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Let's Kick Nuclear Power out of the Climate Change Debate

Neither McCain nor Obama are willing to take nuclear energy off the table, but there are two important reasons why they should.
 
 
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Presidential hopefuls, Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama both lay claim to some modicum of environmentalism. Unlike in campaigns past, climate change has actually been mentioned -- albeit it is still lacking a high profile -- in debates, interviews and at town hall meetings. Both candidates have demonstrated an interest in the subject and profess an intention to prioritize the necessary energy fixes once in office. Yet neither is willing to take nuclear power out of the discussion when addressing potential solutions to the climate crisis. Neither candidate appears to recognize that nuclear power is the elephant in the room that can do more to impede progress on climate change than to advance it.

McCain's position is more hawkish. He recently announced a recommendation to build 45 new nuclear reactors in the U.S. Where would the money come from? A recent attempt to steal $500 billion in taxpayer subsidies for the nuclear industry contained in a so-called climate change bill was led by McCain's friend -- the less kind might say "poodle" -- Sen. Joe Lieberman. McCain was vocal in his support of the bill as long as the nuclear industry retained the lion's share of the handouts.

Obama has hedged on nuclear power, citing the problems of waste, security and proliferation but refuses to take it off the table. He argues that he is not a proponent of nuclear energy, but talks about supporting research into "advanced" reactor technology. (McCain of course makes the apples and oranges argument that nuclear is needed to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Unless I've missed something and our cars are powered by nuclear reactors, one has nothing whatever to do with the other.) Missing from both arguments are the two most likely obstacles to future nuclear power development in the U.S.: time and cost.

The time issue ought to knock nuclear energy out of the running without the need for further debate. Simply put, climate scientists estimate that we have perhaps five to seven years in which to make meaningful changes in our energy use to curb climate change. A nuclear reactor takes close to a decade to come on line -- an optimistic estimate that does not account for the construction delays we have already seen at new reactor sites in Finland and France. The Finnish reactor is more than two years behind schedule largely due to technical flaws in the early construction phase.

Policy analysts at MIT and elsewhere have estimated that in order for nuclear energy to contribute the necessary global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to actually make a difference to climate change, 1,500 new reactors would need to come on line worldwide between 2010 and 2050. This equates to the unrealistic goal of one new reactor every two weeks. Some experts predict the need for 3,000 new reactors to abate CO2 emissions effectively -- or one new reactor every week. Wasting time on this kind of pipedream detracts from the implementation of meaningful solutions to climate change.

Addressing climate change fast and effectively requires a heavy emphasis on energy efficiency as well as a serious commitment to renewable energy. Studies show that the U.S. could furnish 2.5 times its current electricity yield from wind power alone in just 12 states. But there is no need for an "all eggs in one basket" approach. A combination of existing and emerging technologies, according to the new study, "Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy," could deliver a nuclear-free and coal-free United States within several decades.

Nuclear is too slow but, more importantly, far too expensive. The industry's own estimates now put the price tag for a single new reactor at more than $12 billion. Depending on fluctuating interest rates, that figure could continue to soar. Moody's Investors Services Special Report issued in May 2008 projects that a power company announcing new reactor construction will see its credit rating downgraded by more than 25 percent because of the increasing financial risks that splitting the atom brings to a business profile.

This leaves the American taxpayer to foot the bill, continuing the federal subsidies pattern of decades. Experts at the Rocky Mountain Institute have calculated that the nuclear power industry has been supported by more than half a trillion dollars in federal subsidies since its inception. Renewable energy, by contrast, is a footnote, receiving just a 10 percent share of all energy spending over the past 60 years.

Late last year, the nuclear industry scored a $20.5 billion handout in the form of federal loan guarantees for new reactors and uranium enrichment projects. This spring, Lieberman's ultimately failed attempt -- in partnership with Senator John Warner (R-VA) -- to introduce a climate change bill could have handed the nuclear industry at least $500 billion in taxpayer subsidies and tax breaks. Amendments from the nuclear power hawks might have shot that figure even higher. The bill, which was withdrawn by Senate leaders Harry Reid and Barbara Boxer, will likely be revived next year so the industry's hopes for a financial windfall have dimmed only temporarily.

If cumbersome construction timelines and obscene costs are not enough to deter nuclear proponents, then the security risks should be. These are not to be taken lightly in a post-9/11 world. History has taught us that civilian nuclear programs can -- and do -- lead to the production of nuclear weapons as happened in India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. The presence of nuclear power plants has provoked acts of aggression, even war. Israel bombed nuclear facilities in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. went to war in Iraq at least on the pretext that the country was developing nuclear weapons. The concerns surrounding Iran's nuclear intentions are indicative of the blurred line between civilian and military nuclear activities.

Iran's uranium enrichment program has inspired 14 other Middle Eastern countries to express an interest in acquiring nuclear power programs, a poorly-disguised cover story for nuclear weapons posturing. As Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) recently pointed out, it makes no sense to market nuclear power to Saudi Arabia, as the Bush administration is doing, when "Saudi Arabia is the Saudi Arabia of solar."

Nuclear reactors are sitting duck targets vulnerable to attack. A successful assault could release quantities of radioactivity that would dwarf the Chernobyl accident. In the U.S., 32 reactors are of such a poorly protected design that their spent fuel pools could be breached using a private plane loaded with conventional explosives. Yet, according to the Department of Homeland Security, upwards of $30 billion has already been spent in enhancing aviation security while the nuclear industry says it has spent just $1.2 billion on security upgrades at reactor sites. These latter amount to little more than a modest increase in guard forces and guard towers and some additional Jersey barriers.

Finally, nuclear power is simply not a practical choice under the present and ever worsening climatic effects of global warming itself. Rises in temperature and precipitation or extended droughts are not conducive to the reliable operation of nuclear power plants which depend on the use of large quantities of water. Recent events, where droughts, heat waves and water shortages here and overseas have caused nuclear plants to power down or shut down altogether, demonstrate the unsuitability of nuclear as an energy choice in a warming world. Many nuclear plants are situated on coastlines and could be inundated by sea-level rise. The ability of a nuclear plant to withstand more frequent and ferocious hurricanes brought on by global warming, poses another grave concern.

Before we run out of time, we must quickly reject nuclear energy. It is too slow, too expensive, produces long-lasting and deadly radioactive waste and its materials can be diverted for weapons purposes. It is far better for the present, as well as what remains of an uncertain future, if we devote our attention and our resources to a rapid and effective implementation of solar, wind and other renewable energies. These, coupled with conservation and energy efficiency measures, can easily and dramatically reduce demand while supplying clean, plentiful and sustainable energy without fear of a nuclear holocaust.

Linda Gunter is the co-founder of Beyond Nuclear .