Why Nuclear Power Is Not a Healthy Solution to Climate Change
Houston, we’ve got a problem. And if the former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is calling the bluff of the nuclear industry, we know it’s a big one. The recent climate talks in Paris have heightened discussions about how to replace America’s addiction to coal, oil, and gas. The solutions, as we know, are in our hands. And while there may be political and financial barriers to implementing these solutions, we can, at least, name them quite clearly: efficiency and renewable energy. It’s no surprise that the nuclear industry is pushing hard to be included in the climate solution matrix, attempting to be folded into state clean energy standards. They want to reap the same benefits as wind, solar, and hydropower. But since the health impacts of carbon pollution are a primary argument for moving away from fossil fuels, we have an obligation to evaluate the health aspects of any energy source before we promote it.
Industry commonly purports that nuclear is “green” because of its low-carbon emissions. Recently, even four climate scientists suggested we expand nuclear power to counter global warming. Opponents are quick to point out the CO2 emissions during the mining of uranium necessary to fuel these reactors are not insignificant. But what if they were? Carbon emissions aside, nuclear’s major health impact is in its radioactive emissions and nuclear waste. Are we looking to trade carbon emissions for radioactive emissions? In trying to avoid climate change, introducing another large public health threat is not sensible. It would be similar to ridding heart disease with a “solution” that causes cancer. In fact, the so-called nuclear solution is counterproductive to both the environmental and public health movements.
The 2011 Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Disaster revealed more of the realities behind nuclear power’s largest downsides. Sadly, even in the absence of large-scale nuclear disasters, daily radioactive emissions from nuclear power reactors are not uncommon. When public health experts look they find tritium in groundwater samples surrounding local nuclear power plants and spikes in air monitoring emissions when these plants are refueled. This is likely the reason that residents who live near nuclear power plants run an increased risk of developing cancer. As National Geographic pointed out this week, many coastal nuclear plants are also storing radioactive waste at sea level. What happens when the seas rise? Of the 99 current operating nuclear reactors across the United States, all of them are now facing tremendous decisions about where to store their nuclear waste for what is likely to be thousands of years.
In conjunction with the NYC People’s Climate March and the United Nations Climate Summit in September of 2014, nuclear experts and public health advocates spoke about issues associated with nuclear power – such as Fukushima, nuclear waste, uranium mining, human rights, health, economic, and technical issues – and discussed why nuclear energy is not “clean” energy nor a solution to climate change. It’s time for health professionals to engage in this dialogue and call nuclear energy like it is: another source of dirty energy.
One of Climate for Health’s partner organizations, Physicians for Social Responsibility, has a host of information on how nuclear reactors are mired in unresolved safety issues, and pose an ongoing a threat to public health. After all, as Former Nuclear Commissioner and Chair Gregory Jaczko says in the Huffington Post article below, nuclear is only a diversion from the real solutions.
By Gregory Jaczko, contributor to The Huffington Post
As world leaders convene in Paris in an attempt to prevent a rise in global temperatures, the nuclear industry has – not surprisingly – seized this moment to once again promise the perfect solution to the climate challenge. Having witnessed this industry up close for the last decade and a half, I am concerned that the uniquely perfect promise of safe, clean, predictable, and affordable nuclear power will divert our focus from solutions that will actually work to control greenhouse gas emissions.
As the country operating the most reactors and the place where commercial nuclear technology was first envisaged and developed, the United States is a strong bellwether for the future of the current generation of nuclear power plants. And the future appears limited. In the next fifteen years, an avalanche of nuclear power plant closures will see nuclear power go from about one hundred plants in operation today to just a handful. Nuclear will become a blip in the electricity supply without a meaningful ability to alter the course of the nation’s greenhouse gas emission profile.
The falloff in nuclear production may already have begun. Since I left the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2012, eight plants have either closed or indicated they intend to close before 2019. Operational blunders and safety lapses have played a role in several of these plant closures. But lack of economic competitiveness is the primary driver for these closures. Cheaper intermittent sources and depressed natural gas prices have reduced power prices to the point that nuclear’s perceived economic advantage is erased. Predictably the power companies that rely heavily on nuclear plants have pushed to reform electricity markets through lobbying of state legislators to reward their particular brand of carbon free electricity. Despite these efforts, the potential for more safety equipment problems and tight profit margins means the likelihood is strong that more plants will retire prematurely. Therefore the onset of the impending shutdown of reactors in the next fifteen years may be overly optimistic; it may begin earlier.
Image credit: Creative Commons