Today Al Gore is unveiling a massive campaign to fight climate chaos.
But the hugely funded atomic power industry has jumped on global warming with the Big Lie that its failed reactors can somehow help. It's a sorry replay of the 1950s promise that atomic power would be "too cheap to meter."
Just before the 2000 election, as senior advisor to the Nuclear Information & Resource Service, I wrote then-Vice President Gore asking that he help delete from the Kyoto Accords any reference to nukes as a possible solution to global warming. On November 3, 2000 (the letter is posted at the NIRS web site) Gore wrote back:
Thank you for your recent inquiry regarding nuclear energy and the Kyoto Protocol. Let me restate for you my long held policy with regard to nuclear energy. I do not support any increased reliance on nuclear energy. Moreover, I have disagreed with those who would classify nuclear energy as clean or renewable. In fact, you will note that the electricity restructuring legislation proposed by the [Clinton] Administration specifically excluded both nuclear and large scale hydro-energy, and instead promoted increased investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy. It is my view that climate change policies should do the same.
Nukes were soon deleted from the Kyoto Accords as a "solution" to global warming.
The reactor industry claims, probably correctly, that it releases fewer greenhouse gases/kwh than fossil fuels. But it also says nukes compare with renewables in avoiding CO2 emissions. Here Gore's words ring especially true.
It's well-known that mining, milling, ore transport, enrichment and deployment of radioactive fuel for atomic reactors comprise a major source of CO2 emissions. Radon gas emissions also have significant environmental and public health impacts.
When it's "spent," used reactor fuel must cool in energy-intensive cooling ponds, then sit in dubious "dry casks," which are essentially large boxes with ventilating holes. If the rods are eventually moved to a central repository, tens of thousands of shipments on trucks and trains will be required.
Meanwhile, the mere construction of a nuclear plant consumes huge quantities of fossil fuels. Manufactured materials used to build reactors demand years of efficient operation just to break even in terms of net energy. The reactors also emit heated -- often chemically treated -- steam into the atmosphere, and hot water into lakes, streams and the oceans. Reactors in France, Alabama and elsewhere have been forced shut because global-warmed streams have become too hot to cool the reactors, and emissions would raise waters downstream beyond acceptable levels (in some cases, over 90 degrees Farenheit).
Meanwhile, nukes are enormously expensive. Some first-generation US reactors came in as much as 25 times over their original budget. Small wonder Wall Street "won't be burned again."
There has been much hype about a "standardized design," but the US industry has not settled on one, and continues to fiddle with essential structural changes even as the licensing process draws near.
As for France, its atomic industry is a form of national socialism. The reactors are primarily state-funded and immune to the kinds of cost-accounting that would force a normal industry to actually pay for itself. France's 60-odd reactors are loss-leaders for a nation hoping to export large numbers of them. But a "new generation" French-designed reactor under construction in Finland is already two years behind schedule and $2 billion over budget.
Even if reactors could help solve the climate crisis, the mere act of licensing and building them requires a decade or more. The two reactors projected for Turkey Point, Florida, are dubiously targeted to open in 2018 and 2020. They are slated to cost a total of $24 billion. But that price tag is likely to soar, and that money invested now in efficiency and renewables could meanwhile be solving the climate crisis. The Rocky Mountain Institute estimates that every dollar invested in increased efficiency can save some 7 times as much energy as can be produced by a dollar invested in nuke power.
Throw in "ancillary" problems like apocalyptic catastrophe by terror and error, or atomic weapons proliferation, or human health and environmental impacts from "normal" emissions, and much more, and it's easy to see why not a single major national environmental organization now advocates building new nukes to solve the climate crisis.
The reactor pushers admit that they can't proceed without massive taxpayer handouts. Last fall, led by US Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) the industry slipped a $50 billion loan guarantee package into the Energy Bill. Thanks to a national and grassroots campaign (see www.nukefree.org) and strong leadership from Congressional Democrats, those guarantees were defeated.
But $18.5 billion did sleaze into descriptive language for last year's Appropriations Bill. The upcoming Lieberman-Warner Global Warming Bill will be laden with radioactive pork. And the industry is now working on state utility commissions to grant Construction Work in Progress, a boondoggle forcing ratepayers to fund new reactors as they are being built. They've already succeeded in Florida.
Without stopping all that, Gore's much-welcomed initiative cannot succeed. Nuke power is the Achilles Heel that can doom all attempts to save this planet.
Thirty years ago, as thousands of demonstrators marched onto reactor construction sites at Seabrook (NH), Diablo Canyon (CA), and elsewhere, we shared the Solartopian vision of a green-powered earth, a planet entirely free of nuke and fossil fuels.
That vision has now become a tangible possibility, technologically and economically. If this new push to stop global warming supports grassroots citizen action, and helps stop taxpayer funding for new reactors, we just might succeed.
Harvey Wasserman is senior advisor to the Nuclear Information & Resource Service, and has been fighting the reactor industry since 1973. He is senior editor of Freepress.org, and author of SOLARTOPIA! OUR GREEN-POWERED EARTH (www.solartopia.org).