Editor's Note: This article is from the April issue of Progressive Investor, our sustainable investing newsletter.
by Rona Fried
Nuclear energy is fast coming back into favor. Citizens around the world are feeling the heat of global warming and are succumbing to politicians' (backed by the nuclear industry) cries that nuclear is the "only" answer - and besides, it's "safe and clean." Countries around the world are planning a nuclear renaissance - even some of the most respected environmental leaders are nodding their heads in that direction.
Our leaders tell us we have no choice - the world will demand 51% more energy by 2030 predicts the International Energy Agency in Paris. If we were to supply that with oil and coal, we would face a CO2 nightmare. They tell us renewables like wind and solar can't meet that demand, natural gas is too expensive and hydropower taps out at 20%. All that's left is nuclear.
I spoke on a panel at a conference last week. One of the people in the audience said he would never be in favor of having "ugly" wind turbines all over the place. Would having nukes all over the place be better? He wouldn't have to see them.
A 2005 European Union poll found that 60% of respondents accepted lowering greenhouse gas emissions through nuclear and saw it as a clean way to reduce dependence on oil, up from 41% in 2003.
There are 442 nuclear plants operating in 31 countries, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. Most of them are in the U.S. where 103 plants supply almost 20% of the electricity. France follows with 59, then Japan, with 55. Nuclear supplies 16% of the world's electricity - the rest comes mostly from burning coal, oil and natural gas.
29 new plants have permission to go-ahead - 100 more are in government development plans for the next three decades. India and China are rushing to build dozens of reactors each; even Persian Gulf oil states are planning for them.
In the U.S., the Bush Administration's new budget calls for a 5% increase in federal spending on renewable energy (energy ($60M increase, total: $1.2B), a 38% increase for nuclear (total: $874.2M) and 33% for fossil fuels. The President asked for nearly $500M for the Yucca Mountain waste dump alone. Then there's the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership which would put the U.S. into the nuclear technology business. Bush requested $405M to sell nuclear fuel to nations that can't manufacture it on their own.
The first U.S. Early Site Permit - which fast tracks nuclear plant approvals - was awarded to Exelon Generation Company's Illinois site this year. Finland is building a giant new nuclear reactor, the first in Europe in 15 years.
Before we jump on the nuke bandwagon, accepting a "simple" solution to a complex problem of how to supply energy, let's look deeper.
How Realistic is Nuclear?
The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), the esteemed nonprofit long led by Amory Lovins, has made the case for energy efficiency and hybrid cars for 30 years. To build enough nuclear plants to satisfy the IEA's projected energy demands, RMI says, a new plant would need to be built every 2.4 days, at a cost of $525 billion each year.
That's impossible, but even if we somehow managed to do it, greenhouse emissions would continue to rise because nuclear only provides electricity, which accounts for a third of fossil-fuel use.
RMI points out that nuclear construction costs are always higher than projected. But even at a typical $4-5 billion per plant, a building spree would drain so much capital that the very economic growth that's driving energy demand in the first place would slow or even stop. Debt levels in the Third World would double.
Leaders assure us the dangers of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl are behind us - plants "are so much safer now." Even if that's true, building all those new plants has to raise the risk, doesn't it?
All the known problems with nuclear energy would be exacerbated: intractable, dangerous wastes, vulnerability to terrorism, and threats to public health.
Leading scientists tell us we have 10 years to reduce emissions dramatically to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. Every day we emit greenhouse gases, we pay a "procrastination penalty" because mitigating or adapting to climate change becomes harder and more expensive.
It takes an average of five years to build one nuclear power plant (and clean-coal power plants). Many renewable energy technologies, on the other hand, can be deployed in less than a year.