Nuclear power has never lived up to the promises of its backers. Their latest claim -- that nuclear energy represents an easy answer to global warming -- has as much validity as that old industry chestnut of producing energy “too cheap to meter.” Let’s not be duped again.
Four decades ago, when I served as national coordinator for the first Earth Day, millions of Americans mobilized on behalf of the environment. This year, we know that the centerpiece of a healthy environment is safe, clean and sustainable energy. Climate change was a phrase unknown back in 1970; today it is part of our popular vocabulary. Halting the advance of global warming tops the priority list of environmental issues that threaten our well-being.
The nuclear industry -- and some in Washington -- would like us to believe that building new reactors will solve this threat. To hear them talk, the nuclear option sounds alluring. Certainly the promise of an energy source that is a low-greenhouse gas emitter might carry some weight with those concerned about climate change. But let’s look at the facts.
• Economics: No nuclear reactor has ever been built on time or on budget. That was what killed the market for new reactors in the 1970s. In recent months, tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies have been promised just to begin to resuscitate the nuclear industry. Tax money is needed for this half-century-old technology because the private sector wants no part of it -- with good reason. It is too risky. It is one more federal effort to socialize all risk and privatize all profit.
Equally worrisome is this fact: Nuclear is poised to soak up billions that could be invested far more prudently in hyper-efficiency and renewable energy. Energy efficiency can be achieved at a fraction of the cost of a new reactor, and produces immediate results. New reactors won’t come online for at least decade or more, meaning we’ll be that much further behind in slowing global warming. Renewable energy produces no radioactive waste, bomb-grade materials or terrorist risks.
• Environmental responsibility: Greenhouse gases are the waste from our unchecked consumption of fossil fuels. The nuclear industry has skillfully wrapped itself in a mantle of green, but it has a massive waste problem of its own. We must not swap one problem for another.
Nearly 63,000 metric tons of highly radioactive nuclear fuel currently sits at “temporary” storage sites in 33 states. Plans to dispose of this waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada have been abandoned after 35 contentious years. The U.S. is now back at the starting line in finding a place that will accept this deadly garbage.
Enough waste already exists to fill one Yucca Mountain. How responsible is it to talk of building new reactors that will produce tons more waste when we don’t have a place to get rid of what we’ve already got?
• Security: Last week, President Obama warned that the risk of nuclear materials falling into the hands of terrorists is on the rise. Global leaders have pledged to reduce access to those materials which, even in minute amounts, could be used to fashion a deadly bomb.
The expansion of nuclear power, here and abroad, raises the very real threat that terrorists will see the trade, transport and storage of fissile materials as a tempting source for bomb-making. Even in the U.S., security of spent fuel is lax and experts warn it is a prime target for terrorists. Until the waste problem is permanently and safely resolved, that threat remains.
Four decades of environmental activism have produced tangible results on many fronts. The one problem we have yet to wrestle to the ground is energy. We started down a vigorous path of efficiency and renewables in the Carter administration but the Reagan administration crushed the effort.
Forty years ago, when invited to rally to the defense of their environment, Americans rose to the occasion. The last four decades have brought revolutionary changes in the healthiness of our air and water and the vitality of our natural areas.
We’ve been offered a lot of false promises and greenwashing during those years, and we have acquired what Hemingway called the indispensable “crap detector.” Only the most gullible are buying what the nuclear industry is selling.
The climate clock is ticking. Achieving a safe, self-reliant, prosperous future now will be more expensive and more painful than if we had simply stayed the course 30 years ago. Let’s not hop from the climate frying pan to the nuclear fire. Let’s not waste more time and money on an outdated nuclear technology that has already flunked the market test.
Denis Hayes is the International Chairman of Earth Day 2010. This column was provided by the American Forum, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, educational organization.