Nuclear power is facing some stiff opposition on the world scene. Just as the memory of Chernobyl started to fade and a new generation was introduced into the world, the devastation and destruction seen in Japan has highlighted just how vulnerable our nuclear industry really is. What happens if we lose that power to our reactors for more than the 4-8 hours we’re prepared to?
To learn more about the changing (and dwindling) role of nuclear energy in the world, I headed over to the SEIU Conference Center in Washington, D.C. to hear the expert panel assembled. The event, “25 Years After Chernobyl: Is a Nuclear Renaissance Likely? A Transatlantic Dialogue on the Future of Nuclear Power”, brought together three of the most influential voices in the push against nuclear power. Chris Flavin, President of the Worldwatch Institute, Ralf Fücks, President of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, and Linda Gunter, Founder of and International Specialist at Beyond Nuclear, spoke at the event, and helped me understand the changing landscape of nuclear energy.
While the event was originally set up around the last two decades since Chernobyl, the main feature became Fukushima, Japan, were the current crisis to contain radiation and stabilize the reactors has been the focus of the world for the last 20 some days.
To the panel, the disaster highlights the problems with nuclear power – both in terms of safely operating plants and in terms of social consequences of industry failure.
The Changing World of Nuclear
Before we delve too much into nuclear energy, let’s make a quick distinction. By and large, this article – as was the conference – is focused on civilian nuclear power. That is, nuclear power used for energy purposes as opposed to military purposes. In some sense, the nuclear establishment around the military may never fade because of such phenomenon as the security dilemma, or the continual “They have a bomb, so we need a bomb” dialogue in the international scene.
With that clear, we can focus on nuclear energy as a part of our energy future.
Usually, nuclear power is touted as a strong, “clean” source of energy, and without it, we would lose thousands of megawatts of energy unable to be reclaimed in any other sector. Likewise, regulatory agencies feverishly assure us that nuclear energy is safe and technology has progressed to a point where any incident like Three Mile Island or Chernobyl would be impossible. All of these claims demand more rigorous investigation, especially with new statistics and world events at hand.
Let’s take a look.
Why Nuclear Won’t Work
Claim one – It is a clean source of energy
At a glance, we would be enticed to say “true”. Nuclear power plants do not emit CO2; at least when disregarding the build up of the plants. However, with further investigation, we see a number of problems with the claim of anything “clean” about a nuclear power plant.
- According to Amory B. Lovins, author of “Proliferation, Oil, and Climate: Solving for Pattern”, nuclear power is a method for reducing carbon emissions, but a least effective one at that. “It does save carbon, but about 2 to 20 times less per dollar and 20 to 40 times less per year than buying winning competitors” such as wind or solar energy.
- According to Bill Keepin and Gregory Kats, authors of “Greenhouse Warming. Comparitive Analysis of Nuclear and Efficient Abatement Strategies”, electrical efficiency is nearly “seven time more cost-effective than nuclear for abating CO2 emissions in the United States.”
- According to Gerd Rosenkranz, author of “Myths about Nuclear Energy: How the Energy Lobby is Pulling the Wool Over our Eyes”, the idea of a ‘nuclear fuel cycle’ – a term often used with lobbyists – is a total façade. It, by all means, exists in name only; there is no place for permanent disposal, and since the start of nuclear energy, “there is not a single approved and operational disposal site for highly radioactive waste in the world.”
Nuclear is poor at conserving energy. Nuclear energy produces waste that only loses radioactivity after 24,110 years. Nuclear energy is not a clean source of energy.
Claim two: We would lose tons of energy without nuclear
Nuclear energy surely is the powerhouse of our energy industry, right? Wrong. In fact, nuclear energy is at odds with green energy, and the conflict is only growing.
- According to Rosenkranz, the growth rate of green energy is set to double its current standards of 16 percent energy production in 2009 to 32 percent by 2020. In fact, the German Federal Association of Renewable Energies argue it may ever reach 48 percent. That’s nearly half of our energy from renewables.
- According to Prognos AG analysts, wind energy looks much more promising. For example, “the available output of power stations has increased at a rate of about 150,000 megawatts [but] nuclear energy amounted to about 2 percent of this…” In contrast, in the two years of developing wind industry, we’ve seen an additional volume of nearly “60,000 megawatts in spite of the global economic and financial crisis.”
- Finally, Rosenkranz points out that the average lifespan of a nuclear reactor, as understood by the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA), is about 45 years. In the US, industry has managed to extend life spans up to of 60 years, and is discussing 80 years. This, to international organizations like IAEA and other NGOs like Beyond Nuclear, is extremely dangerous, as wear and tear coupled with the corrosive nature of nuclear puts ageing reactors to the test.
By no means are we dependent on nuclear power in an “all in all” sense. It will take transition to alternative forms of energy, but by all measure, these forms of energy are more promising than any reactor, especially the ageing on that has the ability to destroy communities and possible the health of a nation.
Claim three: Three Mile Island and Chernobyl won’t happen again
It takes just one example to prove this wrong: Fukushima, Japan. Earthquakes, tsunamis, tornados – heck, natural disasters of all sorts – are a reality. They don’t fit in with industry hypotheticals because industry knows they cannot protect themselves from one. It takes just one serious disaster near a reactor to cause an international disaster. Worse yet, if industry stores nuclear waste near the reactors themselves, and in the case of a serious explosion, the disaster would by magnitudes more severe than otherwise.
Nuclear power is not safe. It is not efficient. It is not green. It is not prudent. The sooner we can reduce the amount of reactors in the world (something already seen in countries like Germany), the sooner we can invest in better forms of energy and better energy policies. We need not nuclear – we need efficiency, dynamic energy plans, and reduction of demand.
*Photo by Urban Decay photographer Tim Seuss of remnants of the Chernobyl disaster.