Nuclear Power: A Bad Reaction
Thanks to new evidence showing nuclear energy as more of a polluter than previously thought, the U.S. should reconsider approval for new plants. Pro or con?
Pro: Peril Then, Peril Now
The nuclear industry and its friends in the Bush Administration have been attempting to change the nuclear industry’s image. With the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters fading from most Americans’ memories, industry lobbyists are anxious to paint this most dangerous and volatile energy source as the answer to U.S. oil addiction and global warming.
The unproven assertion that atomic energy can solve global warming has helped further the collective amnesia about the past business failures of nuclear energy. In February, 1985, Forbes magazine declared that “[t]he failure of the U.S. nuclear power program ranks as the largest managerial disaster in business history, a disaster on a monumental scale. The utility industry has already invested $125 billion in nuclear power, with an additional $140 billion to come before the decade is out, and only the blind, or the biased, can now think that most of the money has been well spent.”
Nonetheless, more than 20 years later, the very biased are indeed trying to keep us blind to the fact that nuclear energy is still a money pit that can have little or no impact on oil consumption or our ability to abate catastrophic climate change.
Last month, the Oxford Research Group found that contrary to industry claims, nuclear power does not qualify as a carbon-free technology and cannot be promoted as an environmental panacea (see BusinessWeek.com, 3/26/07, “New Debate Over Nuclear Option”). Nuclear scientists at MIT also have acknowledged that nuclear is “arguably a CO2-emitting energy source” and that the Bush Administration scheme for spreading nuclear power around the planet constitutes “a goofy idea.”
Rather than wasting tax dollars to entice nuclear corporations to construct reactors the industry would never build on its own, Congress and the White House should support energy efficiency and renewable technology, which are seven to 10 times more effective than nuclear power at displacing carbon dioxide.
We can mitigate the catastrophic effects of global warming without incurring the economic, environmental, and security risks associated with nuclear power. After all, terrorists are not targeting windmills and solar panels.
Con: Eco as Ever
At a time when global decision-makers are trying to reduce greenhouse gases, we should be increasing our reliance on nuclear energy and taking advantage of the most widely expandable clean-air electricity source on the list of options. As a result, greenhouse gas emissions would drop far lower.
In the U.S., safe and efficient nuclear power produces electricity for one of every five homes and businesses, and it ranks as the largest source of electricity that emits no greenhouse gases. In fact, electric-sector carbon emissions would be approximately 30% higher without nuclear energy.
But is nuclear power really as emissions-free as supporters contend?
One of the most common claims is that nuclear power emits greenhouse gases during the entire life cycle, from mining uranium for fuel to building the power plants. Using such a life-cycle approach to calculating emissions, one could say that all energy sources produce greenhouse gases. Research from the University of Wisconsin shows life-cycle emissions from nuclear energy are lower than those from renewables such as solar and hydropower and dramatically lower than those for power plants fueled by coal or natural gas.
For this and other reasons, many environmentalists and organizations such as the Earth Institute at Columbia University and the Pew Center for Climate Change support an expanded role for nuclear energy.
No single greenhouse gas mitigation measure can reduce carbon dioxide to the levels contemplated by emerging state and regional programs or international agreements. Nor can a comprehensive regime like the Princeton University “stabilization wedge” theory—a concept for halting the proliferation of CO2 emissions—succeed without nuclear energy.
Nuclear power is the only energy source that combines the attributes of large-scale electricity production, high reliability, and zero greenhouse gas emissions during the electricity production process. It should remain an essential part of our diverse energy portfolio to meet fast-growing electricity demand, increase energy security, and protect the environment in which we live.Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.