Japan sees nuclear power as a solution to global warming, but it's paying a
price. Last week, a magnitude 6.8 earthquake caused dozens of problems at the
world's biggest nuclear plant, leading to releases of radioactive elements into
the air and ocean and an indefinite shutdown. Government and company officials
initially downplayed the incident and stuck to the official line that the
country's nuclear plants are earthquake-proof, but they gave way in the face of
overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Japan has a sordid history of serious
nuclear accidents or spills followed by cover-ups.
It isn't alone. The U.S. government allows nuclear plants to operate under a
level of secrecy usually reserved for the national security apparatus. Last
year, for example, about nine gallons of highly enriched uranium spilled at a
processing plant in Tennessee, forming a puddle a few feet from an elevator
shaft. Had it dripped into the shaft, it might have formed a critical mass
sufficient for a chain reaction, releasing enough radiation to kill or burn
workers nearby. A report on the accident from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission
was hidden from the public, and only came to light because one of the
commissioners wrote a memo on it that became part of the public record.
The dream that nuclear power would turn atomic fission into a force for good
rather than destruction unraveled with the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979
and the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986. No U.S. utility has ordered a new nuclear
plant since 1978 (that order was later canceled), and until recently it seemed
none ever would. But rising natural gas prices and worries about global warming
have put the nuclear industry back on track. Many respected academics and
environmentalists argue that nuclear power must be part of any solution to
climate change because nuclear power plants don't release greenhouse gases.
They make a weak case. The enormous cost of building nuclear plants, the
reluctance of investors to fund them, community opposition and an endless
controversy over what to do with the waste ensure that ramping up the nuclear
infrastructure will be a slow process - far too slow to make a difference on
global warming. That's just as well, because nuclear power is extremely risky.
What's more, there are cleaner, cheaper, faster alternatives that come with none
of the risks.
Modern nuclear plants are much safer than the Soviet-era monstrosity at
Chernobyl. But accidents can and frequently do happen. The Union of Concerned
Scientists cites 51 cases at 41 U.S. nuclear plants in which reactors have been
shut down for more than a year as evidence of serious and widespread safety
Nuclear plants are also considered attractive terrorist targets, though that
risk too has been reduced. Provisions in the 2005 energy bill required threat
assessments at nuclear plants and background checks on workers. What hasn't
improved much is the risk of spills or even meltdowns in the event of natural
disasters such as earthquakes, making it mystifying why anyone would consider
building reactors in seismically unstable places like Japan (or California,
which has two, one at San Onofre and the other in Morro Bay).
Weapons proliferation is an even more serious concern. The uranium used in
nuclear reactors isn't concentrated enough for anything but a dirty bomb, but
the same labs that enrich uranium for nuclear fuel can be used to create
weapons-grade uranium. Thus any country, such as Iran, that pursues uranium
enrichment for nuclear power might also be building a bomb factory. It would be
more than a little hypocritical for the U.S. to expand its own nuclear power
capacity while forbidding countries it doesn't like from doing the same.
The risks increase when spent fuel is recycled. Five countries reprocess their
spent nuclear fuel, and the Bush administration is pushing strongly to do the
same in the U.S. Reprocessing involves separating plutonium from other materials
to create new fuel. Plutonium is an excellent bomb material, and it's much
easier to steal than enriched uranium. Spent fuel is so radioactive that it
would burn a prospective thief to death, while plutonium could be carried out of
a processing center in one's pocket. In Japan, 200 kilograms of plutonium from a
waste recycling plant have gone missing; in Britain, 30 kilograms can't be
accounted for. These have been officially dismissed as clerical errors, but the
nuclear industry has never been noted for its truthfulness or transparency. The
bomb dropped on Nagasaki contained six kilograms.
Technology might be able to solve the recycling problem, but the question of
what to do with the waste defies answers. Even the recycling process leaves
behind highly radioactive waste that has to be disposed of. This isn't a
temporary issue: Nuclear waste remains hazardous for tens of thousands of years.
