Ask a CELI Fellow: Nuclear's Role

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Question: What role should nuclear power play in the U.S. effort to decarbonize our electricity  sector?

 

Please note that these views represent those of the authors and may not represent those of their sponsoring institutions.

 

[su_box title="Perspectives"]

[su_spoiler title="Fighting Climate Change and the Case for Nuclear" anchor="Neely"]

[author] [author_image timthumb='on']http://www.cleanenergyleaders.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/1d00bc0.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Gerard Neely | Operations Analyst, Nextility | Spring 2015 Fellow[/author_info] [/author]

Over the past decade, leaders from around the world have begun to awaken to the threats presented by climate change.  Recently, this momentum has picked up, culminating with the landmark international climate accord reached at the end of 2015 at the UNFCCC’s COP21 in Paris.

The pace of change has also accelerated in the U.S. during President Obama’s second term. The Clean Power Plan, which the administration finalized in 2015, is an unparalleled action in the United States’ efforts to tackle climate change. Despite these important actions at home and abroad, there is much more work to be done if we want to halt the disruptive impacts of climate change. Doing so will require extensive changes to our economy and our infrastructure.

In the U.S., the electric sector is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore a critical area for emissions reductions. Although climate advocates of all stripes recognize this, there are many different visions for how best to achieve a carbon free electric sector. Arguably the most contentious proposition is whether to increase our use of nuclear power, either by building new reactors or by continuing to operate existing ones.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA), in 2014 fossil fuels accounted for 67% of electricity generation in the U.S., and were responsible for over two billion tons of carbon emissions – 32% of the national total. While these numbers should startle anyone concerned about combating climate change, energy industry leaders often cite the reliability of fossil fuel-fired generation, especially their ability to act as “baseload,” as a huge benefit to the electric system.

Baseload is the minimum level of electricity demand over 24 hours, and is important to utilities and grid operators for the purpose of continually balancing electricity supply and demand. Due to the variability of wind and sunlight throughout the day, baseload cannot be met with wind or solar power without some form of energy storage. While coal is often used for baseload, nuclear also meets the reliability requirements of baseload, and of course, it is carbon-neutral.

Nuclear power plants have been used to generate electricity since the conclusion of the Second World War. Critics point to disasters such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima to emphasize its safety risk, but nuclear power plants actually have quite a low accident rate. In fact, during 2014, 95% of nuclear plants in the US had no reported fuel failures. The nuclear industry has gone to great lengths to ensure it minimizes the probability of accidents, especially reactor meltdown, which the University of Michigan estimates to be roughly one in 20,000 years of operation. This level of risk begins to look acceptable when compared to the enormous threats the entire planet will face should we fail to reduce emissions sufficiently.

Although there are valid concerns about the safety of nuclear energy, these issues should not sideline nuclear from the fight against climate change. It is absolutely imperative that we embrace all the carbon free electricity sources that we have access to, and nuclear plants provide a huge amount of power at a low cost. In 2015, nuclear supplied 19.5% of U.S. electric power, while renewable energy supplied 7.3%. Further, the largest solar plant in the world is just half the size of the average nuclear plant.

We are fast approaching the two degrees centigrade limit that world leaders have agreed is necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change. In this dire situation, it seems highly unwise to cross any of our carbon-neutral electricity sources off the list of options. Just as technological improvements and price declines in energy storage are enhancing the prospects for renewable energy, there are new technologies available to make nuclear power safer and more efficient. As a community, we need to come together to address the concerns of nuclear skeptics, while recognizing the obvious benefits nuclear holds for our efforts to decarbonize the electric sector.  As our fight against climate change heats up in the years to come, we must ensure nuclear energy has a role to play.

[/su_spoiler]

[su_spoiler title="Nuclear Comes at an Unconscionable Cost to Communities and the Environment " anchor="Wirzba"][author] [author_image timthumb='on']http://www.cleanenergyleaders.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/emily-wirzba.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Emily Wirzba | Policy Associate, Friends Committee on National Legislation | Spring 2015 Fellow[/author_info] [/author]

For centuries, Native American communities have experienced myriad public health and environmental injustices. In recent decades, one manifestation of these injustices has been uranium extraction on or near indigenous lands. Given the harmful effects of uranium extraction on human health, communities, and ecosystems, expanding the use of nuclear energy is contradictory to a fundamental goal of the clean energy movement: to mitigate human and environmental harm caused by climate change.

