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Scratch below the nuclear hyperbole

Six reasons why nuclear is not the answer to climate change (without even mentioning Fukushima)

Leslie Sullivan Sachs is a member of the Safe and Green Campaign, which describes itself as an “urgent, grassroots, people-powered effort to close the Vermont Yankee nuclear reactor.” The group seeks “to replace nuclear power with conservation, efficiency, and renewable solutions, moving us towards a truly ‘Safe and Green’ energy future.”


The nuclear industry is pouring money and political influence into selling the United States and Wall Street on the lie that nuclear power is the answer to climate change.

New nuclear “think tanks” are popping up like mushrooms in the muck. President Obama, who owes his political career in large part to the nuclear industry, favors nukes in his “all-of-the-above” Clean Power Plan. Nuclear is pegged for $12.6 million in guaranteed loans from the Department of Energy, compared to $4 billion for renewables.

Scratch below the nuclear hyperbole, and the pro-nuclear argument is thin.

* * *

Old, inefficient technology. Nuclear reactors are steam engines. As Albert Einstein said, “Nuclear power is one hell of a way to boil water!”

Vermont Yankee’s boiling-water reactor put out 620 MW of electricity and 1,292 MW of waste heat, according to an Agency of Natural Resources fact sheet, 2014).

Proponents crow about base-load power, outmoded in today’s new energy context of new flexible, diversified power sources. It takes time to power a reactor up or down to produce power when it is actually needed.

Swiss global financial services company UBS called nuclear “the dinosaur of the future energy system: Too big, too inflexible, not even relevant for backup power in the long run.”

Investors see nuclear as too risky. Despite hefty government subsidies of up to 80 percent for research and development, investors aren’t biting.

New nuclear technologies have not been tested commercially. For example, Lockheed Martin recently boasted of a fusion small reactor — still in development, still 10 years from getting off the drawing board. Climate change won’t wait.

According to MIT, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and other entities, 1,500 to 2,000 new reactors would have to be built to make an impact on carbon emissions. That is one new reactor opening every two weeks until 2070. In reality, it takes six to 10 years to build a conventional unit, and each costs $7-15 billion.

* * *

Late and over budget. Worldwide, three-quarters of all new nuclear construction is delayed and over budget. France — the poster child of nuclear energy — has one new project projected to cost $11 billion, four times its original budget.

This month, France has set a goal to reduce its dependence on nuclear power from 75 percent to 50 percent by 2025, and it is seriously considering retiring its old fleet in favor of renewables — adapting old reactors and building new ones is simply too expensive.

In the U.S., all six new nuclear projects are late, over budget, and heavily subsidized by your tax dollars. In some cases, construction costs are being paid up front by consumers; Duke Energy cancelled a reactor project after ratepayers forked over $1 billion in “construction work in progress” charges.

* * *

Water. Nuclear power plants are all located on rivers, lakes, and oceans because vast quantities of water are needed to cool reactors. Remember Vermont Yankee’s 1,292 MW of waste heat? It gets rid of that by dumping 500 million gallons of heated water daily into the Connecticut River.

With climate change, water will become a commodity. The rise in sea levels will threaten coastal power plants. Floods, high-water temperatures, or low-water levels due to heat waves have caused dozens of reactors to shut down temporarily over the past few years — often when needed most.

So much for reliability. So much for baseload power.

* * *

Carbon life cycle. Proponents claim that nuclear power is carbon-free.

But look at nuclear from cradle to grave.

The mining, milling, processing, conversion, enrichment, and transportation of fuel for reactors produce carbon. Building new reactors emits carbon, as does decommissioning. Nuclear facilities around reactors are big, complex, industrial structures that emit carbon.

A 2008 comparison of the life cycle of nuclear found that while it beats coal, oil, and gas, nuclear emits 66 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt hour, compared to 9 to 10 grams for wind power, 10 to 13 grams for hydroelectric power, and 32 grams for solar photovoltaic power.

Studies since then attempting to prove nuclear is low carbon have been widely debunked as using out-of-date or skewed data.

* * *

Terrorism. We would suffer from blackouts only if a solar or wind farm were to be attacked. Terrorists can’t target efficiency.

All nuclear facilities in the United States are vulnerable to sabotage and terrorist attacks, according to a 2013 study by the University of Texas at Austin. The 9/11 commission reported that the hijackers considered flying a plane into a nuclear reactor — almost certainly Indian Point. A meltdown there, 20 miles from New York City, would cause devastation on a massive scale.

* * *

Waste. And of course, what about the waste? Anyone not living under a rock knows about this one.

In 70 years, neither politicians nor nuclear engineers have come any closer to figuring out how to safely dispose of, or stop generating, radioactive waste. Each year, U.S. reactors produce 2,000 metric tons of high-level waste.

Meanwhile, local communities like ours become hosts, not knowing if our children and future generations will suffer the consequences of our inability to solve the problem.

* * *

I had these six easy-to-remember bullet points on why nukes are not the answer to climate change. (I even did it without mentioning Fukushima.)

Then Entergy released its site assessment plan.

It will cost $1.24 billion to clean up Vermont Yankee, and “the earliest clean up of the site could begin is 2053.”

Decommissioning has got to top the list for those of us who live in the shadow of Vermont Yankee and other closing reactors (San Onofre in California at $4.4 billion and Kewanee in Illinois at $884 million).

In the 1960s, among all the choices available, Vermont chose to get 40 years of electricity from the one source that will take 60 years to clean up and which the state has little to no role in regulating. Only fools swindled by corporate double-speak would make that same mistake again.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #277 (Wednesday, October 22, 2014). This story appeared on page D1.

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