The nuclear power industry and its allies in Congress are attempting to make the case that a revival of this deservedly moribund industry could help the world's efforts to combat the looming crisis of human-caused climate change.
But like everything else in the nuclear industry, which is increasingly hidden from public view by homeland security concerns, the reality belies the surface impression.
In fact, using nuclear power to address climate change would not only be ineffective, it would be counterproductive and would inevitably fail - hastening the global warming the world is trying desperately to prevent.
First, nuclear reactors are essentially pre-deployed weapons of mass destruction, the most tempting terrorist targets imaginable. It is unconscionable, if not downright irresponsible, to advocate a proliferation of these targets around the country under the false pretense that they would ease the impacts of climate change.
Second, even if the nuclear fuel chain were emissions-free - which it is not - sufficient new nuclear capacity cannot be built fast enough or inexpensively enough to make a meaningful difference.
According to two recent studies - one by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one by the National Commission on Energy Policy - at least 300 new atomic reactors would be needed in the United States and at least 1,500 worldwide (there are 440 worldwide now) if nuclear power is to have any significant impact on greenhouse emissions. That means building a new reactor somewhere in the world, starting today, once every six months for the next 60 years.
We don't have that long for nuclear power to make a difference, and such a schedule is impossible anyway. Our most recent experience with atomic reactors, those coming online in the 1980s and 1990s, confirms that reactors take an average of eight to 10 years to build (the last U.S. reactor to come online, Watts Bar in Tennessee, took 23 years).
Further, U.S. reactors coming online in the last 20 years cost an average of $4 billion each; the cost of such a program would be prohibitive - in the trillions of dollars. Given limited resources, this would prevent virtually any spending on sustainable energy technologies that actually could be implemented speedily, could create millions of jobs and could effectively mitigate global warming.
An escalated nuclear program not only would be cost- and time-prohibitive, but it also would create new problems. To handle the lethal radioactive waste so many reactors would produce, a new Yucca Mountain-sized atomic waste dump would be needed somewhere in the world every three to four years.
Yet Yucca Mountain itself is foundering in falsified scientific data and an inability to meet regulatory requirements 18 years after Congress designated it as the sole high-level waste dump in the nation. No country has yet solved the radioactive waste issue. Quintupling the amount of waste produced before a solution is found would engender massive public opposition to a nuclear construction program that is impossible to begin with.
Why risk all this to stem global warming when other, more sustainable energy technologies such as wind power exist and are growing rapidly and economically?
But, of course, the nuclear industry's dirty secret is that nuclear power is not emissions-free. The technology for the entire nuclear fuel chain is responsible for substantial emissions. Uranium mining, processing, enrichment, fuel fabrication, reactor construction and waste storage all result in greenhouse emissions. Nuclear power is actually closer to natural gas in terms of emissions than it is to wind or solar power. Energy efficiency improvements are seven times more effective at reducing greenhouse gases, per dollar spent, than nuclear power.
Finally, nuclear power, which produces only electricity, cannot even begin to address the single greatest global warming problem: the burning of oil for transportation.
If Congress is serious about mitigating climate change, it must greatly increase vehicle mileage standards and provide major incentives for hybrid and other advanced vehicle technologies. Failure to do so would be an indication that lawmakers are far less concerned about addressing climate change than they are about satisfying their campaign contributors from the nuclear industry.
We do need to address the global climate crisis - urgently. Nuclear power is not up to the task. Indeed, using nuclear power to wean us off fossil fuels would be like using heroin to combat alcohol addiction: It would be ineffective and we wouldn't like the results.
Michael Mariotte is executive director of Nuclear Information and Resource Service.
© 2005 Baltimore Sun