Clean, Green and Nuclear
In the early 1970s, when I helped found Greenpeace, I believed that nuclear energy was synonymous with nuclear holocaust, as did most of my compatriots. That's the conviction that inspired Greenpeace's first voyage up the spectacular rocky Northwest coast to protest the testing of U.S. hydrogen bombs in Alaska's Aleutian Islands.
Thirty years on, my views have changed. 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.
Look at it this way: More than 600 coal-fired electric plants in the United States produce 36 percent of U.S. emissions -- or nearly 10 percent of global emissions -- of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas responsible for climate change. Nuclear energy is the only large-scale, cost-effective energy source that can reduce these emissions while continuing to satisfy a growing demand for power. And, these days, it can do so safely.
I say that guardedly, of course, in the wake of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's announcement this spring that his country is enriching uranium.
And although I don't want to underestimate the very real dangers of nuclear technology in the hands of rogue states, we simply cannot ban every technology that is dangerous. That was the all-or-nothing mentality at the height of the Cold War, when anything nuclear seemed to spell doom for humanity and the environment.
Today, there are 103 nuclear reactors quietly delivering just 20 percent of America's electricity. Eighty percent of the people living within 10 miles of these plants approve of them.
Wind and solar power have their place, but because they are intermittent and unpredictable, they simply can't replace big baseload plants such as coal, nuclear and hydroelectric.
Natural gas, a fossil fuel, is too expensive already, and its price is too volatile to risk building big baseload plants. Given that hydroelectric resources are built pretty much to capacity, nuclear is, by elimination, the only viable substitute for coal. It's that simple.
That's not to say that there aren't real problems -- as well as various myths -- associated with nuclear energy. Each concern deserves careful consideration:
Nuclear energy is expensive. It is, in fact, one of the least-expensive energy sources. In 2004, the average cost of producing nuclear energy in the United States was less than 2 cents per kilowatt-hour, comparable with coal and hydroelectric. Advances in technology will bring the cost down further in the future.
Nuclear plants are not safe. The Three Mile Island accident in 1979 was a success story because the concrete containment structure did what it was designed to do -- prevent radiation from escaping into the environment. By contrast, the accident at Chernobyl 20 years ago was not a success.
Nuclear waste will be dangerous for thousands of years. Within 40 years, used fuel has less than one-thousandth of the radioactivity it had when it was removed from the reactor. And it is incorrect to call it waste, because 95 percent of the potential energy is still contained in the used fuel after the first cycle.
Nuclear reactors are vulnerable to terrorist attack. The 6-foot-thick reinforced concrete containment vessel protects the contents from the outside as well as the inside. And even if a jumbo jet did crash into a reactor and breach the containment, the reactor would not explode. There are many types of facilities that are far more vulnerable, including liquid natural gas plants, chemical plants and numerous governmental targets.
Nuclear fuel can be diverted to make nuclear weapons. This is the most serious issue associated with nuclear energy and the most difficult to address, as the example of Iran shows. But just because nuclear technology can be put to evil purposes, that is not an argument to ban its use.
That is particularly true considering the pollutants the nation's coal-fired plants spew into the air.
The 600-plus coal-fired plants emit nearly 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually -- the equivalent of the exhaust from about 300 million automobiles. In addition, the Clean Air Council reports that coal plants are responsible for 64 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions, 26 percent of nitrous oxides and 33 percent of mercury emissions.
These pollutants are eroding the health of our environment, producing acid rain, smog, respiratory illness and mercury contamination. Meanwhile, the 103 nuclear plants operating in the United States effectively avoid the release of 700 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually -- the equivalent of the exhaust from more than 100 million automobiles.
Imagine if the ratio of coal to nuclear were reversed so that only 20 percent of our electricity were generated from coal and 60 percent from nuclear. This would go a long way toward cleaning the air and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Every responsible environmentalist should support a move in that direction.
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