Atomic energy is among the most impractical and risky of available fuel sources. Private financiers are reluctant to invest in it, and both experts and the public have questions about the likelihood of safely storing lethal radioactive wastes for the required million years. Reactors also provide irresistible targets for terrorists seeking to inflict deep and lasting damage on the United States. The government’s own data show that U.S. nuclear reactors have more than a one-in-five lifetime probability of core melt, and a nuclear accident could kill 140,000 people, contaminate an area the size of Pennsylvania, and destroy our homes and health.
In addition to being risky, nuclear power is unable to meet our current or future energy needs. Because of safety requirements and the length of time it takes to construct a nuclear-power facility, the government says that by the year 2050 atomic energy could supply, at best, 20 percent of U.S. electricity needs; yet by 2020, wind and solar panels could supply at least 32 percent of U.S. electricity, at about half the cost of nuclear power. Nevertheless, in the last two years, the current U.S. administration has given the bulk of taxpayer energy subsidies—a total of $20 billion—to atomic power. Why? Some officials say nuclear energy is clean, inexpensive, needed to address global climate change, unlikely to increase the risk of nuclear proliferation and safe.
On all five counts they are wrong. Renewable energy sources are cleaner, cheaper, better able to address climate change and proliferation risks, and safer. The government’s own data show that wind energy now costs less than half of nuclear power; that wind can supply far more energy, more quickly, than nuclear power; and that by 2015, solar panels will be economically competitive with all other conventional energy technologies. The administration’s case for nuclear power rests on at least five myths. Debunking these myths is necessary if the United States is to abandon its current dangerous energy course.
Myth 1. Nuclear Energy Is Clean
The myth of clean atomic power arises partly because some sources, like a pro-nuclear energy analysis published in 2003 by several professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, call atomic power a “carbon-free source” of energy. On its Web site, the U.S. Department of Energy , which is also a proponent of nuclear energy, calls atomic power “emissions free.” At best, these claims are half-truths because they “trim the data” on emissions.
While nuclear reactors themselves do not release greenhouse gases, reactors are only part of the nine-stage nuclear fuel cycle. This cycle includes mining uranium ore, milling it to extract uranium, converting the uranium to gas, enriching it, fabricating fuel pellets, generating power, reprocessing spent fuel, storing spent fuel at the reactor and transporting the waste to a permanent storage facility. Because most of these nine stages are heavily dependent on fossil fuels, nuclear power thus generates at least 33 grams of carbon-equivalent emissions for each kilowatt-hour of electricity that is produced. (To provide uniform calculations of greenhouse emissions, the various effects of the different greenhouse gases typically are converted to carbon-equivalent emissions.) Per kilowatt-hour, atomic energy produces only one-seventh the greenhouse emissions of coal, but twice as much as wind and slightly more than solar panels.
Nuclear power is even less clean when compared with energy-efficiency measures, such as using compact-fluorescent bulbs and increasing home insulation. Whether in medicine or energy policy, preventing a problem is usually cheaper than curing or solving it, and energy efficiency is the most cost-effective way to solve the problem of reducing greenhouse gases. Department of Energy data show that one dollar invested in energy-efficiency programs displaces about six times more carbon emissions than the same amount invested in nuclear power. Government figures also show that energy-efficiency programs save $40 for every dollar invested in them. This is why the government says it could immediately and cost-effectively cut U.S. electricity consumption by 20 percent to 45 percent, using only existing strategies, like time-of-use electricity pricing. (Higher prices for electricity used during daily peak-consumption times—roughly between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.—encourage consumers to shift their time of energy use. New power plants are typically needed to handle only peak electricity demand.)
Myth 2. Nuclear Energy Is Inexpensive
Achieving greater energy efficiency, however, also requires ending the lopsided system of taxpayer nuclear subsidies that encourage the myth of inexpensive electricity from atomic power. Since 1949, the U.S. government has provided about $165 billion in subsidies to nuclear energy, about $5 billion to solar and wind together, and even less to energy-efficiency programs. All government efficiency programs—to encourage use of fuel-efficient cars, for example, or to provide financial assistance so that low-income citizens can insulate their homes—currently receive only a small percentage of federal energy monies.
