Nuclear Power Cannot Solve Climate Change

By: Carolyn Treadway and Roy Treadway | TCAT Volunteers

In the November 16, 2021, TCAT Newsletter, the final article “This Next-Generation Nuclear Power Plant is Pitched for Washington State.  Can it ‘change the world’?” by Hal Bernton of The Seattle Times seemed to advocate for the extremely dangerous and expensive Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) as a promising solution for climate change.  They are not a  solution of any kind.  Building more nuclear reactors, no matter how small and dispersed they are, would only deflect critically needed resources from truly effective renewable energy and significantly delay addressing climate change.  They would produce even more high-level radioactive waste, some deadly for millennia, and raise significant issues of equity for persons affected by uranium mining, by the reactors themselves, and by the storage of the wastes.

The basic problem with using nuclear power to stabilize climate change, according to The World Nuclear Status Report of 2019, is that “… ‘nuclear power is slow.  It meets no technical or operational need that these low-carbon competitors [i.e., solar and wind power] cannot meet better, cheaper, and faster.’” [Richard Heinberg, Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival (New Society Publishers, 2021, p. 196).] The Nuclear Energy Information Service article, “We Can’t Nuke Climate Change,” explains in depth why nuclear power cannot solve climate change.  Again the huge cost and lengthy time needed to build nuclear power plants are noted, though we are already out of time. In addition, although “… nuclear power plants release no greenhouse gasses while in operation producing electricity, … nuclear power [has a] sizable ‘carbon footprint’” throughout its lifecycle.  According to The Nuclear Information Resource Service in “Billions for Nuclear R&D Could Cost Us the Climate,” major resources used for developing nuclear reactors, including the SMRs currently under consideration, are being taken away from developing renewable energy.

Small nuclear reactors have significant problems.  As the Union for Concerned Scientists points out, SMRs “and their associated facilities for fuel production and waste handling are vulnerable to catastrophic accidents and sabotage, and they can be misused to produce materials for nuclear weapons,” in a recent study. Indeed, according to nuclear expert Arnie Gunderson in “An Open Letter to Bill Gates About His Wyoming Atomic Reactor” (which was mentioned in the Seattle Times article), the plans of Gates to build a sodium-cooled SMR in Wyoming are an enormous mistake.  Rebutting Gates point by point, Gunderson notes that “according to Scientific American, liquid sodium ‘is no mere novelty; as dangerous as it is captivating…  Sodium has significant disadvantages. On contact with air, it burns; plunged into water, it explodes.’”

Nuclear power creates high-level radiation, which threatens the health and lives of all people and all species almost forever.  While current (light-water) nuclear power reactors and the supposedly “new” SMRs would power the reactors differently, they all end up in the same disastrous place: creating high level nuclear waste that can not be safely stored anywhere on planet Earth.  Despite the public myth, SMRs are neither cleaner nor safer; they are dirtier and less safe than current reactors, which are not safe at all.

The use of nuclear power raises significant issues of equity.  Uranium mining has poisoned the lands of the Navaho and other Native Peoples for decades, and the long-term storage sites for radioactive waste are usually located where Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) communities and low-income people live.  As the Seattle Times article points out “The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation [do] not support placing small modular reactors such as those proposed by X-energy or any new nuclear missions at Hanford…”  

Both of us spent ten years in Illinois trying to stop construction of a nuclear reactor near our home.  It was never built!  You too can raise your voice against the unnecessary folly and danger of nuclear.

We hope those of us ardent about addressing climate change will focus on solar, wind, and hydro as clean sources of energy, without nuclear power.  Even more importantly, we must use far less energy and live a lifestyle that enriches our world, instead of destroying it.

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