Before the Obama administration decided to make today all about America's first publicly announced bombing run inside Syrian borders, Tuesday was supposed to be the day climate change took center stage at the United Nations.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had made this climate summit a sort of aperitif before the global last call on stemming greenhouse gas emissions that would be the gathering in Paris at the end of 2015, when a meaningful and binding treaty is to be finalized among member states.
Scientist and advocates have focused on capping the earth's temperature increase at 2 degrees by 2100, but without any checks on the production of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, average temperatures could actually soar another 5 degrees in the same time frame.
To that end, Ban asked world leaders to come to Tuesday's table with more than pretty words — he asked for serious pledges of action.
While major climate polluting nations such as China, India and Canada have declined to send a top-level official to this year's summit, the U.S. was expected to go all in, with President Obama touting his recent proposals to curtail the nation's carbon output.
That plan to limit CO2 production has already come under fire from fossil fuel-friendly corporations, trade groups and politicians who balk at the regulation, and from climate scientists and activists who point out that the president's plan does not do enough to meet the maximum-2-degrees-of-warming goal, but a group you will not hear complaining is the nuclear energy sector.
Buried in the proposal and absent from many initial reports on the plan is a series of programs and pledges that encourage the preservation and possible expansion of the nation's nuclear electrical generation capacity. The president's proposed carbon rules assume nuclear power to be a clean, low-carbon energy option, and so put forth a nuclear industry Christmas list of subsidies, incentives and financial backstops that potentially funnels billions of public dollars into private industry hands and risks missing emissions targets while increasing the danger of a nuclear mishap.
The inventory of specifics that make nuclear power a terrible option in the fight to stem global warming would almost work as a joke if the consequences of this wrong turn weren't so serious. Here are but some of the many reasons why nuclear power is a terrible way to deal with climate change.
First and foremost, nuclear power is not greenhouse neutral. Nuclear boosters of late have grabbed hold of climate change as their latest raison d’être, if not their last best hope of restoring relevance to their half-century-old technology. And sure, the fission going on inside a nuclear reactor is not a major source of greenhouse pollution, but nuclear reactors do not exist in a vacuum.
Beyond the operation of the reactor, the nuclear fuel cycle includes the mining, milling, processing, enrichment, fabrication and transport of the uranium-based fuel — each step is energy intensive and greenhouse pollution rich.
The plants themselves have huge carbon footprints, requiring in most cases over a decade of heavy construction, large staffs and elaborate waste-handling protocols. The operation of the plant and the storage of the waste both require a constant flow of electricity — a loss of power for any significant amount of time creates a scenario much like that seen in Fukushima, Japan. In fact, it is one of the most paradoxical parts of the world’s light-water reactor fleet — in order to safely generate electricity, the plants need a significant and consistent supply of electricity. Sometimes the plant can supply that electricity — meaning the net output of the plant is lower than the announced rate — and sometimes it cannot, in which case, the plant becomes an energy consumer.
Another thing nuclear plants consume in copious amounts is water, making them particularly ill suited to a warming climate. Reactors need water to keep their cores and condensers cool — not to mention their spent fuel storage pools — and that water needs to be plentiful, circulating, and relatively cool. Over the last decade, as the globe has warmed, nuclear plants have experienced numerous shutdowns and many more days of reduced output because there was simply no effective heat sink.
In some cases, especially in some European plants set on rivers, droughts caused the water level to drop too low for a plant’s intake valves. In the case of plants that rely on lakes, warmer days and, perhaps more importantly, warmer nights have meant the water is simply not cold enough to effectively cool the reactors. In recent summers across the U.S., this has become a regular problem, especially during prolonged heat waves, which, ironically, are when demand for electricity is highest.
Even nuclear facilities built on the coasts are vulnerable to warming water. In recent years, plants in Connecticut and Massachusetts have had to reduce output or shut down entirely because of water temperature.
But plants near the oceans have other headaches exacerbated by climate change. Rising sea levels, increasingly severe hurricanes and superstorms, and the surges that come with them all threaten to overwhelm the cooling systems and the plants themselves. Superstorm Sandy caused seven plants in the eastern U.S. to shutdown because of flooding, storm debris, wind damage, or interruptions to the external power supply. In the case of one aging reactor in southern New Jersey, rising waters came within inches of breaching flood walls, and external pumps and hoses were brought in to provide water for the reactors when the cooling system’s intake valves were clogged with flotsam.
Clogging is also a major concern for southern and west-coast reactors. In those cases, fish, jelly fish and an invertebrate called salp, made more numerous by warming seas, have completely blocked cooling system intakes, requiring weeks of plant shutdown, cleaning, and filter replacements.
But even if all these problems, insurmountable though they seem, could somehow be solved, nuclear power is a poor investment for a world on the brink of climate disaster.
Numerous studies predict that something like 1,500 to 2,000 new nuclear reactors would need to be up-and-running to have a significant affect on greenhouse emissions (there are currently fewer than 400 reactors operating worldwide). If those reactors replaced coal plants, it is predicted the world would see realize a 20 percent decrease in CO2 production. But if the new plants were just there to service new demand, there would actually be an increase in carbon emissions (because, as noted, these are not greenhouse-neutral endeavors).
What would such an undertaking cost? Well, the only new plants under construction in the US, the Vogtle reactors in Georgia, were projected to cost around $15 billion, but only a couple of years into production, those plants are already billions of dollars over budget. They are also already years behind schedule.
And that brings up the time it would take to build the new nuclear capacity. It takes 6 to 10 years in the best cases to bring a new reactor online. Some of the newer plants in the US (which means they are still decades old) took more than twenty years to begin operation. Building 1,500 reactors would mean firing up a new one every two weeks for the next 60 years, which is not only an impossible schedule to meet, it puts the planet long past its drop-dead date for zero greenhouse emissions.
But let’s say, through the magic of magical thinking, you get all of that out of the way, what will you do with the waste? Yes, nuclear plants generate waste. Highly radioactive waste. Mountains of it. The U.S. already has over 70,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel with no viable plan for permanent storage. Nevada’s Yucca Mountain was once supposed to take that payload, but after 20 years of trying to make it work, it was deemed unviable for a host of reasons. There is no permanent plan B.
The 1,500 new reactors would generate a Yucca Mountain-sized amount of waste every three to four years.
There is actually more, like the dangers of proliferation and the toxic pollution caused by related industries, and the increased chance or major accidents that come with such a vast increase in the number of reactors, but the bottom line is that nuclear power is neither greenhouse neutral nor quickly scalable; it is an edgy proposition in a warming environment, produces prodigious amounts of waste and, from start to finish, is actually now more expensive than a host of other options.
And therein lies the real rub. The time and money spent on nuclear could be much better spent on conservation programs, boosts in energy efficiency and the construction and development of truly renewable, genuinely low-carbon alternatives.
Those options would provide more jobs for less money and realize real energy production and greenhouse gas reductions far better and far faster than any kind of nuclear pipe dream.
And that presents a smarter, more sustainable and more attainable way toward the Paris 2015 goals and toward a better climate future.