The Insanity of Expanding Nuclear Energy
Ten solid reasons why building new nuclear power plants is not a good climate change response strategy
Former nuclear regulatory top dogs from the United States, France, Germany and Great Britain issued a joint statement in January strenuously opposing any expansion of nuclear power as a strategy to combat climate change. Why? There is not a single good reason to build new nuclear plants. Here are ten solid reasons not to:
1. Nuclear is too slow to tackle climate change. The new generation of proposed commercial nuclear plants, so called Advanced and Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), are at best decades away in designing and building. The latest report from the International Panel on Climate Change makes clear that limiting global warming to 1.5°C (2.7°F) means “achieving net zero carbon dioxide emissions globally in the early 2050s.” Wind and solar farms can be up and running in just a few months or years. Renewables can power the world by 2050, according to financial think tank Carbon Tracker.
2. Nuclear energy is too costly. Renewables like wind and solar are already the world’s cheapest form of energy, and their prices continue to tumble. By 2019, utility-scale renewable energy prices had already fallen to less than half that of nuclear. Together with lower natural gas prices, there has been little momentum in the United States to construct new nuclear plants for decades. Expanding nuclear power would translate into higher energy costs for consumers.
3. Nuclear is neither carbon-free nor non-polluting. While it’s true that the electricity produced by an operating nuclear plant doesn’t emit carbon dioxide, mining and enrichment of uranium are carbon intensive and pollute the air with potent greenhouse gases called chlorofluorocarbons. Radioactivity releases into air and water from nuclear plants are routine. And, the United States has already accumulated 85,000 metric tons of highly radioactive commercial spent fuel waste, the most dangerous pollutant known to man.
4. The problem of permanent disposal of nuclear waste remains technically unsolvable for the short or long term. Though the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 mandated construction of a permanent deep geologic repository to safely isolate nuclear waste for a million+ years, four decades hence there is literally no progress. Consequently, the nation’s commercial nuclear plants are, for the foreseeable future, de facto nuclear waste dumps.
5. Nuclear is non-renewable. Like coal, oil and natural gas, uranium is a finite resource. The United States imports nearly half its uranium from Russia and its two close allies, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Uranium was not included in the Biden administration’s recent ban on energy imports from Russia in response to the invasion of Ukraine.
6. Proposals for constructing “temporary” storage solutions—so-called consolidated interim storage sites (CIS)—are a diversion from the fact that a proven geologic repository for spent nuclear fuel doesn’t exist anywhere on earth. Governors of Texas and New Mexico are fighting against CIS facilities in their states for fear of becoming permanent dumps. Moving nuclear waste all across the country to CIS facilities creates risks of radiation accidents along transportation corridors.
7. The nuclear waste dry storage canisters used throughout most of the United States are thin-walled (1/2 to 5/8 inch) and unsafe for storage or for off-site transport. They are susceptible to short-term cracking but can’t be inspected for cracks or monitored to prevent radiation releases. Other countries use thick-walled (10 to 19 inch) metal casks which are designed to prevent cracking, can be monitored, and survived the 9.0 Fukushima earthquake.
8. The nuclear meltdowns at Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile Island demonstrated there is no room for human error or natural disasters when it comes to anything nuclear. Moreover, human civilizations come and go: The Roman Empire lasted short of 1,000 years. Humanity can’t ensure the safety of even our current nuclear reactors let alone ensure that future civilizations will stay clear of nuclear waste dumps for the next million+ years.
9. Nuclear plants are sitting ducks for terrorist attacks, whether still operating or storing nuclear waste. Dry storage canisters are stored onsite in the wide open in so-called Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installations. Vulnerability to malfeasance was driven home recently by the ease with which Russia captured both the Chernobyl site and the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant early in the invasion of Ukraine.
10. The idea that SMRs can save the day is magical thinking. SMRs are a completely unproven concept. On the order of ten thousand SMRs would be needed to impact climate change in time. This would create thousands more radioactive dump sites and as many opportunities for both nuclear accidents from human error or natural disasters and weapons proliferation from the plutonium generated by nuclear reactors.
Getting to net zero carbon emissions by the early 2050s requires the greatest reduction in carbon emissions in the shortest time and at the lowest cost. That nuclear can’t deliver on this and should be banned is the outspoken position of the former head of the Nuclear Regulatory commission, Gregory Jazcko.
The “all hands on deck” approach espoused by too many politicians to explain support for new nuclear is blatantly faulty, given that every dollar misspent on new nuclear is a dollar not invested in energy efficiency and faster, cheaper renewables. Expanding nuclear will actually retard progress on solving the climate crisis.
No matter what the misguided motivations of some politicians, our duty as informed citizens is to demand that they abandon the deadly pursuit of new nuclear energy and commit to shutting down our aging nuclear reactors.
Sarah Mosko writes on contemporary environmental issues for numerous publications and publishes Boogie Green, where this story was first posted.