The Nuclear Option

Japan and France announced in April that they would work together to promote nuclear power as a way of combating climate change.

Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said in a joint declaration April 11 that they “share the view that nuclear energy will play a significant role for the prosperity and sustainable development in the 21st century,” according to the International Herald Tribune.

Earlier this year, the British government announced a similar commitment to nuclear power, saying it would be a part of a the nation’s energy mix as it moves to reduce carbon emissions.

It’s a trend that some in the environmental community are supporting, such as Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalogue, and Greenpeace founder Patrick Moore, who wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post in 2006 that nuclear power “may just be the energy source that can save our planet from another possible disaster: catastrophic climate change.”

The argument is pretty straightforward: Carbon dioxide is a chief cause of global warming. About 10% of international carbon emissions—and a full third of US carbon emissions—come from coal-fired electric plants. Replace those plants with nuclear power plants, which do not emit carbon into the atmosphere, and you can reduce our impact on climate.

Simple, right? Wrong. Nuclear power is not as carbon-free as advertised, plus there are significant safety concerns, the length of time required to build plants and, perhaps most importantly, there is the cost.

Let’s consider the emissions issue first.

“Saying nuclear is carbon-free is not true,” Uwe Fritsche, a researcher at the Öko Institut in Darmstadt, Germany, told the Christian Science Monitor last year. “It’s less carbon-intensive than fossil fuel. But if you are honest, scientifically speaking, the truth is: There is no carbon-free energy. There’s no free lunch.”

Fritsche told the Monitor that the mining and construction processes and operation of a 1,250-megawatt plan generates “the equivalent of 250,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year during its life.”

A study by physicist Joshua Pearce of Clarion University of Pennsylvania came to similar conclusions, according to Science Daily. “Each stage of the nuclear-fuel cycle,” the magazine writes, “including power plant construction, mining/milling uranium ores, fuel conversion, enrichment (or de-enrichment of nuclear weapons), fabrication, operation, decommissioning, and for short- and long-term waste disposal contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, he explains.

“Nuclear may stack up against the rampant fossil-fuel combustion we see today, but only by a factor of 12. This means that if nuclear power were taken as the major option over the next 40 years or so, we would be in no better a position in terms of emissions and reliance on a single major source of energy than we are today given the enormous growth nuclear required over that timescale.”

That kind of growth would only exacerbate existing safety problems, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. “(A) large-scale expansion of nuclear power in the United States or worldwide under existing conditions would be accompanied by an increased risk of catastrophic events—a risk not associated with any of the non-nuclear means for reducing global warming,” the organization says on its Web site. “These catastrophic events include a massive release of radiation due to a power plant meltdown or terrorist attack, or the death of tens of thousands due to the detonation of a nuclear weapon made with materials obtained from a civilian—most likely non-US—nuclear power system. Expansion of nuclear power would also produce large amounts of radioactive waste that would pose a serious hazard as long as there remain no facilities for safe long-term disposal.”

The UCS doesn’t rule out nuclear power, but views it as a last resort—and only if all of the safety issues are addressed. That’s not likely to happen anytime soon—if ever.

Then there is the cost, which is “substantially more than electricity made from wind, coal, oil or natural gas,” because of high capital costs and debt, environmental writer Mark Hertsgaard wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005. And this is despite billions in subsidies granted to the industry since the end of World War II.

He adds that nuclear plants only produce electricity, which “amounts to only one third of America’s total energy use,” meaning that nuclear power “addresses only a small fraction of the global warming problem.” Because of this, nuclear power is “seven times less cost-effective at displacing carbon” than energy efficiency, “the cheapest, fastest alternative.”

This means that nuclear power does little more than “divert money away from better responses to global warming, thus slowing the world’s withdrawal from carbon fuels at a time when speed is essential.”

As the Los Angeles Times wrote in an editorial in March:

“There are safer, quicker, cheaper and cleaner alternatives, such as solar and wind power, greater efficiency measures and decentralized power generators that produce electricity and heat water at the same time.”

Given all this, why keep nuclear power on the table?

Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and The Cranbury Press. E-mail See his blog, Channel Surfing, at

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2008

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