The crisis in Japan is generating new concerns about the safety of nuclear power plants, with regulators around world from Vermont to Germany reconsidering plans to extend the life of aging plants. In the United States, 104 nuclear power plants provide approximately 20 percent of electricity generated. The industry, some members of Congress, and the Obama administration would like that figure to be higher, cite stopping global warming among the top reasons. But does that argument even hold water? Many experts say no.
According to an analysis in 2009 by Environment America, nuclear power won’t deliver the pollution cuts we need fast enough to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. Scientists estimate that America must cut power plant emissions roughly in half over the next 10 years. Just building a nuclear power plant often takes that long.
“When it comes to global warming, time and money are of the essence and nuclear power will fail America on both accounts,” said Anna Aurilio, Washington DC Office Director of Environment America in the statement that accompanied the report. “With government dollars more precious than ever, nuclear power is a foolish investment that will set us back in the race against global warming,” she added.
Environment America argues that truly clean energy could deliver 5 times more pollution cutting progress per dollar overall. What’s more, energy efficiency and clean renewable energy sources come online much faster than nuclear power, meaning investments there may actually cut pollution in time to impact climate change. The U.S. wind industry is already building the equivalent of three nuclear reactors per year in wind farms, according to the report.
Environment America isn’t the only group attempting to punch holes in the nuclear power to stop global warming argument and the oft-reported “growing consensus for nuclear power” tends to be overblown by the media. The Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and others have consistently opposed depending on nuclear power to address climate change.
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner Peter Bradford may have said it best: “New nuclear power investments would actually worsen climate change because the money spent on nuclear reactors would not be available for solutions that fight it faster and at lower cost. Counting on new nuclear reactors as a climate change solution is no more sensible than counting on an un-built dam to create a lake to fight a nearby forest fire.”