Environmentalists spar over nuclear power

by Rich Heffern

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The ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan has brought the issue of nuclear generation of power to the forefront. Environmentalists fiercely disagree about the role nuclear power might play in addressing growing energy needs and the problem of global warming. It’s an issue that divides the movement into two camps.

The Green movement that coalesced in the 1970s and 1980s in the battle against nukes is not exactly embracing nuclear power now but there is support in some circles, saying that it’s non-polluting and that the risks are worth the benefits.

“The problem of global warming is so serious that we must thoroughly consider every low-carbon option for generating power,” says a statement from Environmental Defense, a green group that remains concerned about the security of nuclear plants but calls the industry’s safety record “impressive.”

“There’s no realistic scenario to decarbonizing without nuclear power,” says Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute. “Environmentalists in the 1960s succeeded in shutting down new nuclear power plants, and what did we get? We got coal,” referring to coal-fired power generating plants that are controversial because of their pollution of air and water.

Carl Pope, former chairman of the Sierra Club, on the other hand argues that the best approach for the future would be to “develop solar, work on geothermal and research nuclear,” rather than building new plants. Pope is concerned that spent fuel from plants could too easily fall into the wrong hands and be used to develop weapons. And the problem of nuclear waste disposal has not been solved adequately. Nuclear generation of power, for its opponents, is an unsafe, expensive process that produces hazardous waste.

About 70 percent of U.S. energy sources – oil, natural gas and coal plants – burn carbon. To merely maintain a 30 percent level of sources that do not emit carbon, and even assuming a big increase in solar power, the country would need to build more than 40 nuclear plants by 2020, which is not going to happen. The rest of the world meanwhile is leaping into nuclear expansion, with 30 reactors planned in China alone.

Stewart Brand, author of The Whole Earth Catalog, is a supporter of nuclear generation of power. On safety, he notes, “year after year, the industry has had no significant accidents” in the operation of 443 civilian nuclear plants around the world. “Radiation from nuclear energy has not killed a single American,” he says. Even in the deadly Chernobyl explosion in 1986, dire predictions that hundreds of thousands would die of radiation induced cancers turned out to be wildly exaggerated, according to Brand.

Weighing the safety tradeoffs between nuclear power and human-made global warming, Brand cites this observation from fellow environmentalist Bill McKibben: “Nuclear power is a potential safety threat, if something goes wrong. Coal-fired power is guaranteed destruction, filling the atmosphere with planet-heating carbon dioxide when it operates the way it’s supposed to.”

Al Gore is solidly opposed to nuclear generation of power, and criticizes “the grossly unacceptable economics of the present generation of reactors.” He calls it “a radioactive white elephant” – that is, an object that costs more to maintain than it’s worth. His other argument against nukes is that the fuel might be diverted to produce atomic weapons.

Gore notes that in the 1960s the old Atomic Energy Commission predicted that the United States would have 1000 nuclear power plants operating in 2000. That didn’t happen. Only 104 plants currently operate, generating about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. The cost of building one meanwhile has increased from $400 million in the 1970s to $4 billion by the 1990s, while building times have doubled. Gore highlights bottlenecks that could choke any nuclear renaissance, including the fact that critical components such as containment facilities to house reactors are currently being produced by just one company in Japan.

The crisis in Japan already has some U.S. politicians backing off a push for more nuclear power stateside, the New York Times notes -- even as experts maintain that an expansion in nuclear power is crucial for the country to meet its energy needs. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn) said on March 14 the United States should "put the brakes" on any new nuclear developments until the Japan situation is resolved. And Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass), a critic of nuclear power, said the United States should inspect the 31 plants that are similar to Japan's in order to ensure that they're prepared to withstand huge earthquakes. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, however, said on March 13, an overseas disaster should not affect domestic energy policy.

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