Many of President Barack Obama’s domestic priorities seem intractably stuck in partisan gridlock, but one of his recent State of the Union proposals appears to be moving ahead quickly: taxpayer-backed loan guarantees for so-called “safe, clean, nuclear power plants.”
The Energy Department has already announced a new $8.3 billion loan guarantee for new nuclear plants in Georgia, and Energy Secretary Steven Chu is using Facebook to explain why the administration believes nukes are necessary.
“No single technology can provide all of the answers,” Chu says. “We need nuclear power as part of a comprehensive solution.”
No way. While it’s certainly true that our energy needs require a diversity of solutions, nuclear power shouldn’t be in the mix. Solar, wind, and geothermal power, combined with energy efficiency, can overcome our reliance on fossil fuels, provide energy security, and mitigate the climate crisis. Here are the top 10 reasons why we shouldn’t build any more nuclear reactors:
1. Nuclear waste -- The waste from nuclear power plants will be toxic for humans for more than 100,000 years. It's untenable now to secure and store all of the waste from the plants that exist. To scale up to 2,500 or 3,000, let alone 17,000 plants is unthinkable.
Nuclear proponents hope that the next generation of nuclear plants will generate much less waste, but this technology is not yet fully developed or proven. Even if new technology eventually can successful reduce the waste involved, the waste that remains will still be toxic for 100,000 years. There will be less per plant, perhaps, but likely more overall, should nuclear power scale up to 2,500, 3,000 or 17,000 plants. No community should have to accept nuclear waste site, or even accept the risks of nuclear waste being transported through on route to its final destination. The waste problem alone should take nuclear power off the table.
The proposed solution a national nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain is overbudget and won't provide a safe solution either. The people of Nevada don't want that nuclear waste facility there. Also, we would need to transfer the waste to this facility from plants around the country and drive it there - which puts communities across the country at risk.
2. Nuclear proliferation - In discussing the nuclear proliferation issue, Al Gore said, "During my 8 years in the White House, every nuclear weapons proliferation issue we dealt with was connected to a nuclear reactor program." Iran and North Korea are reminding us of this every day. We can't develop a domestic nuclear energy program without confronting proliferation in other countries.
Here too, nuclear power proponents hope that the reduction of nuclear waste will reduce the risk of proliferation from any given plant, but again, the technology is not there yet. If we want to be serious about stopping proliferation in the rest of the world, we need to get serious here at home, and not push the next generation of nuclear proliferation forward as an answer to climate change. There is simply no way to guarantee that nuclear materials will not fall into the wrong hands
3. National Security - Nuclear reactors represent a clear national security risk, and an attractive target for terrorists. In researching the security around nuclear power plants, Robert Kennedy, Jr. found that there are at least eight relatively easy ways to cause a major meltdown at a nuclear power plant.
What's more, Kennedy has sailed boats right into the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant on the Hudson River outside of New York City not just once but twice, to point out the lack of security around nuclear plants. The unfortunate fact is that our nuclear power plants remain unsecured, without adequate evacuation plans in the case of an emergency. Remember the government response to Hurricane Katrina, and cross that with a Chernobyl-style disaster to begin to imagine what a terrorist attack at a nuclear power plant might be like.
4. Accidents - Forget terrorism for a moment, and remember that mere accidents - human error or natural disasters - can wreak just as much havoc at a nuclear power plant site. The Chernobyl disaster forced the evacuation and resettlement of nearly 400,000 people, with thousands poisoned by radiation.
Here in the US, the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979 triggered a clean-up effort that ultimately lasted for nearly 15 years, and topped more than one billion dollars in cost. The cost of cleaning up after one of these disasters is simply too great, in both dollars and human cost - and if we were to scale up to 17,000 plants, is it reasonable to imagine that not one of them would ever have a single meltdown? Many nuclear plants are located close to major population centers. For example, there's a plant just up the Hudson from New York City. If there was an accident, evacuation would be impossible.
5. Cancer -- There are growing concerns that living near nuclear plants increases the risk for childhood leukemia and other forms of cancer - even when a plant has an accident-free track record. One Texas study found increased cancer rates in north central Texas since the Comanche Peak nuclear power plant was established in 1990, and a recent German study found childhood leukemia clusters near several nuclear power sites in Europe.
