The Nuclear Option
The threat of global warming revives talk of a new nuclear age.
At the end of former Vice President Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth, tips are offered to help reduce the threat of global warming: Use florescent light bulbs, drive less, and recycle more.
Build new nuclear power plants? Not on the list.
And yet, these days, nuclear power increasingly is touted as a safe, clean energy source in a time of rising costs and concerns about carbon dioxide emissions.
“There is now a realistic assessment that nuclear energy is part of the environmental solution,” says Andrew Kadak, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the former head of a Massachusetts nuclear plant.
“If you look at a country like France, which has significant nuclear-energy production,” Kadak says, “you see that they are one of the few nations that has met or exceeded the carbon dioxide target levels set by the Kyoto Accords.”
Nuclear foes, on the other hand, are quick to debunk this characterization.
Global warming — which most scientists believe is caused by the presence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — can’t be nuked away, they say.
“Nuclear is the absolutely worst choice when it comes to doing anything about global warming,” says Dave Kraft, director of the Chicago-based Nuclear Energy Information Service.
Nuclear reactors tend to be expensive and operationally ineffective, and the five- to 10-year implementation period is too long, Kraft says. Concerns about the public-health effects of toxic waste and leaks, as well as the added risk of the plants’ becoming terror targets, also persist.
And though it’s true that nuclear power plants themselves cut down on carbon dioxide emissions, Kraft says, “You could get the same effect by holding your breath.”
But with a few prominent environmentalists breaking ranks and climbing on the nuclear bandwagon, the debate is likely to intensify in coming months. And Illinois, with 11 operating nuclear plants — the most in the nation — is a power player in the new nuclear renaissance.
The United States already has 103 nuclear plants in operation, providing about 20 percent of the nation’s energy needs. The number of plants is likely to jump, considering that 10 companies or consortiums are preparing 12 licenses for what could be as many as 22 new nuclear plants, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI).
Among them is Chicago-based Exelon Corp., which is moving forward with plans for a second reactor in Clinton, less than 60 miles from Springfield.
The Clinton reactor is still under review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but other facilities have recently received the federal government’s blessing, including a new uranium-enrichment plant in southeastern New Mexico.
That recent approval, NEI spokeswoman Trish Conrad says, “is another sign that the industry is continuing to move forward in its effort to expand the availability of clean, safe, and affordable energy in this country.”
Positioning nuclear energy as a clean and affordable resource is a stark change from the power source’s reputation over the last several decades.
An accident at the Three Mile Island power plant, near Middletown, Pa., in 1979 spawned a movement of environmentalists, legislators, and everyday citizens who believed that nuclear power was simply too dangerous to be meddled with.
The infamous meltdown at the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine in 1986, which caused considerable environmental and human casualties, confirmed the anti-nuke movement’s worst fears [see Antoinette Jong, “Once a killer, always a killer,” March 30, 2006].
Even pop culture has taken its shots at the nuclear industry. The fictional Springfield Nuclear Power Plant on The Simpsons is depicted as a factory where safety standards are comically nonexistent.
“There was a time when no CEO would be caught dead saying the N-word in a boardroom,” says Kadak, the MIT professor. “Not only were there concerns about the costs but also the environmental issues.”
But electricity shortages and the rising price of electricity throughout the country are forcing utilities to consider nuclear energy as an economically competitive alternative, he adds.
And the environmental concerns about nuclear power in the ’70s have made way for current concerns regarding carbon dioxide emissions. According to NEI numbers, nuclear energy accounted for 73 percent of U.S. emission-free generation in 2005. “Like it or not, nuclear power supplies the vast majority of today’s low-carbon energy,” says John Rowe, chief executive officer of Exelon.
As to the issue of safety, nuclear-energy proponents contend that the days of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl are long gone.
“We have a proven record of safety,” Conrad says, citing a 2005 study indicating that that 83 percent of Americans living in close proximity to nuclear power plants favor nuclear energy.
