A question from a friend prompted me to write this brief opinion piece on nuclear fission as an energy source in the context of the climate crisis.
The question of nuclear power has become increasingly controversial among environmentalists. During the 1970s, ’80s, & ‘90s, environmentalists seemed fairly uniformly against nuclear power because of the radioactive waste it produces, which remains highly toxic for hundreds of years and potentially dangerous for millennia. Recently, with the upsurge in concern over a potential climate crisis due to greenhouse-gas induced global warming, a growing minority of environmentalists have become vocal supporters of nuclear power because it produces no greenhouse gas pollution. The waste it does produce is localized and contained. Given the enormous environmental & economic threat that the climate crisis presents, these environmentalists have been willing to accept nuclear power as the lesser of two evils.
Part of this increased acceptance has been due to proposals for increased nuclear waste reprocessing, which allows some nuclear waste to be converted back into nuclear fuel, reducing dramatically the amount left to store in the Yucca mountain national nuclear waste repository (if it ever opens, given the political opposition that has pushed it 10 years past its original projected opening date & the latest projections which still give us 9 years to go). Reprocessing nuclear waste was done in the past by the U.S. to create plutonium for nuclear weapons, but France employs it to re-feed its reactors, & the Bush administration has proposed employing waste reprocessing to create plutonium to power (yet to be built) new sodium-cooled nuclear reactors. It sounds promising at a first glance, but Frank Von Hippel of Princeton has compelling analyses regarding the economics & safety of these schemes that make me skeptical. For good perspective to both sides of the argument of nuclear power, I highly recommend the listening to the well-balanced debate between Peter Schwartz & Ralph Cavanagh, sponsored by The Long Now Foundation as part of their excellent Seminars on Long Term Thinking (SALT) lecture series.
While nuclear power certainly provides a win in reducing greenhouse gas pollution, I think its downsides still outweigh any incremental benefits garnered from reduced greenhouse gas emissions. The risks of nuclear proliferation, nuclear terrorism, and nuclear accidents go up with expansion of nuclear energy, especially with the highly concentrated fissile materials produced in the reprocessing scenarios. Further, we still don’t have a viable solution for waste storage. In my opinion, in an environment of resource constraints, any production system without a closed loop is a non-starter. The Union of Concerned Scientists has produced a report outlining the major issues surrounding nuclear power, which delves into many of these issues in detail.
While I am obviously arguing against investment in the expansion of nuclear power, I would not take direct steps to shut it down, given that it accounts for 20% of the U.S.’s electricity production. Instead, I would argue for two macro-level policy changes to determine the future of nuclear energy: (1) Enact a comprehensive cap & trade system phasing down greenhouse gas pollution (or a carbon dioxide tax having the same effect) to mitigate a global warming-induced climate crisis. (2) Phase-out the fuel extraction & production subsidies for the petroleum & nuclear industries to create a level playing field for alternative (and by policy step #1, nonpolluting) energy sources. I believe that these two policies, along with the safety & security requirements already in place, would allow the market to effectively sort out the rationality of nuclear energy vs. other energy sources. I have a feeling that Lester Brown, author of Eco-Economy, would be proved right in his dismissal of nuclear power as economically uncompetitive if the costs of waste reprocessing & containment are put on the producers where they belong (Plan B 3.0, p.214).