Nuclear power can’t rescue the world from climate change

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Global warming is an undeniable and urgent problem, and support for taking federal action is increasing. Now, a debate is raging about the proper course of action; what will produce the greatest gains in the shortest time? The nuclear industry is attempting to hijack the issue to revive a dying technology, crowding out renewable energy in the process. However, nuclear power cannot rescue us from climate change.

The vast majority of public interest and environmental groups are adamantly oppose nuclear power. Over 300 national, state and local organizations have endorsed a statement clearly outlining their reasons for continuing to oppose to nuclear power as a solution to global warming. Not a single environmental group is advocating for more nuclear plants.

According to reports from MIT and the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, between 1,000 and 2,000 new nuclear plants would have to be built around the world by mid-century just to achieve a noticeable reduction in the expected increase in carbon dioxide emissions. Given the long construction time and tremendous expense of nuclear plants, building this many reactors is simply unfeasible. Climate change is a pressing problem, and the world needs to reduce carbon emissions sooner rather than later.

Adding so many new reactors would mean generating five times more high-level nuclear waste than now, requiring a waste dump the size of Yucca Mountain somewhere on earth every three to four years. More nuclear plants would also require more uranium mining and enrichment, both of which are polluting and could put a strain on finite uranium supplies, further driving up prices.

The reason such a huge number of reactors would be required to have only a modest effect on carbon dioxide emissions is because electricity generation isn’t the only activity that produces greenhouse gases. In fact, according to a report by the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, “The CO2 released worldwide through electricity production accounts for only 9 percent of total annual human greenhouse gas emissions,” or about a quarter of all carbon dioxide emissions. The remainder of greenhouse emissions comes from a variety of human activities, including transportation and deforestation, while methane, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and nitrous oxide also contribute substantially to the greenhouse effect. Uranium enrichment produces 93 percent of the CFC emissions annually in the U.S.

Cleaner, cheaper solutions to climate change are already available. Most importantly, we have the potential to be much more efficient with our electricity use. That doesn’t mean being forced to do without; it simply means going further with each kilowatt of electricity.

Electric efficiency is not only the cheapest and easiest way to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions; it will actually save consumers money. Americans spend nearly $200 billion annually on electricity. But Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute estimates that “the thousand or so best electricity-saving innovations now on the market, if fully used throughout the United States, would displace over half of all the electricity the country now uses. Our best estimate is that they’d save at least 75 percent of all electricity more cheaply than just operating existing thermal power stations [such as coal or nuclear], while providing the same or better services.” Clearly, there’s room for improvement.

The primary argument made for the necessity of increased energy consumption is to fuel economic growth. At current economic growth rates of approximately 3.4 percent, it will take 20 years for the economy—and presumably electricity usage along with it—to double in size. Lovins’ data suggest we could achieve that growth without ever building a new power plant except to replace those that are shut down. In fact, since the Arab oil embargo of 1973, about 80 percent of our increased energy demand has been met with savings, not new generation.

The promise of renewable energy options continues to improve as well; modern-day wind turbines are already less expensive than nuclear power and, as the technology continues to improve, costs are dropping even lower. The U.S. Department of Energy predicts that for the foreseeable future, nuclear power will continue to be more expensive than wind.

The limitations of renewable electricity sources like wind, solar and tidal power are being overcome in ingenious ways. For example, the wind isn’t always blowing and the sun isn’t always shining, so it’s hard to run your house or community on one of those technologies alone without either a mechanism for storing the energy or having a backup generator running on fossil fuels. But a recent study of England’s electricity needs by Oxford University researcher Graham Sinden found that a combination of wind, solar, wave, tidal and domestic combined heat/power significantly cut down on variability and the need for backup. According to Sinden, as reported in the Guardian, “By mixing between sites and mixing technologies, you can markedly reduce the variability of electricity supplied by renewables. And if you plan the right mix, renewable and intermittent technologies can even be made to match real-time electricity demand patterns. This reduces the need for backup, and makes renewables a serious alternative to conventional power sources.”

Take Action. Ensure that our country’s energy priorities are straight:

Contact your local and federal elected representatives and ensure that they support renewable energy as the cleanest and safest way to address climate change.

Improve your home’s energy efficiency by installing compact fluorescent light bulbs, good insulation, and energy efficient appliances like refrigerators and washing machines—you can reduce the need for more power plants and save money at the same time.

Michelle Boyd is the legislative director of Public Citizen’s energy program.

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