We must think holistically about what constitutes “clean energy” when we consider climate change investments and our energy future. President Biden’s recent announcement of his $6 billion effort to save “distressed” nuclear (fission) power plants is misguided and short-sighted.
Although reducing carbon emissions is critical to slowing the pace of climate change, it must not be our only litmus test for moving toward a “clean” energy future, similarly to how our overall health cannot be measured solely by our blood pressure or weight.
In the case of nuclear power, we must consider its high cost compared to renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar. According to Climate Nexus, the minimum cost per megawatt hour to build a new nuclear plant is almost 3 times higher than utility-scale solar ($112 vs. $46, respectively) and almost 4 times higher than wind power ($122 vs. $30, respectively). That’s like paying $70,000 for a car when you could purchase an equivalent car, in terms of its overall value, for one-third or one-quarter of the cost.
There are also numerous environmental and community-based reasons to wean ourselves off of nuclear power. Intercontinental Cry, a non-profit newsroom that produces public-interest journalism centered on Indigenous Peoples, states that 75 percent of uranium mining worldwide occurs on Indigenous land, including in the United States. Furthermore, unlike solar and wind power, uranium reserves are not a renewable resource; eventually, we will run out of uranium.
We have spent over half a century trying to find a suitable storage option for spent fuel rods and have failed miserably. Consequently, these rods, which remain radioactive for as long as 10,000 years, are generally stored on site at active or shuttered plants all over this country. They are sitting ducks for domestic or international terrorists, and they pose a serious potential threat to surrounding communities’ drinking water supplies if radioactive water leaks and makes its way into the ground.
Contrary to public perception, nuclear power is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions when considering the amount of fossil fuels required for mining, uranium enrichment, building and decommissioning of power plants, and processing and storing radioactive waste. In fact, nuclear power emits twice as much carbon as solar photovoltaics and six times as much as onshore wind power, according to the nonprofit organization Beyond Nuclear.
If the potentially catastrophic risks to nuclear power plants posed by political instability and military conflict were not apparent prior to Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, they are abundantly clear now.
On February 25, Russian forces seized control of the Chornobyl nuclear power plant and took its employees hostage, according to the Ukrainian spokesperson for the State Agency of Ukraine on Exclusion Zone Management. The plant was forced to rely on its backup generators to keep the spent fuel rods from overheating, which can cause a meltdown similar to the catastrophe that occurred at the Chornobyl plant in 1986. According to multiple sources, those generators can only provide back-up power for 48 hours. The plant relied on that back-up source of electricity for 24 of those 48 hours.
Then, on March 5, the BBC announced that a fire had erupted at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest active plant in Europe, after it was damaged by Russian shelling. Several news outlets reported that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nation’s atomic watchdog, had lost data transmission.
There are viable existing alternative energy sources to nuclear power, such as large-scale solar and wind projects. Moreover, there are many new technologies in development or ready to be brought to scale with a significant infusion of public and private funds, which can have climate change mitigating results. These include the use of electrolyzers to extract hydrogen from water and carbon capture methods to sequester carbon. Let’s think long-term and make wise decisions with future generations and the sustainability of our planet in mind.