The only way to get rid of it is to put it in containers and bury it deep
underground - and pray that geological shifts or excavations by future
generations that have forgotten where it's buried don't unleash it on the
No country in the world has yet built a permanent underground waste
repository, though Finland has come the closest. In the U.S., Congress has been
struggling for decades to build a dump at Yucca Mountain in Nevada but has been
unable to overcome fierce local opposition. One can hardly blame the Nevadans.
Not many people would want 70,000 metric tons of nuclear waste buried in their
neighborhood or transported through it on the way to the dump.
The result is that nuclear waste is stored on-site at the power plants,
increasing the risk of leaks and the danger to plant workers. Eventually, we'll
run out of space for it.
Given the drawbacks, it's surprising that anybody would seriously consider a
nuclear renaissance. But interest is surging; the NRC expects applications for
up to 28 new reactors in the next two years. Even California, which has a
31-year-old ban on construction of nuclear plants, is looking into it. Last
month, the state Energy Commission held a hearing on nuclear power, and a group
of Fresno businessmen plans a ballot measure to assess voter interest in
rescinding the state's ban.
Behind all this is a perception that nuclear power is needed to help fight
climate change. But there's little chance that nuclear plants could be built
quickly enough to make much difference. The existing 104 nuclear plants in the
U.S., which supply roughly 20% of the nation's electricity, are old and nearing
the end of their useful lives. Just to replace them would require building a new
reactor every four or five months for the next 40 years. To significantly
increase the nation's nuclear capacity would require far more.
The average nuclear plant is estimated to cost about $4 billion. Because of
the risks involved, there is scarce interest among investors in putting up the
needed capital. Nor have tax incentives and subsidies been enough to lure them.
In part, that's because the regulatory process for new plants is glacially slow.
The newest nuclear plant in the U.S. opened in 1996, after having been ordered
in 1970 - a 26-year gap. Though a carbon tax or carbon trading might someday
make the economics of nuclear power more attractive, and the NRC has taken steps
to speed its assessments, community opposition remains high, and it could still
take more than a decade to get a plant built.
Meanwhile, a 2006 study by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research
found that for nuclear power to play a meaningful role in cutting greenhouse gas
emissions, the world would need to build a new plant every one to two weeks
until mid-century. Even if that were feasible, it would overwhelm the handful of
companies that make specialized parts for nuclear plants, sending costs through
The accelerating threat of global warming requires innovation and may demand
risk-taking, but there are better options than nuclear power. A combination of
energy-efficiency measures, renewable power like wind and solar, and
decentralized power generators are already producing more energy worldwide than
nuclear power plants. Their use is expanding more quickly, and the decentralized
approach they represent is more attractive on several levels. One fast-growing
technology allows commercial buildings or complexes, such as schools, hospitals,
hotels or offices, to generate their own electricity and hot water with
micro-turbines fueled by natural gas or even biofuel, much more efficiently than
utilities can do it and with far lower emissions.
The potential for wind power alone is nearly limitless and, according to a May
report by research firm Standard & Poor's, it's cheaper to produce than nuclear
power. Further, the amount of electricity that could be generated simply by
making existing non-nuclear power plants more efficient is staggering. On
average, coal plants operate at 30% efficiency worldwide, but newer plants
operate at 46%. If the world average could be raised to 42%, it would save the
same amount of carbon as building 800 nuclear plants.
Nevertheless, the U.S. government spends more on nuclear power than it does on
renewables and efficiency. Taxpayer subsidies to the nuclear industry amounted
to $9 billion 2006, according to Doug Koplow, a researcher based in Cambridge,
Mass., whose Earth Track consultancy monitors energy spending. Renewable power
sources, including hydropower but not ethanol, got $6 billion, and $2 billion
went toward conservation.
That's out of whack. Some countries - notably France, which gets nearly 80% of
its power from nuclear plants and has never had a major accident - have made
nuclear energy work, but at a high cost. The state-owned French power monopoly
is severely indebted, and although France recycles its waste, it is no closer
than the U.S. to approving a permanent repository. Tax dollars are better spent
on windmills than on cooling towers.
It's Tempting To Turn To Nuclear Plants to Combat Climate Change, ButAlternatives Are Safer and Cheaper.
Courtsey from Los Angeles Times