Thursday, February 11, 2010

Is the nuclear option really the answer to climate change?

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on

In President Obama's recent state of the union speech, he called for "building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country." While he specifically called out what he referred to as clean energy, the speech made no mention of renewables, and gave only token acknowledgment to the idea of conservation. Is the nuclear option really our best option?

The issue of expanding nuclear power is a divisive one, even within the environmental movement. Greenpeace responded to the President's speech by saying:

"Nuclear power is neither safe nor clean. There is no such thing as a "safe" dose of radiation and just because nuclear pollution is invisible doesn't mean it's "clean." For years, nuclear plants have been leaking radioactive waste from underground pipes and radioactive waste pools into the ground water at sites across the nation."

To prove their point, they highlighted a recent New York Times article covering the rapidly rising levels of radioactive tritium in the groundwater surrounding Vermont’s sole nuclear power plant. This has raised doubts in the minds of many former supporters of the plant.

On the other side of the issue, one of the co-founder of Greenpeace - Patrick Moore - is now co-chairman (along with former Bush-era EPA administrator Christie Todd Whitman) of the Nuclear Energy Institute's Clean and Safe Energy Coalition.

As Moore told Wired Magazine:

"We failed to distinguish between the beneficial uses of the technology and the evil uses of the technology...Greenpeace is against fossil fuel, nuclear and hydroelectric power. Those three technologies produce over 99 percent of world energy. What kind of a path to a sustainable future is that? We're bringing people at the municipal and state levels together to help convince the American public that nuclear energy is a key technology for the future."

He also told another interviewer:

"Even though nuclear does create waste, that waste is very successfully contained – it is not leaking out, it is not harming anybody. On the other hand, emissions from fossil fuel combustion for energy and transportation are harming people."

A few other environmental champions have also take this positon.

But while Mr. Moore declares success, is he wrong to ignore Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, the 100,000 gallon radioactive coolant leak at TVAs Sequyah plant, or the smaller incidents in Japan, France and the former Soviet Union? Or are the rest of us burying our head in the sand about the realistic options for reducing fossil fuel consumption?

My own views are best captured by a recent episode of The Simpson's, which describes nuclear power as:

"The cleanest energy there is, except once in a while, but then lookout."

That pretty much says it all.

There's been amazing progress in solar, wind, geothermal and other renewable technologies, and conservation and forest preservation have tremendous potential. But apparently the lure of energy that is clean and "too cheap to meter" continues to divert attention from these ideas. Or perhaps the President is offering his opponents a uranium-enriched olive branch in order to get a climate bill passed. But with the track record and unanswered questions about storage of nuclear waste, I don't think that "mostly safe and clean" is good enough. Let's at least try to find and fund some better ideas.

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