Nuclear Energy Has Environmental Pluses; Safety Remains an Issue

Some environmentalists are indeed coming around to nuclear energy.

Nuclear-CartoonSome environmentalists are indeed coming around to nuclear energy. That’s because the nuclear fission process produces virtually no greenhouse gas emissions, unlike the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas. (Those two fossil fuels accounted for about 70 percent of U.S. electricity in 2008. Nukes made 20 percent.) Also, fission produces neither sulfur dioxide nor nitrogen oxides, the fossil-fuel pollutants that cause acid rain.

Advocates are fond of noting that nuclear power provides 70 percent of the country’s “carbon-free” energy. But nuclear energy isn’t really a zero-carbon system, since you still have to build power plants, mine and enrich uranium, and transport processed fuel, all of which typically rely on CO2-emitting fuel sources. Even when the entire life cycle is taken into account, however, nuclear energy warms the planet much less than coal or natural gas. The comparison with renewables such as wind and solar (which also generate emissions in the manufacturing phase) is less cut and dried.

While it’s commonly accepted that nuclear energy has a relatively dainty footprint, the question of whether new reactors would be the most cost-effective way to lower electricity-related emissions is still hotly debated. The fuel itself is relatively inexpensive, at least for the time being. But as noted in Time, recent price estimates for a large plant in Florida came in at $12 billion to $18 billion, and that’s before you consider the nuclear industry’s history of major cost overruns.

Some analysts say alternative methods would yield much more climate-saving bang for our buck than nuclear power. For example, Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute argues that we should be investing in general efficiency measures and “micropower,” a catchall term that includes cogeneration of heat and electricity, plus renewables other than big hydropower operations.

What about safety concerns? Admittedly, there’s a fright factor with nuclear power. But in the 31 years since the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island, there haven’t been any emergencies in the United States that remotely approached the severity of that incident, though there have been some close calls.

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Source: Nina Shen Rastogi | The Washington Post
Photo: Michael Sloan | The Washington Post