Why Nuclear isn’t an Answer for Climate Change

Overall, nuclear power has been on the decline for a number of years. Of the 99 reactors online in the US in 2016, only one had been built since 1996 and it looks unlikely that more will be built. This month, Massachusetts closed their last nuclear power plant in Plymouth. This closure is part of a national trend for nuclear power, as plants in Pennsylvania and Illinois also close ahead of schedule, and another estimated fifteen to twenty plants are likely to close early over the next ten years. The industry is facing mounting pressure both from environmentalists concerned about the dangers posed by nuclear power plants, and from dropping energy prices driven by fracking and new energy sources.

Nuclear Less Cost-Effective

Nuclear power plants are tightly regulated and expensive both to build and to repair. Their main fuel source, uranium, is also costly to obtain and to enrich before it can be used. When nuclear was competing against coal, these figures were cost effective. But the rise of cheap natural gas from fracking, and the plummeting costs of other renewable energies like solar, have brought energy prices down to a point that nuclear power can’t compete with in states with an open electricity market.

Safety Concerns

There is some controversy among environmentalists about closing nuclear power plants. On one hand, they do reduce our carbon emissions, which is something the world sorely needs right now. But when nuclear power plants fail, they can have catastrophic consequences. Infamous incidents like those at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima gave many second thoughts about using nuclear power. The immediate impact of a meltdown is devastating, but the long-term consequences may be worse. Chernobyl will not be habitable anytime soon, estimates range from a minimum of several hundred years up to several thousand before the radiation levels are safe for humans to live in the area.

In addition, nuclear materials are often cited as a national security threat from would-be terrorists using them to make a nuclear or “dirty” bomb.

No Long-Term Radioactive Waste Disposal Solution

Even when nuclear plants are operating as designed, they put out hazardous waste that remains dangerous for tens of thousands of years. The US currently has no long-term storage solution for this waste; most is stored at the power plants themselves. And recently, there has been a proposal by the federal administration to classify radioactive waste as a lower threat level so it can be more easily disposed of at a lower cost. This is a concern for many states that have waste dating back to World War II, as “The new rules would allow the energy department to eventually abandon storage tanks containing more than 100m gallons (378m liters) of radioactive waste in the three states, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.” This waste would not be buried as previously thought necessary, and the tanks of waste would remain a threat to nearby residents.

A Better Way to Reduce Carbon

Ultimately, the best argument to keeping nuclear plants is to reduce our carbon footprint. But the health and safety costs of nuclear energy are too high, and we don’t have a solution to deal with the radioactive waste produced. Nuclear is no longer cost effective.  We do have access to other lower-cost, carbon-free technologies, like solar and wind. It would only take installing solar panels on about 17,500 square miles of the US’s roughly 3.7 million square miles of landmass (or about 0.4%) to power the country. This year, the US passed the two million installation mark in the solar industry, and the industry is still growing.

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