Even environmentalists such as Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore have embraced nuclear energy. In an April 16 commentary in the Washington Post, Moore wrote that his newfound support for nuclear energy was inspired by the dangerously high carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired electric plants. Moore categorizes concerns about the cost and safety of nuclear plants as, quite simply, “myths.”
“Thirty years on, my views have changed,” he writes. “And the rest of the environmental movement needs to update its views, too, because nuclear energy may just be the energy source that can save our planet from another possible disaster: catastrophic climate change.”
Clearly not everyone is a believer or a convert.
Opponents to nuclear power dispute the notion that nuclear plants produce no carbon dioxide — after all, the machines used to build nuclear reactors are likely to be powered by fossil fuels.
Mark Sardella, executive director of Santa Fe, N.M.-based Local Energy, calls the nuclear industry’s campaign “entirely propaganda.”
He argues that nuclear plants are not cost-effective, in part because they require exorbitant insurance policies to protect against disasters.
Sardella also points to the much-publicized near-meltdown of the Davis-Besse power plant in Ohio in 2002 as evidence that historically lax safety standards are still a reality.
“Our nuclear fleet is 24 years old and needs to be retired,” Sardella says. “Everyone is looking for some way to continue the massive consumption our economic structure allows, and nuclear energy is a bad answer.”
Further, Sardella and others say, there remain unanswered questions regarding the disposal of nuclear waste.
A 2006 report conducted for the Institute of Energy and Environmental Research cites the high cost of constructing nuclear plants and the possibility of inadvertently causing the proliferation of nuclear weapons as two more reasons nuclear energy is dead wrong.
“It is time for the global community to move on from a belief in the nuclear option and to begin focusing its efforts on developing more rapid, more robust, and more sustainable options,” says Brice Smith, the study’s author.
With pressure to find new energy and do it quickly, politicians also have been pulled into the debate.
Take U.S. Sen. Barack Obama. In testimony last spring before a subcommittee dealing with clean air and climate issues, the freshman senator echoed the arguments of the pro-nuclear lobby.
“As Congress considers policies to address air quality and the deleterious effects of carbon emissions on the global ecosystem,” Obama testified, “it is reasonable — and realistic — for nuclear power to remain on the table for consideration.”
At the same time, Obama has emerged as a leading voice for renewable energy sources — just like his senior colleague U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin. The two Democrats have been vocal boosters of subsidies to boost ethanol production.
Durbin, says spokesman John Normoyle, isn’t anti-nuclear; he just believes that the key to decreasing America’s dependence on foreign oil lies first with renewables.
“Nuclear is really separate,” Normoyle says.
Similarly, when Gov. Rod Blagojevich outlined a state energy plan in October, he made no mention of nuclear power; instead, he focused on boosting energy efficiency and sources such as wind and solar.
In the wake of tritium leaks at Exelon plants, Blagojevich signed legislation requiring that leaks of radioactive materials be reported within 24 hours to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and Illinois Emergency Management Agency. Obama and Durbin introduced similar legislation at the federal level.
Ambiguity about nuclear power’s role in a future energy policy is reflected across the country.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who served as U.S. secretary of energy during the Clinton administration, is “very aware of the debate going on at the national level right now over the future of nuclear energy,” says spokesman Jon Goldstein.
Although not the site of nuclear power plants, New Mexico houses both the Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories, as well as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant for nuclear waste. Right now, Goldstein says, Richardson is more interested in other types of alternative energy, mainly because the waste and costs issues figure so prominently: “Nuclear energy accounts for more than 20 percent of our power nationally, so it can’t be ignored, but these waste and cost issues must be addressed before any big moves are made. The governor is much more focused on renewable energy right now — solar, wind, and biomass — than he is on nuclear power.”
Still, with the clamor for a widespread shift in U.S. energy policy getting louder every day, it’s clear that the nuclear option is being taken more seriously, throughout the country. Even with all the new arguments for nuclear power, the idea that a vast network of power plants could soon fuel our everyday lives makes people like Dave Kraft of NEIS cringe.
“There are more effective, quicker, cheaper and less environmentally threatening ways to get the job done,” he says.
Illinois Times staff writer R.L. Nave
contributed to this report.