It has come as a shock to me that some of my fellow environmentalists, and one of this country’s leading newspapers, have recently begun arguing in favor of nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels and a way to fight global warming. Stewart Brand, according to a recent interview in the New York Times—which calls him one of the originators of environmentalism—is for it and feels "guilty that he and his fellow environmentalists created so much fear of nuclear power." The famous British scientist and environmentalist James Lovelock has also said that nuclear power is our best choice to combat global warming, and not long ago the New York Times ran an editorial endorsing this kind of power. These opinions are apparently having an effect. The New York Times reported on March 28 that rising concerns about global warming are helping to drive up the price of uranium and leading to a new boom in uranium mining.
If leading environmentalists are for it and the power industry is for it—usually two opposing sides in the environmental debate—then this must be the way to go. Right? But consider these facts:
We would need too many nuclear plants. In the United States, 104 operating nuclear power reactors at 65 sites provide 8% of our energy, while fossil fuels provide 85%. For nuclear power to completely replace fossil fuels, we would need more than 1,000 new nuclear power plants of the same designs and efficiencies as existing plants. This would mean an average of 20 new plants per state.
Today, fossil fuels provide 71.4% of the electricity produced in the United States, while nuclear power plants provide 19.4%. Just to replace the electrical generation by fossil fuels with nuclear energy would require 285 new nuclear power plants of the kind, size, and efficiency of those in use now, and to counteract global warming these would have to be built and put online within a few years. This is just not practical.
Nuclear power is not a short-term solution. The uranium isotope that fuels conventional nuclear plants is a rare mineral—less than 1% of uranium ores. It is so rare that known reserves of it will run out before the end of this century if we greatly increase its use, as is proposed for the United States and the rest of the world. It is unlikely that the amount of uranium required for 1,000 new plants could be obtained at all—and certainly not quickly. Moreover, nuclear power plants are complex and take a long time to build. Even reaching agreement on where to build them is contentious and time-consuming. The fact is, no one wants to live near a nuclear power plant.
In short, if we need to diminish our use of fossil fuels right now—this year, next year, within the coming decade—nuclear power isn’t going to help. It would take a decade or more from planning to going on line for any of these plants to become operational, and it would take a huge effort to site and develop plans for the required number of nuclear power plants.
Add to this that uranium is dangerous. Mining it, transporting it, using it, and disposing of its radioactive waste all pose problems to which we have no satisfactory solutions. Right now there are 70,000 tons of radioactive waste in the United States in temporary holding facilities. This waste (and more to come) will need to be sealed off securely for 10,000 years. The federal government’s plan is to put it underground at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Estimates are that just transporting this waste from the 39 sites in many states where it is now to Yucca Mountain would take one to six trainloads (or truck convoys) a day for 24 years. The Department of Energy plans to have each shipment heavily guarded by police and the military to protect against terrorism. The shipments would go near or through many major cities, including Atlanta, Chicago, Omaha, Pittsburgh, and Salt Lake City, as well as right through metropolitan Las Vegas.
The federal government doesn’t have a good plan in place for dealing with all this waste in the meantime. Think the Department of Energy is taking care of all this for us? Think again. A 2005 GAO report said that existing holding facilities would be filled in 2008. That isn’t exactly the kind of long-term planning that nuclear power requires.
Finally, conventional nuclear power plants have limited lifetimes, perhaps 30 or 40 years, perhaps more, but after that they have to be dismantled. Current federal government plans are to remove the less radioactive parts and then seal off the really hot reactor and other materials for 70 to 100 years until they become safe enough for people to dismantle them. That’s a lot of unusable, dangerous reactors sitting around the country, also targets for terrorism.
It costs even more to dismantle a nuclear reactor than to build it. These costs, along with the costs of transporting and policing the wastes, need to be included in calculating the cost of electricity from nuclear power plants. Has anybody made those calculations?
I’ve done research on global warming since the late 1960s and am concerned about the potential effects, so I do hope to see reductions in our release of greenhouse gases. But this clearly isn’t the way.
The question is not whether nuclear power is a viable replacement for fossil fuels. The question is, Why would anybody think it is?
Copyright © 2007 Daniel B. Botkin