Uranium ore was initially mined to fuel the Cold War arms race. From 1944 to 1986, U.S. mining companies extracted almost 4 million tons of uranium ore on tribal land. Navajo that worked as miners had no idea that uranium mining was hazardous, and weren’t provided with adequate information of the hazards involved, protective gear or ventilation. Some Navajo miners were exposed to radiation four times greater than Japanese who were targeted in the atomic bombings during WWII experienced.  

For mine workers today, with proper protective gear, exposure to uranium ore outside the body is rather harmless. In contrast, uranium’s radioactive by-products (thorium, radium, and radon gas), which are released by the mechanical extraction of uranium ore, are highly toxic when inhaled or consumed. Chronic exposure can cause kidney failure, increased risk for stomach and lung cancer, leukemia, and birth defects.

Since only 0.1%-0.2% of the mined material can be used, the uranium extraction process produces a large amount of waste material (tailings) and slurry. Each mine can leave behind piles of tailings as large as 30 million tons. This waste, usually stored near the mine site, contains radioactive components and is difficult to contain. Wind can carry toxic dust from the excavation and transportation sites, and these particles can leach into vegetation and groundwater. In some areas, open pits abandoned by mining companies have filled with water and become ponds, which years later are used by unknowing communities and livestock.

The mining process is also incredibly water-intensive, which lowers the local water table and can cause desertification. Uranium mining has a history of dumping contaminated water back into local streams and rivers. For example, the Schwartzwalder mine in Colorado, formerly the largest underground uranium mine in the U.S., has been polluting Ralston Creek, whose reservoir provides water to Denver. In some places near this mine, the groundwater contains uranium concentration levels at 1000 times the human health standard.

As a result of a uranium boom in the mid-1900s, there are now over 500 abandoned uranium mines on Navajo land alone. When uranium prices fell starting in the 1980s, uranium ore and waste was sometimes left on site in unmarked locations, making it difficult to locate the radioactive material years later. The market drop also led many mining companies to go bankrupt or to repeatedly change hands, making it very difficult to enforce and fund cleanup efforts.

For thousands of people, clean up efforts are desperately needed. An EPA survey in 2014 found that most of the old uranium mines on Navajo land still have radiation levels at 10 times the background levels for the area. This affects the health of the people that live and work around these abandoned mine sites, some of whom live in houses made of contaminated materials. Early results from an ongoing University of New Mexico study found higher-than-average uranium levels in the blood of nearly all 208 Navajo babies tested.

Even with new technology, stronger safety guidelines, and education efforts, communities across the U.S. continue to experience health problems resulting from uranium mines. The Crow Butte mine in Nebraska, which uses the modern, underground, in situ mining technique, had over 50 environmental and safety violations from 1997 to 2012. Surface evaporation ponds leaked, wells failed performance tests, and a surface spill with the potential to contaminate drinking water cost the mine $50,000. In a state that faces water shortages, it is troubling that the mine is located near major aquifers. And, in a troubling repetition of harm to indigenous land and peoples, Oglala Sioux tribe members have alleged that the Crow Butte mine has contaminated water, caused harm to human health, and prevents access to traditional lands.

Given the deleterious effects of uranium extraction on both human and environmental health, the clean energy community should not invest more in nuclear energy. As a nation, we are still coping with the legacy of hundreds of abandoned mines and the contamination they produce. If we cannot properly clean up the mines we already have, we should not invest in new ones. If we invest in nuclear at all, it should be to help heal the communities that have suffered from uranium mining and radiation exposure. There are clean and safe ways for the U.S. to shift away from fossil fuels, in the name of protecting the health of our communities and our planet. Nuclear energy is not the answer.

[/su_spoiler]

[su_spoiler title="The True Cost of the Nuclear Power Industry" anchor="Campia"]

[author] [author_image timthumb='on']http://www.cleanenergyleaders.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Tegan-Campia.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Tegan Campia | Power & Gas Operations Analyst, Nextility | Spring 2015 Fellow[/author_info] [/author]

 

Proponents have touted nuclear power as the solution to our carbon intensive energy sector. While nuclear’s reliability remains an attractive trait, affordability and security concerns are cause to focus on other lower cost and more secure energy technologies.

First, finances

Nuclear reactor construction is a costly endeavor that frequently runs over budget. Construction of reactors 3 and 4 at Georgia Power’s Vogtle plant, currently under construction in Waynesboro, Georgia, is estimated to take more than three years longer, and cost $7 billion more than initially budgeted - $21 billion, up from $14 billion. Georgia Power’s cost overruns will be passed onto customers, in the form of higher rates.