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According to Dr. Helen Caldicott, a nuclear energy expert, nuclear power plants produce numerous dangerous, carcinogenic elements. Among them are: iodine 131, which bio-concentrates in leafy vegetables and milk and can induce thyroid cancer; strontium 90, which bio-concentrates in milk and bone, and can induce breast cancer, bone cancer, and leukemia; cesium 137, which bio-concentrates in meat, and can induce a malignant muscle cancer called a sarcoma; and plutonium 239. Plutonium 239 is so dangerous that one-millionth of a gram is carcinogenic, and can cause liver cancer, bone cancer, lung cancer, testicular cancer, and birth defects. Because safe and healthy power sources like solar and wind exist now, we don't have to rely on risky nuclear power.
6. Not enough sites - Scaling up to 17,000 - or 2,500 or 3,000 -- nuclear plants isn't possible simply due to the limitation of feasible sites. Nuclear plants need to be located near a source of water for cooling, and there aren't enough locations in the world that are safe from droughts, flooding, hurricanes, earthquakes, or other potential disasters that could trigger a nuclear accident. Over 24 nuclear plants are at risk of needing to be shut down this year because of the drought in the Southeast. No water, no nuclear power.
There are many communities around the country that simply won't allow a new nuclear plant to be built - further limiting potential sites. And there are whole areas of the world that are unsafe because of political instability and the high risk of proliferation. In short, geography, local politics, political instability and climate change itself, there are not enough sites for a scaled up nuclear power strategy.
Remember that climate change is causing stronger storms and coastal flooding, which in turn reduces the number of feasible sites for nuclear power plants. Furthermore, due to all of the other strikes against nuclear power, many communities will actively fight against nuclear plants coming into their town. How could we get enough communities on board to accept the grave risks of nuclear power, if we need to build 17, let alone, 17,000 new plants?
7. Not enough uranium - Even if we could find enough feasible sites for a new generation of nuclear plants, we're running out of the uranium necessary to power them. Scientists in both the US and UK have shown that if the current level of nuclear power were expanded to provide all the world's electricity, our uranium would be depleted in less than ten years.
As uranium supplies dwindle, nuclear plants will actually begin to use up more energy to mine and mill the uranium than can be recovered through the nuclear reactor process. What's more, dwindling supplies will trigger the use of ever lower grades of uranium, which produce ever more climate-change-producing emissions - resulting in a climate-change catch 22.
8. Costs - Some types of energy production, such as solar power, experience decreasing costs to scale. Like computers and cell phones, when you make more solar panels, costs come down. Nuclear power, however, will experience increasing costs to scale. Due to dwindling sites and uranium resources, each successive new nuclear power plant will only see its costs rise, with taxpayers and consumers ultimately paying the price.
What's worse, nuclear power is centralized power. A nuclear power plant brings few jobs to its local economy. In contrast, accelerating solar and energy efficiency solutions creates jobs good-paying, green collar, jobs in every community.
Around the world, nuclear plants are seeing major cost overruns. For example, a new generation nuclear plant in Finland is already experiencing numerous problems and cost overruns of 25 percent of its $4 billion budget. The US government's current energy policy providing more than $11 billion in subsidies to the nuclear energy could be much better spent providing safe and clean energy that would give a boost to local communities, like solar and wind power do. Subsidizing costly nuclear power plants directs that money to large, centralized facilities, built by a few large companies that will take the profits out of the communities they build in.
9. Private sector unwilling to finance - Due to all of the above, the private sector has largely chosen to take a pass on the financial risks of nuclear power, which is what led the industry to seek taxpayer loan guarantees from Congress in the first place.
As the Nuclear Energy Institute recently reported in a brief to the US Department of Energy, "100 percent loan coverage [by taxpayers] is essential ... because the capital markets are unwilling, now and for the foreseeable future, to provide the financing necessary" for new nuclear power plants. Wall Street refuses to invest in nuclear power because the plants are assumed to have a 50 percent default rate. The only way that Wall Street will put their money behind these plants is if American taxpayers underwrite the risks. If the private sector has deemed nuclear power too risky, it makes no sense to force taxpayers to bear the burden.
And finally, even if all of the above strikes against nuclear power didn't exist, nuclear power still can't be a climate solution because there is
10. No time - Even if nuclear waste, proliferation, national security, accidents, cancer and other dangers of uranium mining and transport, lack of sites, increasing costs, and a private sector unwilling to insure and finance the projects weren't enough to put an end to the debate of nuclear power as a solution for climate change, the final nail in nuclear's coffin is time. We have the next ten years to mount a global effort against climate change. It simply isn't possible to build 17,000 - or 2,500 or 17 for that matter - in ten years.
With so many strikes against nuclear power, it should be off the table as a climate solution, and we need to turn our energies toward the technologies and strategies that can truly make a difference: solar power, wind power, and energy conservation.