There are many steps we can take to avert climate change, but increased use of nuclear power should not be among them. (More)

Environmentalists were rightly excited on Monday to hear President Obama include the following stirring call to action on tackling climate change in his second Inaugural Address:

We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise. That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.

Winning Progressive looks forward to whatever proposals our President presents to address this issue – in addition to the steps the Obama Administration has already taken, such as increasing fuel efficiency standards to 54.5 mpg by 2025, investing in clean energy development, and proposing the first ever greenhouse gas regulations for new power plants -, as curbing catastrophic climate change is an absolutely critical task that we have little time left to start working on. And, of course, once again rejecting the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline must be step one in the Administration’s vow to take on climate change.

But this post isn’t about what needs to be done to address climate change. Instead, it is about why nuclear power should not be focused on as a major part of our climate solutions. One of the biggest arguments that supporters of nuclear energy put forth is the claim that increased use of nuclear power could help avoid catastrophic climate change as nuclear power plants do not release greenhouse gases. Even leaving aside the direct safety issues illustrated by the Fukushima emergency in Japan, however, nuclear power is not a good option for avoiding climate change for a number of reasons.

  • Too Many Nuclear Plants Are Needed: The sheer number of nuclear power plants that would need to be built to have a major dent in the world’s CO2 emissions is staggering. The 442 nuclear reactors that currently exist worldwide provide about 15% of the world’s power. To increase that amount to even 50% of the world’s current power demand would require the construction of at least 900 new nuclear reactors, a figure that would be considerably higher once you factor in growing electricity demand and the replacement of existing reactors that are aging. In other words, we would have to more than triple the number of nuclear power plants in the world just to meet 50% of our electricity needs. This would also mean tripling the amount of nuclear material floating around that could fall into the wrong hands, the amount of radioactive waste that we would need to figure out how to store, the number of targets for terrorist attacks, and the chances of a catastrophic accident.
  • Nuclear Plants Cost Too Much: While the nuclear industry once sold itself as being able to produce power that is “too cheap to meter,” this claim is somewhat accurate only if you ignore the substantial costs of building such plants, storing the waste that is created, and cleaning up any accidents that occur. A study from 2008 estimated that it would cost between $6 and $9 billion to build an average size nuclear plant of 1,100 megawatts, and the cost has likely escalated since then with an engineering firm recently bidding $26 billion to build two 1,200 megawatt nuclear units in Canada. These significant costs are a big reason why the industry is trying to get Congress to require massive taxpayer subsidies for the industry. For example, here in the US President Obama, unfortunately, proposed $54 billion in loan guarantees in an effort to get 10 more nuclear plants built. The hundreds of billions to trillions of dollars (much of it subsidized by taxpayers) that would be needed to achieve a major expansion in nuclear power is money that would be far better spent ramping up energy efficiency, which is the cheapest form of power, and developing and implementing safer renewable power sources, such as wind, solar, and geothermal, and the battery technology needed to make such sources fully viable. Every dollar spent on nuclear power is a dollar that could more effectively reduce climate pollution by being spent on a cleaner, cheaper energy source.
  • Nuclear Plants Take Too Long: We need solutions for climate change now. Yet it takes nearly ten years to get a new nuclear plant permitted, constructed, and operating. Given the urgency of climate change, we should be investing in quicker solutions like energy efficiency.
  • Regulatory Failure Presents a Serious Concern: There are serious concerns about whether adequate regulatory structures would exist to ramp up nuclear power worldwide. Here in the U.S., the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is a regulatory agency that has a checkered past and, of course, all forms of regulation are under attack by conservatives. In addition, for nuclear power to play a major role in reducing climate change, it would need to expand into numerous other countries, many of which lack well-functioning governments that could adequately oversee both the plants and the nuclear materials needed to fuel the plants.
  • We Don’t Need Nuclear Power: Supporters of nuclear power often try to put opponents into a false choice of either going with nuclear or burning more coal. But the reality is that there are plenty of options for reducing greenhouse gas emissions more quickly, effectively, and cheaply than through increased nuclear power. In particular, there are substantial amounts of untapped energy efficiency potential – a 2009 study by McKinsey & Company found that we could reduce overall energy consumption in the U.S. by 23% per year by 2020, at a cost savings of $1.2 trillion, by investing $520 billion in energy efficiency. In addition, wind, concentrated solar and passive solar, geothermal, run-of-the-river hydroelectric, and other forms of renewable energy are rapidly becoming commercially available and cost-competitive. Development of energy storage technologies will allow such renewable resources to make even bigger contributions to our energy system over the coming decades. Finally, to the extent that additional baseload power sources are needed, combined cycle plants fueled by landfill gas, gasified sewage sludge or municipal solid waste, and/or natural gas are all better options than coal or nuclear. While natural gas has serious problems that must be addressed, mainly related to the hydrofracking used to obtain natural gas from Marcellus shale and a lack of regulatory oversight, natural gas burns far more cleanly, does not create the waste problems of coal or nuclear, and requires a far smaller capital investment which means it will be easier to transition away from it as renewable energy continues to develop.

In short, the tripling or more of current nuclear capacity needed to make a major dent in climate change would be costly, slow, and risky, and would divert resources from developing true cleaner energy technologies that can address climate change without creating massive new problems of their own.  So, instead of focusing on nuclear fantasies, let’s get to work on the real clean energy solutions to climate change.