Rising greenhouse gases. Climate change. Rising energy costs. Declining fossil fuel reserves. Now the BP disaster. With the arguments against fossil fuels continuing to pile up it's no wonder people have latched onto nuclear power as an attractive solution.
Here are eight questions that we should answer before, not after, we head down the nuclear path:
1. Are nuclear hazards any different from other hazards we accept every day?
However unlikely, the potential damage that something goes wrong with nuclear power is way out of proportion to the other risks we choose to take as a society. The Chernobyl disaster continues to teach that lesson: the radiation cloud spread over 27 countries; 500,000 people are estimated to have died from radiation exposure over the last two decades; 1,100 square miles surrounding the reactor remain uninhabitable; 5-8 million people continue to live in the contamination zone causing a surge in infant mortality and children born with deformities. The scale, deadliness, and unstoppability of radiation after leakage or an accident at a mine or power plant make nuclear energy unique. Dare we create an energy system where one mistake could turn an entire American region into another Chernobyl?
2. Do we want to switch to nuclear power when there is ZERO room for error?
BP official Mark Hafle recently told a Coast Guard investigative panel that "all the risks had been addressed" at the Deepwater well. With oil still gushing, he's clearly untethered from reality, but it raises an important question: While we can force BP and other oil companies to improve their safety and environmental damage plans, are there some technological systems -- like nuclear power and deepwater drilling -- that are so dangerous that they are unacceptable unless they have zero possibility for error. And who could ever give such a guarantee? If we build the thousands of nuclear plants required to meet growing energy needs, even the smallest mistake puts millions of lives at risk. As a society are we willing to accept the risk -- however small -- of such a catastrophic disaster?
3. Can nuclear power production be kept safe from natural disasters?
Regardless of our best laid plans, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis and other irrepressible natural forces will inevitably strike some nuclear power sites. Just this month a tornado forced the shutdown of the Fermi2 atomic reactor in Michigan, the site of a 1966 melt-down that nearly irradiated the entire Great Lakes region. We need to ask ourselves, is it possible to manage the risk posed by natural disaster?
4. Can nuclear power sites be terrorist-proof?
Al Qaeda has repeatedly expressed its intent to launch nuclear attacks on American soil. Pakistan's nuclear facilities have been attacked three times since 2007. South Africa's Pelindaba nuclear site was breached by gunman in 2007. According to Warren Buffet, concerned over his major stake in the insurance industry, a nuclear terrorist strike is matter not if, but when:
We're going to have something in the way of a major nuclear [terrorist] event in this country. It will happen. Whether it will happen in 10 years or 10 minutes, or 50 years... it's virtually a certainty.
Do we want to give terrorist elements -- or even a "lone wolf" -- thousands of new sources of radioactive material and the ability to kill thousands of people with one successful attack?
5. How are we going to store the waste?
Spent nuclear fuel rods have a half-life of nearly 30,000 years; depleted uranium will remain toxic for an estimate 4.5 million years. After decades of scientific research at locations like Yucca Mountain in Nevada, no one has figured out how and where to store the radioactive waste created by nuclear power generation. Energy Secretary Steven Chu recently admitted that he has no firm plans for the radioactive wastes created by the proposed new reactors, or by the 104 currently licensed. And according to CBS News, waste is currently leaking from a quarter of US nuclear power sites. In the last three years alone, cancer-causing tritium was found in the water and soil around nuclear sites in New Jersey, Massachusetts and Vermont. How can we move forward with more nuclear power plants when we do not have the capability -- or even a plan -- to safely store existing toxic waste?
6. Can extraction be made safe?
Millions of tons of toxic waste is created at the start of the "nuclear chain" with uranium extraction producing radioactive rock, dust and water -- resulting in contaminated water supplies and skyrocketing cancer, kidney and other deadly diseases in communities near uranium mines. The extraction jobs are some of the most dangerous anywhere, with workers regularly overexposed to radiation. Is the human and environmental cost of uranium extraction being properly included on the cost side of nuclear power?
7. How are we going to transport the waste?
Another unsolved problem is how to safely transport nuclear material across the country. During the decades long debate over storing the nation's radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain, transportation experts estimated that waste disposal from existing nuclear plants would require 1 truck, every 4 hours, 24-hours a day, 365 days a year for 38 years. They estimated that over the same period there would be 130 truck and 440 rail accidents. Each transport container heading to Yucca would hold enough radiation to create a devastating dirty bomb. Shipments would need to travel through 43 states, within one half mile of the homes of tens of millions of people, and through more than 100 of America's largest cities. Barge shipments would move through 17 port cities on the Atlantic seaboard and through the drinking water of the Great Lakes via Lake Michigan. Do we want to build new nuclear power plants when we have yet to figure out a safe way to transport radioactive material across the country?
8. Are nuclear power plants worth the cost?
Nuclear power is expensive -- really expensive. After reporting on the true costs of building and running nuclear power plants, Time magazine concluded: "It turns out that new plants would be not just extremely expensive but spectacularly expensive." A report published by the Center for American Progress estimates costs for power from new nuclear plants to be 25 to 30 cents per kilowatt-hour -- triple current U.S. electricity rates and 10 times the cost of energy efficiency. Wall street has largely deemed nuclear power a bad financial bet, with credit agencies such as Moody's asking "whether new liquidity is even available to support such capital-intensive projects." As a result Congress has been forced to dole out millions in loan guarantees in order to attract private financing for new nuclear plants. This is despite the fact that the Congressional Budget Office has concluded that the risk of default on a nuclear loan would be "very high -- well above 50 percent." Do we want to promote an energy "solution" that is more expansive and financially unstable -- and creates fewer jobs -- than renewable alternatives?