain to a standstill.
“The government has spent a huge sum of money to get this one facility open as the site where fuel can be taken, and they haven’t succeeded in doing that,” says Moore. “The problem of transporting and storing nuclear waste is far from solved, and so people who talk of a nuclear renaissance prefer not to mention that part of it.”
If you thought 9/11 was bad…
One of the byproducts of nuclear power is plutonium. Contained in spent fuel rods, it can be removed from the other radioactive byproducts and, once removed, it can be used to create nuclear weapons.
Quite simply, nuclear power means continued nuclear proliferation, Moore says.
“If this industry continues, it’s easier for nuclear materials to be in wide circulation globally, and if we’re worried about their falling into the hands of terrorists or enemies of the United States — and that’s certainly a concern for many people — nuclear energy is not the way to deal with our [global warming] problem,” he says.
It’s not just the plutonium itself that presents a danger, but the mere existence of radioactive nuclear waste.
He points to the nuclear cooling pond at the Indian Point nuclear power plant in Buchanan, N.Y., some 35 miles north of Manhattan. On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists could just as easily have flown their hijacked planes into the cooling pond as into the World Trade Center.
“If either of those planes had run into the cooling pond near the reactor, it would have been a disaster the dimensions of which are hard to imagine,” Moore says. “People talked about it after 9/11. There were lots of calls in the New York state government to shut down the power station at Indian Point because they thought that if there were a terrorist attack of the sort of what I just described that millions of people would have had to evacuate throughout not only New York, but into Connecticut and Massachusetts, too.”
This danger exists everywhere there’s a nuclear power plant, Moore says.
And if the government does open a national waste site, the risk of catastrophic accidents or terrorist attacks extends to our highways, railways and urban centers. Plans for Yucca Mountain originally included transporting high-level nuclear waste through Denver, with discussions at the time including various disaster scenarios should a truck wreck or explode in the city’s infamous Mouse Trap, the intersection of I-25 and I-70.
If nuclear power presents such a host of unresolved dangers, why is it on the table again?
“There is money to be made in this industry, like there’s money to be made in war,” Moore says.
So what’s the real solution?
Makhijani believes he has proven that the United States can both give up fossil fuels and avoid using nuclear energy if a concerted effort is made to invest in other forms of energy. His book, Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy, which is available free for download from the IEER’s website (www.ieer.org), outlines a plan to eliminate the use of both fossil fuels and nuclear power over the next five decades.
“I was surprised to conclude as I did that we could get rid of fossil fuels and nuclear power in 30 to 50 years with the right policies,” he says. “It isn’t going to be easy. The technologies are here. Most of them are economical. Some of them are not 100 percent there yet, but they will be in 10 years with the right policies. But we need to put a price on carbon. We cannot allow carbon pollution to go on unchecked.”
Rather than favoring a carbon tax, which he says would be a “bureaucratic nightmare,” Makhijani thinks the nation should set up a fixed carbon allowance that decreases year by year and require all large users to compete against one another for their share of it.
“I do think large users should have fixed allowances — not allowances according to what they use, but one national cap for all large users,” he says. “And then that cap should be reduced to zero over 40 years. That should be announced as public policy, that we’re going to get rid of fossil fuels and that if you don’t get with the program you’re out of business.”
For small users, he favors introducing efficiency standards for buildings, appliances, automobiles and says that government policies can shape a market that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels or nuclear power.
“One of the things I advocate is for plug-in hybrids or electric cars to become the standard government vehicle by 2015,” he says. “That way you shape the marketplace. You bring more advanced technologies to the marketplace faster. You reduce oil use. Government — state, local and federal — buy about 300,000 cars a year. That’s a pretty big market.”
Government investment in renewable energy sources would enable the research and development necessary to produce the technological advances still needed for renewable sources of energy to power our society.
“It will take a lot of change,” he says. “It will take a lot of guts. It will take new ways of approaching the electricity sector — you build small, medium and large instead of building all large-scale power plants. It’s more complicated. But I think it will be actually cheaper to do it that way.”
And less toxic and safer, too.
Back to Top
—Electricity can be generated without the greenhouse-gas emissions of coal-fired plants.
—No major accidents have occurred at U.S. nuclear plants since the near-meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979.
—Nuclear plants already produce one-fifth of the nation’s electricity.
—Construction costs and delays in obtaining permits discourage private investment. The last U.S. reactor to open — Tennessee’s Watts Bar, which went on line in 1996 — cost $8 billion and took 23 years to complete.
—What to do with radioactive waste? U.S. storage sites already hold more than 50,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel.
—Terrorists can target plants and storage areas.
WHAT THE PUBLIC THINKS
Do you favor or oppose expanding the use of nuclear energy?
Year ... Favor ... Oppose
2001 ... 44 percent ... 51 percent
2007 ... 50 percent ... 46 percent
WHAT THE CANDIDATES SAY
John McCain, Republican: “We have to go back to nuclear power. Why can’t we look at what the French have done? About 80 percent of their electricity is generated by nuclear power.”
Hillary Clinton, Democrat: “I don’t have any preconceived opposition. I want to be sure that we do it right, as carefully as we can, because obviously it’s a tremendous source of energy.”
Barack Obama, Democrat: “I don’t think that we can take nuclear power off the table. What we have to make sure of is that we have the capacity to store waste properly and safely, and that we reduce whatever threats might come from terrorism.”