Inherently Dangerous Technology Cannot Be Made Inherently Safe
Nuclear power isn't affordable, clean, or safe
February 3, 2012
At its inception, the nuclear power industry and its government backers promised affordable, clean, and safe electricity. Those promises have not been met.
Affordable: No energy source could have met the "electricity too cheap to meter" PR nuclear received early on, but nuclear power has never come close. Reactors coming online in the 1980s caused coinage of a very different phrase, "rate shock," as electricity bills soared to pay for hugely expensive reactors. In 2012, the economics of nuclear power are even worse. With construction cost estimates soaring into the 11-figure range (yes, 11 figures), Wall Street refuses to finance new reactors unless taxpayers pick up the tab when utilities default.
Clean: Nuclear reactors don't emit much carbon, which has sparked some to describe them as "clean." But an authoritative 2008 study found that when the entire nuclear fuel cycle is examined, from uranium mining to radioactive waste disposal, nuclear's carbon emissions are two to six times greater than those of its renewable energy competition. Moreover, carbon is not the only pollutant of concern. Every nuclear reactor releases toxic radiation into the air and water during routine operation. Unique to nuclear power is its generation of lethal radioactive waste; no nation has yet found a means for its necessary permanent isolation from the environment.
Safe: When three nuclear reactors in Japan literally exploded across our TV screens in March 2011, it forever put to rest the lie that nuclear power is safe. No government had ever contemplated such a scenario. But unlike the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, which the U.S. nuclear industry successfully laid at the feet of an inept Soviet nuclear program, there was no such alibi at Fukushima. There are 23 reactors in the U.S. virtually identical to those that exploded at Fukushima. While new reactor designs are purportedly better (although none yet has been tested in real-life situations), the reality is that these new designs are better in the same way that a 2012 Ford is safer than a 1972 Ford. Car accidents still happen. So will nuclear accidents. It is not possible to make an inherently dangerous technology inherently safe.
None of nuclear power's drawbacks would matter if other energy sources weren't ready to provide electricity for America's future. Forty years ago, when nuclear power was at its peak, clean alternatives weren't ready. Now they are. Solar and wind power and other renewables have matured. Wind is the fastest-growing electricity source in the U.S., costs of solar have plunged to be competitive with nuclear in most states. Combined with aggressive clean building and energy efficiency programs (which remain the "low-hanging fruit" of our energy future), distributed energy systems, and smart electrical grids, these alternatives are no longer theoretical—they are at hand.
An expansion of nuclear power in the U.S. is unwarranted and unnecessary—and would only inhibit the implementation of the genuinely safe, clean, and affordable energy technologies that inevitably will power our future.