Nuclear Power’s Promise Pales
Care2 Earth Month: Back to Basics
This year, Care2 decided to expand Earth Day into Earth Month, since there is so much to explore when it comes to the environment. Every day in April, we’ll have a post about some of the most important topics for the environment, exploring and explaining the basics. It’s a great tool to help you get started with helping the environment — or help explain it to others. See the whole series here.
Ever since the atom was unleashed, some have said that the future of energy is nuclear. Even some prominent environmentalists argue that nuclear power is a green energy source because it does not cause carbon emissions that contribute to global warming. Like so many environmental issues, nuclear power is complex. Here are some facts and figures to help you decide where you stand on nuclear power:
Nuclear power is big. The US is the largest generator of nuclear power, accounting for more than 30 percent of the global generation. Thirty power companies operate 104 plants in 31 states in the US. Most reactors were built between 1967 and 1990. The top 10 companies account for 70% of generation.
We depend on it. Our dependence on nuclear power has actually increased. Nuclear accounted for 11 percent of all power generation in 1980 in the US; it was up to almost 20 percent in 2008.
Nuclear is relatively inexpensive – in the short term. According to the World Nuclear Association: “The operational cost of nuclear power – 1.87 ˘/kWh in 2008 – is 68% of electricity cost from coal and a quarter of that from gas.”
Waste not… However, the picture changes when one examines the cost of disposing of nuclear waste. This ongoing problem is in need of urgent attention. A blue ribbon panel reporting to the Energy Secretary has noted the urgency of dealing with nuclear waste amid problems of where to site storage facilities, how to fund them, and what body should have oversight. Some 65,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel is stored at about 75 operating and shutdown reactor sites around the U.S., with more than 2,000 tons being produced each year.
The US government provides incentives to build nuclear power plants. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 offers tax credits and federal loan guarantees to incentivize construction of advanced nuclear power plants. This year saw the approval of the first new nuclear plant construction since the Three Mile Island incident in 1979.
Nuclear jobs are green jobs?! According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics: “In private industry, the utilities industry accounted for 65,700 Green Goods and Services sector jobs, or 11.9 percent of total private utilities employment. Among theindustries involved in private sector electric power generation, nuclear power had the highest GGS employment with 35,800 jobs in 2010.”
Nuclear isn’t safe. After the earthquake and tsunami in Japan last year the world saw the unthinkable happen, as a nuclear power plant on the coast was hit by the double disaster and suffered a meltdown. Could such a catastrophe happen elsewhere? The Fukushima events have greatly affected the adoption and promotion of nuclear energy around the world. Germany, for instance, shut down eight nuclear plants in the wake of Fukushima and revamped its energy policy. Switzerland and Spain have banned any new plant construction.
In the US, five nuclear reactors are in zones prone to earthquakes. Given the danger of released radioactivity, nuclear plants need far greater safety and security than, say, a solar power facility. Any number of elements, even a large swarm of jellyfish, can threaten a nuclear plant.
More Americans (but not most) are questioning the value of nuclear power. A recent Harris survey shows that slightly more Americans (though not a majority) now believe the risks of nuclear energy outweigh the benefits (41% to 40%).
There are alternatives…and no easy answers. While renewable energy still accounts for just 11 percent of US energy use, the sector is growing. Other countries are making great strides with renewables: Iceland generates over 80 percent of its energy from renewables. In addition to wind, wave, solar and geothermal alternatives, new technologies and efficiencies are needed. A 2009 study by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory found that more than 58 percent of the energy generated in the US is wasted every year due to inefficiencies such as wasted heat, particularly in the transportation sector. Government subsidies also create false advantages and artificially low prices for the nuclear and fossil fuel industries.
From the Titanic to the Hindenberg to Three Mile Island and Fukushima, time and again we have seen that technology is neither perfect nor predictable, and is often no match for nature. There is no magic cure to our quest for clean, abundant energy, but for many in the green movement, that search cannot include nuclear…the consequences of failure are just too high.