Former nuclear regulatory top dogs from the United States, France, Germany and Great Britain recently issued a joint statement opposing expansion of nuclear power as a strategy to combat climate change. Why? There’s not a single good reason to build new nuclear plants. Here are ten solid reasons not to.
1. Nuclear is too slow. The new generation of proposed commercial nuclear plants, so called Advanced and Small Modular Reactors, is decades away in designing and building. The latest report from the International Panel on Climate Change informs that limiting global warming to 1.5°C (2.7°F) means “achieving net zero carbon dioxide emissions globally in the early 2050s.” Wind and solar farms can be up and running in just a few months or years.
2. Nuclear energy is too costly. Renewables like wind and solar are already the world’s cheapest form of energy. By 2019, utility-scale renewable energy prices had already fallen to less than half that of nuclear. Expanding nuclear power would translate into higher energy costs for consumers.
3. Nuclear is neither carbon-free nor non-polluting. While operating nuclear plants don’t emit carbon dioxide, mining and enrichment of uranium are carbon intensive and pollute the air with chlorofluorocarbons. Nuclear plants routinely release radioactivity into air and water. The United States already has 85,000 metric tons of highly radioactive commercial spent fuel waste, the most dangerous pollutant known to man.
4. The problem of permanent disposal of nuclear waste remains technically unsolvable. Though the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 mandated construction of a permanent deep geologic repository to isolate nuclear waste for a million-plus years, there’s still no progress. Commercial nuclear plants have become, for the foreseeable future, de facto nuclear waste dumps.
5. Nuclear is non-renewable. Like coal, oil and natural gas, uranium is a finite resource. The United States still imports nearly half its uranium from Russia and its two close allies, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
6. Proposed “temporary” storage solutions — so-called consolidated interim storage sites —are a diversion. A proven geologic repository for spent nuclear fuel doesn’t exist anywhere on earth. Governors of Texas and New Mexico are fighting against interim facilities in their states for fear of becoming permanent dumps.
7. Nuclear waste dry storage canisters used throughout most of the United States are thin-walled (1/2 to 5/8 inch) and unsafe for storage and off-site transport. They’re susceptible to short-term cracking but can’t be inspected for cracks or monitored to prevent radiation releases. Other countries use thick-walled (10 to 19 inch) metal casks which are designed to prevent cracking, can be monitored, and survived the 9.0 Fukushima earthquake.
8. There is no room for human error or natural disaster when it comes to nuclear, as shown by the disasters at Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile Island. Humanity can’t guarantee the safety of current nuclear reactors let alone ensure that future societies will stay clear of nuclear waste dumps for a million-plus years.
9. Nuclear plants are sitting ducks for terrorist attacks, whether still operating or storing nuclear waste. Dry storage canisters sit in the wide open. Vulnerability to malfeasance was demonstrated by the ease with which Russia captured both the Chernobyl site and the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in the invasion of Ukraine.
10. The idea that Small Modula Reactors can save the day is magical thinking. Roughly ten thousand SMRs would be needed to impact climate change in time, creating thousands more radioactive dump sites and opportunities for both nuclear accidents and weapons proliferation.
Tackling the climate crisis requires cutting carbon emissions in the shortest time and at the lowest cost. That nuclear can’t deliver on this and should be banned is the outspoken position of the former head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jazcko.
The “all hands on deck” logic of politicians who support expanding nuclear energy is faulty. Every dollar misspent on nuclear is a dollar not invested in energy efficiency and faster, cheaper renewables. Expanding nuclear will retard progress on solving the climate crisis.
Sarah Mosko is a licensed psychologist, sleep disorders specialist, and freelance environmental writer who grew up in San Diego but currently lives in Orange County.