After energy-efficiency programs, wind is the most cost-effective way both to generate electricity and to reduce greenhouse emissions. It costs about half as much as atomic power. The only nearly finished nuclear plant in the West, now being built in Finland by the French company Areva, will generate electricity costing 11 cents per kilowatt-hour. Yet the U.S. government’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory calculated actual costs of new wind plants, over the last seven years, at 3.4 cents per kilowatt- hour. Although some groups say nuclear energy is inexpensive, their misleading claims rely on trimming the data on cost. The 2003 M.I.T. study, for instance, included neither the costs of reprocessing nuclear material, nor the full interest costs on nuclear-facility construction capital, nor the total costs of waste storage. Once these omissions—from the entire nine-stage nuclear fuel cycle—are included, nuclear costs are about 11 cents per kilowatt-hour.
The cost-effectiveness of wind power explains why in 2006 utility companies worldwide added 10 times more wind-generated, than nuclear, electricity capacity. It also explains why small-scale sources of renewable energy, like wind and solar, received $56 billion in global private investments in 2006, while nuclear energy received nothing. It explains why wind supplies 20 percent of Denmark’s electricity. It explains why, each year for the last several years, Germany, Spain and India have each, alone, added more wind capacity than all countries in the world, taken together, have added in nuclear capacity.
In the United States, wind supplies up to 8 percent of electricity in some Midwestern states. The case of Louis Brooks is instructive. Utilities pay him $500 a month for allowing 78 wind turbines on his Texas ranch, and he can still use virtually all the land for farming and grazing. Wind’s cost-effectiveness also explains why in 2007 wind received $9 billion in U.S. private investments, while nuclear energy received zero. U.S. wind energy has been growing by nearly 3,000 megawatts each year, annually producing new electricity equivalent to what three new nuclear reactors could generate. Meanwhile, no new U.S. atomic-power reactors have been ordered since 1974.
Should the United States continue to heavily subsidize nuclear technology? Or, as the distinguished physicist Amory Lovins put it, is the nuclear industry dying of an “incurable attack of market forces”? Standard and Poor’s, the credit- and investment-rating company, downgrades the rating of any utility that wants a nuclear plant. It claims that even subsidies are unlikely to make nuclear investment wise. Forbes magazine recently called nuclear investment “the largest managerial disaster in business history,” something pursued only by the “blind” or the “biased.”
Myth 3. Nuclear Energy Is Necessary to Address Climate Change
Government, industry and university studies, like those recently from Princeton, agree that wind turbines and solar panels already exist at an industrial scale and could supply one-third of U.S. electricity needs by 2020, and the vast majority of U.S. electricity by 2050—not just the 20 percent of electricity possible from nuclear energy by 2050. The D.O.E. says wind from only three states (Kansas, North Dakota and Texas) could supply all U.S. electricity needs, and 20 states could supply nearly triple those needs. By 2015, according to the D.O.E., solar panels will be competitive with all conventional energy technologies and will cost 5 to 10 cents per kilowatt hour. Shell Oil and other fossil-fuel companies agree. They are investing heavily in wind and solar.
From an economic perspective, atomic power is inefficient at addressing climate change because dollars used for more expensive, higher-emissions nuclear energy cannot be used for cheaper, lower-emissions renewable energy. Atomic power is also not sustainable. Because of dwindling uranium supplies, by the year 2050 reactors would be forced to use low-grade uranium ore whose greenhouse emissions would roughly equal those of natural gas. Besides, because the United States imports nearly all its uranium, pursuing nuclear power continues the dangerous pattern of dependency on foreign sources to meet domestic energy needs.
Myth 4. Nuclear Energy Will Not Increase Weapons Proliferation
Pursuing nuclear power also perpetuates the myth that increasing atomic energy, and thus increasing uranium enrichment and spent-fuel reprocessing, will increase neither terrorism nor proliferation of nuclear weapons. This myth has been rejected by both the International Atomic Energy Agency  and the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment. More nuclear plants means more weapons materials, which means more targets, which means a higher risk of terrorism and proliferation. The government admits that Al Qaeda already has targeted U.S. reactors, none of which can withstand attack by a large airplane. Such an attack, warns the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, could cause fatalities as far away as 500 miles and destruction 10 times worse than that caused by the nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986.
Nuclear energy actually increases the risks of weapons proliferation because the same technology used for civilian atomic power can be used for weapons, as the cases of India, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Pakistan illustrate. As the Swedish Nobel Prize winner Hannes Alven put it, “The military atom and the civilian atom are Siamese twins.” Yet if the world stopped building nuclear-power plants, bomb ingredients would be harder to acquire, more conspicuous and more costly politically, if nations were caught trying to obtain them. Their motives for seeking nuclear materials would be unmasked as military, not civilian.
