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Ann Darling: Nuclear power is no answer to anything our ailing planet needs

VT Digger 6 Feb 23

This commentary is by Ann Darling of Easthampton, Massachusetts, a climate activist and retired social worker. She lived for 35 years in the Brattleboro area, but after getting her son through high school, she left to be farther away from the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. She is a member of the Citizens Awareness Network.

In a recent commentary, Tom Evslin outlines what he sees as hopeful approaches to addressing our energy needs and addressing climate change. 

While I agree there are many things in development that appear promising, I don’t agree that nuclear power should be part of “the answer.”

The climate chaos we are already experiencing is just the beginning. We have already wasted a lot of time. The litmus test of what makes a good energy source to address climate change has at least four criteria. 

In addition to using less energy, we need to focus on energy sources that are: 

1) quickly built and brought to scale.

2) low-carbon, with minimal environmental impact, including non-carbon pollutants.

3) relatively inexpensive so we can make the biggest impact within our limited resources .

4) safe. 

In addition, these need to be deployed in an environmentally just way, but that’s another commentary.

No matter the energy source, we always should consider its entire fuel chain or life-span cycle, from extraction to power generation to waste, not just its impact at the point of power generation. This is an incredibly important mind shift we all need to make. 

There is no energy source that does not create problems somewhere in its fuel-chain life span. The issue is, how much and what kind? Can the earth heal from these harmful impacts, and how can people help that happen?

Solar, wind, geothermal, storage, etc., paired with efficiency and conservation come close to meeting these four tests. Yes, there are problems, like the pollution caused by lithium mining and how to safely recycle the components of solar panels. So the question with them is how we can use our intelligence and resources to mitigate these harms and make them affordable and easy to access.

On the other hand, nuclear fission and nuclear fusion do not come close to meeting these tests. Fission is what runs our current nuclear reactor fleet and the still-on-the-design-table small modular reactors. Harnessing nuclear fusion, which powers our sun, has been in the spotlight lately because of a recent advance in development, but it is still decades away from being useful as a power source, if it ever will be. 

Nuclear fission reactors are far from carbon-free, contrary to what nuclear industry marketing would have us believe. Once we consider the process of getting the uranium out of the ground, milling and refining it, using it, and then dealing with the waste, nuclear is a net carbon emitter. Plus, the mining, milling and refining expose communities to highly toxic materials that cause cancer and other diseases. There is always risk of nuclear catastrophe (as in Fukushima). 

Places where lower-level radioactive waste from reactors goes are leaking sacrifice-zones that despoil entire regions (think Hanford, Washington; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; or Barnwell, South Carolina). 

And last but not least, there is no safe place for the deadly high-level waste (“spent” fuel) to go. Plus, reactors take a really long time to build, and small modular reactors are completely untested. Nuclear is the most expensive way to generate electricity there is, and it can exist only with huge subsidies and tax credits from the government. That’s your tax dollars underwriting private industry. (And then there’s the link to nuclear weapons; the civilian nuclear power industry creates the materials that make nuclear weapons.)

Fusion? I’m sorry, but no. According to Dr. Ian Fairlie, a UK expert on radioactivity in the environment, “Fusion reactors would … be subject to most of the major problems associated with fission reactors, including large-scale cooling demands, high construction and operational costs and lengthy construction times — stretching to decades. The structure, damaged by neutron bombardment, would need to be replaced regularly, resulting in large amounts of radioactive wastes for which there is no current solution.” 

We simply do not have the time to fiddle around with something that will take decades and that is quite likely not to work and/or will create huge and dangerous problems for life on earth. 

Let’s be practical in the face of climate-induced threats to life on earth. We have limited resources. Every dollar that goes into perpetuating nuclear power in any form is in essence being stolen from bringing less expensive, safer, less carbon-intensive, and more quickly built energy sources to bear on the climate emergency we have created. 

Nuclear power never was and is not now an answer to anything our ailing planet needs.


February 8, 2023 - Posted by | climate change

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