Can nuclear energy save our environment?

I have demonstrated for the closure of nuclear power plants because of the dangers their operations and their waste products present to our environment. Also, I have joined similar demonstrations opposing the continued dependency on fossil fuels for our primary energy source. Scott Montgomery and Thomas Graham, the authors of Seeing the Light: The Case for Nuclear Power in the 21st Century, present an interesting challenge to those who have participated in both efforts.

They argue that to effectively curtail and ultimately stop relying on fossil fuels nations must begin to revisit the use of nuclear power. In the first line of their book they declare, “Nuclear power is not an option for the future, but an absolute necessity.” Such audacity flies in the face of the nuclear-plant accidents of Three Mile Island in the U.S., Chernobyl in Russia and Fukushima in Japan. All of which the authors discuss in detail and then discard as a result of human error, not an inherent problem of nuclear engineering.

They do not depend on a belief in market forces and government oversight to champion the expansion of nuclear power. Rather, they argue that without nuclear power, countries will grow increasingly dependent on fossil fuels for their economic growth. The result has been an ongoing environmental disaster, a conclusion that environmentalists alarmed by climate change would readily agree with.

According to their data, today fossil fuels provide more than 80 percent of global energy use. As a result, since the start of the Industrial Revolution the sea level has risen nearly 10 inches, half of which has occurred since the 1970s. By 2017, the 12 warmest years on record (since 1880) occurred in the preceding two decades, with 2016 the warmest on record. Coal is the main destructive fossil fuel, accounting for 50 percent of atmospheric greenhouse gases, a trend continuing to grow as its use has doubled since 1995. More than 560 new coal power plants are under construction worldwide.

They maintain that nuclear power plants are not as dangerous as the public thinks; for instance, they do not “blow up.” Overall, they say, the death tolls from fossil-fuel extraction and usage are much greater than what has resulted from nuclear-plant accidents. Coal usage in China takes the lives of at least 250,000 people annually; in India it could be as many as 600,000. Even the ostensibly clean wind-power industry has accounted for more than 150 global fatalities since 2005. In comparison, over 50 years the total of deaths resulting from nuclear-power accidents are under 70. Even cancer deaths from exposure to radiation are far fewer than from other causes of cancer.

Still, providing safe long-term nuclear-waste disposal and stopping the conversion of nuclear fuels into military weaponry are not as easily dismissed. Thirty-one nations have nuclear power, and nine of them have nuclear weapons. All 31 are producing nuclear waste. Backed up with scientific studies, the authors believe that “permanent disposal of nuclear waste is not a scientific-engineering problem,” but instead a political one. The controversial Yucca Mountain site in Nevada was chosen over other, safer locations due to political pressure, not from reasons of public safety. They blame unsubstantiated public fear fanned by poor science for ignoring the best locations.

The possibility of nuclear power plants being used to provide material for nuclear weapons, perhaps the most difficult hurdle to expanding nuclear power, receives scant coverage. Their defense is thin at best. They diminish the danger of plutonium being siphoned off for military purposes by reasoning that the total worldwide amount could “fit easily into a two-car garage” and “should not be difficult to safeguard.” No thought is given to the physical problems of consolidating it or to the political obstacles in achieving such a consolidation.

Although they admit “nuclear has its difficulties,” they also assert “the view that nuclear power defines an especially dangerous and risky technology has no basis in fact.” In championing an expansion of nuclear power, they minimize the possible shortcomings that will inevitably result from human error or intentions. With the profit motive to cut safety costs, or the military inclination to siphon off nuclear material for weapons, the answers don’t lie in technological solutions, but in political solutions, which have been shown to be far harder to control and predict.

The book is a worthy read to understand the authors’ intriguing scenario of growing the peaceful use of nuclear energy to avoid climate change, but that solution is not complete until its potential contribution to the proliferation of nuclear weapons is resolved.

Originally published in the Seattle Times on January 21, 2018

Nick Licata is a former Seattle City Council member and author of “Becoming a Citizen Activist.” You can contact him at becomingacitizenactivist.org.

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