Climate Corner: Is going nuclear really the right option?
Nov 19, 2022
As the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) meetings wrap up in Egypt, citizens around the world realize that we can no longer base our economies on carbon fuels. Many nations are embracing renewable energy. Sweden is leading the way to become the first nation to be 100% powered by renewable energy.
Although a few countries like France still push nuclear power, a 2020 study in Nature Energy stated, “Nuclear is simply too expensive, too time-consuming, and too dangerous a technology to compete with renewables as an alternative to decarbonize the global economy.”
I have never been a proponent of nuclear energy. Some of my angst can be traced back to my days as a grade school student in the Cold War era of the 1960s. We practiced nuclear drills and viewed films of nuclear detonations. One film showed American soldiers on the Bikini Atoll Islands chaining various animals to a test area. After the bomb was detonated, the soldiers returned to the site to ascertain the damage done to those poor animals.
In the late 1990s, I had the opportunity to visit the nuclear library of Los Alamos, New Mexico. This was just after President Clinton’s Energy Secretary, Hazel O’ Leary, had declassified hundreds of nuclear research documents. One group of documents represented over 400 experiments carried out on humans, many of them without informed consent. One document, “American Nuclear Guinea Pigs: Three Decades of Radiation Experiments on U.S. Citizens,” described various experiments performed on populations within our society including mentally handicapped people, prisoners, soldiers and the elderly.
The nuclear industry has earned a reputation of being deceptive and untrustworthy. Russia initially tried to hide the accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor which resulted in an explosion that blew over ten tons of radioactive debris and fuel into the atmosphere.
“As of January 2018, 1.8 million people in Ukraine, including 377,589 children, had the status of victims of the disaster.” Health effects are still occurring even in populations outside the contamination zone.
Until the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear accident, Chernobyl was the worst nuclear disaster in history. The Japanese reactor accident was a result of faulty safety equipment. An earthquake triggered tsunami caused a loss of power, rendering the cooling systems inoperable. Three reactors were heavily damaged. In September of this year, Japan announced plans to release 1.3 million tons of stored radioactive water which had been used to cool the damaged reactors. Neighboring countries like China and South Korea have expressed deep concerns over releasing this radioactive water into the fragile Pacific ecosystem.
The USA witnessed its own nuclear accident when in the early morning hours of March 28, 1979, the Unit 2 reactor of the Three-Mile Island Power Plant in Londonderry Township, PA experienced a partial meltdown. Studies show that the accident exposed the failures of cooling water systems and the lack of adequate training.
Mark Jacobson, a professor at Stanford University has pointed out many of the downsides of nuclear power. One that especially resonates with me is the exposure of indigenous communities which find themselves living and working at Uranium mines in the western states. Navaho People traveled from reservations to mines to seek work, often relocating their families to the mine camps. Although mining of Uranium peaked in the late 1950s, the area remains hazardous as more than 1000 abandoned Uranium mine shafts leak radiation.
Another major issue with nuclear energy is the disposal of the highly radioactive wastes. Even the Small Modular Reactors (SMR) which produce less than 300 MW of electricity will generate dangerous radioactive wastes. A peer reviewed study published in March 2022 stated, “SMRs will produce more voluminous and chemically/physically reactive waste than Light Water Reactors, which will impact options for disposal of the waste.”
There is a proposal to dump high level radioactive wastes into granite, limestone and salt formations in the Great Lakes Basin. This would jeopardize the drinking water of over 40,000,000 people. Additionally, it will cost $ 4.5 billion to clean up the nuclear waste nightmare at the now-closed nuclear fuel enrichment plant in Piketon, Ohio.
Opting for nuclear energy over fossil fuels would just be trading one danger for another. The best choice for energy independence and sustainability by far are green, renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and geothermal. Isn’t it time the United States takes a leadership role in transitioning to safe, sustainable alternative energy sources?
Randi Pokladnik, Ph.D., of Uhrichsville, is a retired research chemist who volunteers with Mid Ohio Valley Climate Action. She has a doctorate degree in Environmental Studies and is certified in Hazardous Materials Regulations.