Because of the large financial risk associated with building a nuclear power plant, private financiers that could potentially fund these projects are discouraged from doing so, leaving ratepayers as the sole source of financial support. While alternative forms of power generation draw large investments from the private sector – such as Warren Buffet’s $2 billion investment in two of SunPower’s solar projects in California – much of the cost of nuclear power is paid by energy consumers like you and me.

Further, the high costs associated with nuclear technology do not stop when the plants cease producing power. While solar and wind energy produce no fuel waste, the Nuclear Energy Institute reports that the nuclear industry has produced 74,000 metric tons of radioactive waste over the last 40 years, enough to cover a football field 24 feet deep. The fact that a typical plant produces 20 tons of waste per year highlights the inherently unsustainable nature of this energy source. The federal Nuclear Waste Repository is estimated to cost north of $100 billion over its lifetime. As of 2009, utilities had contributed $31 billion - in ratepayer dollars - to the Nuclear Waste Fund. Disturbingly, these costs are not considered when nuclear energy is advocated for as the ‘lowest-cost power source’ to combat global climate change.

So what leads to the widespread perception that nuclear is an affordable, even cheap, power source? Government subsidies. According to a 2011 Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) report, nuclear power plants constructed from 1960 to 2008 received subsidies worth 139-142% of the price of the electricity they produce(d), and new reactors are receiving subsidies worth 88%–200% of the electricity price. Taxpayers are therefore subsidizing nuclear plants around the country, and in states with vertically integrated utilities - roughly half the country - ratepayers are on the hook for the remainder. Given nuclear’s ever-increasing price tag, there has never been a better time to stop developing new reactors.

Second, security

Nuclear policy and national security are tightly intertwined. Proposed security measures to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s rules and security regulations in the wake of 9/11 have not all been implemented. In the 2002 State of the Union, President Bush said that U.S. forces “found diagrams of American nuclear power plants” in al-Qaeda materials in Afghanistan. Following the March 2016 terror attacks in Brussels, intelligence agencies have found that the Islamic State is targeting nuclear power plants in Europe. These facilities continue to be significant threats to national security.

Despite awareness of the increased security risk, little action has been taken to prevent such a calamity from occurring. Because of the excessive cooling capabilities required, many nuclear power plants are positioned on critical bodies of water – and many are located within 50 miles of large cities. In the event of nuclear fallout, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission suggests that individuals within a 50 mile radius of a nuclear meltdown evacuate, meaning that complete evacuation would be required for cities such as New York, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Boston, Miami, New Orleans, and Los Angeles.

Third, health

The health hazards and costs of nuclear waste storage exemplify the unattractiveness of nuclear power. Recent developments in nuclear waste storage policy reveal an acknowledgement of these health dangers, which include acute radiation sickness and cancer. The severity of health impacts is directly related to the amount and frequency of exposure. The 134 firefighters and rescue workers at Chernobyl experienced a high level of direct exposure, resulting in acute radiation sickness, bone marrow depression, and in some cases hematologic and gastrointestinal complications.

The severity of health impacts is directly related to the amount and frequency of exposure. The 134 firefighters and rescue workers at Chernobyl experienced a high level of direct exposure, resulting in acute radiation sickness, bone marrow depression, and in some cases hematologic and gastrointestinal complications. Survivors from Nagasaki and Hiroshima A-bombs were also directly exposed to radioactive material. These survivors displayed higher rates of leukemia and solid cancers years after the bombs were dropped.

As a nation, we have yet to come to a consensus about how to protect the public from radiation. Currently, nuclear waste is stored on-site at power plants and in private storage facilities across the country. The Federal government’s proposed central waste repository in Yucca Mountain, Nevada faced strident opposition in recent years. After years of dispute regarding the storage site – which has already cost $15 billion – the Obama administration created the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, a group of geologists, nuclear energy, and policy experts tasked with conducting a comprehensive review of nuclear waste management policies. The Commission’s final report asserted that no state, tribe, or community should be forced to store nuclear waste without its consent. While the report conveys a positive message about protecting citizens from nuclear waste, its very existence illustrates the expensive, dangerous and thorny problems created by nuclear energy production. Furthermore, perpetually delaying decisions on how to handle nuclear waste could create severe health consequences in the future.

In conclusion, nuclear technology, while extremely reliable and powerful, is simply too risky and costly for us to continue to invest in. New and aging nuclear power plants cannot compete with the low-cost technology of renewables. And serious security issues remain, both geopolitically and environmentally. To tackle climate change while creating a healthy, profitable, zero-carbon economy, we need to leave unsafe and unprofitable technologies behind. The future remains brighter and healthier with nuclear power in America’s rear-view. [/su_spoiler] [/su_box]

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