Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Nuclear Energy: Our Saving Grace or Too Little, Too Late?

By Elizabeth ChiPublished October 20, 2014

Nuclear energy appears to be potentially making a comeback on the alternative energy playing field. Although it does not emit greenhouse gases, we cannot rely solely on nuclear power to reduce our emissions quickly enough to prevent a devastating 2°C rise in temperature.

By Elizabeth Chi, 10/20/14

Japan's recent plans to reactivate some of its nuclear reactors sparked waves of protest domestically and abroad. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing to reopen plants as soon as this winter, and civilian outrage is not surprising given the enormous damage of the Fukushima meltdown in 2011. Meanwhile, after thirty years of stagnation, four new nuclear reactors are currently under construction here in the United States: Vogtle Units 3 and 4 in Georgia and V.C. Summer Units 2 and 3 in South Carolina. In spite of the fear associated with nuclear energy, support for nuclear power has increased significantly in the past two years, as the need for alternative energy has become more pressing.

Nuclear energy is not nearly as risky as many people claim. There have only been three major nuclear meltdowns recorded in history: Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and Fukushima in 2011. There were fewer than 100 deaths recorded from the Chernobyl meltdown and none from Three Mile Island or Fukushima. Even if these figures do not account for long-term health problems, they are undoubtedly dwarfed by the number of deaths caused by coal pollution. The Clean Air Task Force estimates that coal pollution causes around 7,500 deaths annually. However, many people are predisposed to fearing nuclear energy more because of the risk of a sudden catastrophic meltdown, as opposed to the greater long-term damage caused by coal production. They also overlook that producing nuclear energy does not emit any carbon dioxide, which helps mitigate the drastic long-term impacts of climate change.

Nevertheless, pursuing nuclear power is still a distraction from our primary objective of preventing global temperature increases from reaching 2°C, at which point many experts project that the damage from climate change would be irreversible. When I asked Dan Miller, Managing Director and Co-Founder of the Roda Group and guest speaker at the UN conference at Copenhagen, about his thoughts on nuclear energy, he replied that nuclear energy is a possible option for reducing our carbon emission levels, but building nuclear reactors is simply too expensive and time-consuming to affect the rapid, large-scale emissions reductions that are necessary. Instead, we should pursue other sustainable energy sources (including solar, wind, geothermal, and renewable diesel) and green technology (including advanced batteries, carbon sequestration, hybrid vehicles, and hydroponics), so that we can significantly reduce our carbon emissions by as early as 2020. Nuclear energy can still be a part of a new energy future, but policymakers need to focus on championing clean energy sources and technologies that can make a difference now, not thirty years down the line.

Moreover, focusing solely on nuclear power will exacerbate current problems associated with storing nuclear waste. South Korea has almost 9,000 tons of nuclear waste in temporary storage pools, but some of those will probably fill up by 2016. Even more problematically, the current plan for dealing with future nuclear waste is to fill these storage pools beyond capacity. Park Ji-Young, the science and technology director of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, admits, "[if] we fail to reach a conclusion [on how to manage spent fuel], it would be time to debate if we should stop nuclear power generation." Other experts also warn against the danger of overstocking these stacks, which would reduce air circulation and increase their risk of being targeted by terrorists.

As the world's largest nuclear power producer, the United States should avoid South Korea's pitfalls. Nearly 20% of our total electric output comes from nuclear reactors, and that percentage will start growing again once new reactors start to come online. Moreover, many American nuclear reactors currently in operation were built in the 1960s and 1970s, which means they are also nearing their expiration dates.

Relying on nuclear energy may generate large amounts of electricity and is far cleaner than coal production, but may cause us to overlook more effective strategies for alleviating climate change.