Nuclear Power: Salvation or Catastrophe?

Many people these days are concerned about climate change caused by increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Even those who deny the relationship of burning fossil fuels to global warming will admit that one day these energy sources will be depleted and the world will need to develop alternative sources of energy. Some folks say that wind and solar power cannot possibly provide sufficient energy to meet this need. They maintain that nuclear power is the answer. France is usually pointed out as an example of how a country can meet most of its energy needs through nuclear power plants.

Count the Ways

Before you start telling all of your friends that nuclear power is the way of the future, consider the following downsides:

  1. Nuclear waste is dangerous for thousands of years. This is the one “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) that all of us can agree on. No one wants the stuff in his or her backyard. The feds spent a few billion preparing a storage facility in Nevada, but have since found out that the citizens of Nevada won’t let it happen. No one has come up with an alternative, so the stuff piles up at Diablo Canyon and other power plant sites.
  2. Nuclear power plants are prime targets for a terrorist. Remember 9/11? A large plane flying into a nuclear power station would make Chernobyl look like a walk in the park. A British study determined that this type of event in England would make large swathes of the British Isles uninhabitable and cause more than two million cancers.
  3. Nuclear power plants are prohibitively expensive. Without huge government or ratepayer subsidies, they cannot be built. Insurance companies are wise enough that they will not insure the plants against a disaster or terrorist attack. Therefore, the government becomes the “insurer of last resort.” When the San Onofre nuclear plant near San Diego was closed for repairs in 2013, it was determined that the costs to make it safe would be so substantial that the decision was made to permanently close it. The citizens of San Diego and Los Angeles will be stuck for decades with the bill for decommissioning it. The cost of shutting down one reactor is estimated to be $10 billion. Most of the existing plants in this country will have to be shut down soon, having exceeded their lifespan expectancy.
  4. Nuclear power plants are prohibitively dangerous. There have been four major disasters so far…all different in nature. All were considered impossible to happen. The Fukushima event in 2011 is still far from under control. Each day tons of radioactive water escape into the ocean. We will probably never know just how much damage to ocean life has occurred. It is estimated that over a million people have died prematurely (mainly cancer) because of the Chernobyl accident.
  5. These plants draw funds away from the development of sustainable energy. Each nuclear power plant costs about $8 billion. Think how many solar panels and wind turbines that would purchase. Solar and wind generators can also be located close to the users, eliminating the need for long distance transmission lines.

Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel, Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year,” was a nuclear power advocate until Fukushima happened. Now she has closed eight of Germany’s 17 reactors and plans on phasing out the others by 2022. That nation is leading the world in the switch to renewables.

Nuclear fusion technology may be a partial answer to the world’s energy needs if it ever gets perfected, but until then, we should forget about nuclear power as the answer to global warming. Wind and solar are the best bets at this time. Tidal and wave energy are still waiting to be perfected, but hold promise.

We should all be working to get the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant shut down. The danger of a major earthquake there is much greater than what they thought it was when the plant was built. California doesn’t need a Fukushima type disaster.

This article first appeared in the January 6, 2016 issue of the Rossmoor News, author Bob Hanson.

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