Myth 5. Nuclear Energy Is Safe
Proponents of nuclear energy, like Patrick Moore, cofounder of Greenpeace , and the former Argonne National Laboratory adviser Steve Berry, say that new reactors will be safer than current ones—“meltdown proof.” Such safety claims also are myths. Even the 2003 M.I.T. energy study predicted that tripling civilian nuclear reactors would lead to about four core-melt accidents. The government’s Sandia National Laboratory calculates that a nuclear accident could cause casualties similar to those at Hiroshima or Nagasaki: 140,000 deaths. If nuclear plants are as safe as their proponents claim, why do utilities need the U.S. Price-Anderson Act, which guarantees utilities protection against 98 percent of nuclear-accident liability and transfers these risks to the public? All U.S. utilities refused to generate atomic power until the government established this liability limit. Why do utilities, but not taxpayers, need this nuclear-liability protection?
Another problem is that high-level radioactive waste must be secured “in perpetuity,” as the U.S. National Academy of Sciences  puts it. Yet the D.O.E. has already admitted that if nuclear waste is stored at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, as has been proposed, future generations could not meet existing radiation standards. As a result, the current U.S. administration’s proposal is to allow future releases of radioactive wastes, stored at Yucca Mountain, provided they annually cause no more than one person—out of every 70 persons exposed to them—to contract fatal cancer. These cancer risks are high partly because Yucca Mountain is so geologically unstable. Nuclear waste facilities could be breached by volcanic or seismic activity. Within 50 miles of Yucca Mountain, more than 600 seismic events, of magnitude greater than two on the Richter scale, have occurred since 1976. In 1992, only 12 miles from the site, an earthquake (5.6 on the Richter scale) damaged D.O.E. buildings. Within 31 miles of the site, eight volcanic eruptions have occurred in the last million years. These facts suggest that Alvin Weinberg was right. Four decades ago, the then-director of the government’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory warned that nuclear waste required society to make a Faustian bargain with the devil. In exchange for current military and energy benefits from atomic power, this generation must sell the safety of future generations.
Yet the D.O.E. predicts harm even in this generation. The department says that if 70,000 tons of the existing U.S. waste were shipped to Yucca Mountain, the transfer would require 24 years of dozens of daily rail or truck shipments. Assuming low accident rates and discounting the possibility of terrorist attacks on these lethal shipments, the D.O.E. says this radioactive-waste transport likely would lead to 50 to 310 shipment accidents. According to the D.O.E., each of these accidents could contaminate 42 square miles, and each could require a 462-day cleanup that would cost $620 million, not counting medical expenses. Can hundreds of thousands of mostly unguarded shipments of lethal materials be kept safe? The states do not think so, and they have banned Yucca Mountain transport within their borders. A better alternative is onsite storage at reactors, where the material can be secured from terrorist attack in “hardened” bunkers.
Where Do We Go From Here?
If atomic energy is really so risky and expensive, why did the United States begin it and heavily subsidize it? As U.S. Atomic Energy Agency documents reveal, the United States began to develop nuclear power for the same reason many other nations have done so. It wanted weapons-grade nuclear materials for its military program. But the United States now has more than enough weapons materials. What explains the continuing subsidies? Certainly not the market. The Economist (7/7/05) recently noted that for decades, bankers in New York and London have refused loans to nuclear industries. Warning that nuclear costs, dangers and waste storage make atomic power “extremely risky,” The Economist claimed that the industry is now asking taxpayers to do what the market will not do: invest in nuclear energy. How did The Economist explain the uneconomical $20 billion U.S. nuclear subsidies for 2005-7? It pointed to campaign contributions from the nuclear industry.
Despite the problems with atomic power, society needs around-the-clock electricity. Can we rely on intermittent wind until solar power is cost-effective in 2015? Even the Department of Energy says yes. Wind now can supply up to 20 percent of electricity, using the current electricity grid as backup, just as nuclear plants do when they are shut down for refueling, maintenance and leaks. Wind can supply up to 100 percent of electricity needs by using “distributed” turbines spread over a wide geographic region—because the wind always blows somewhere, especially offshore.
Many renewable energy sources are safe and inexpensive, and they inflict almost no damage on people or the environment. Why is the current U.S. administration instead giving virtually all of its support to a riskier, more costly nuclear alternative?
Sidebar: "What Does the Church Say?"