CO2 is what humanity must fear, far more than radiation exposure from nuclear power

by Mike Shatzkin

When you are obsessed by climate change and start to learn more about it and invest time trying to address it, no issue is more vexing than nuclear power. Growing up in a house about a mile or two as the crow flies from Indian Point influences your thinking. Even before Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, but particularly after them, it seemed obvious to oppose getting energy that way. What if there were a meltdown? What would we do with the waste? It wasn’t hard to find the reasons to oppose such a dangerous source of energy.

But an obsession with climate change confronts you with what the human race is facing because of the CO2 we are putting into the ecosystem by burning fossil fuels. Even with Fukashima happening as my personal obsession with the challenge was growing, it was still obvious that CO2 is a much greater threat to humankind than a nuclear meltdown, or even several of them.

We have benefited for more than six decades from nuclear power, with minimal adverse consequences compared to what we suffer from every other reliable baseload energy source except hydro (which to date is only there in places nature created, and we can make use of it only if we build the power lines to move it to where it is needed).

Nuclear power has delivered baseload reliably for decades with a far lower carbon footprint than any fossil-fuel-fired generation, with far fewer fatalities than coal, without the carbon and methane emissions from natural gas, and without the environmental disruption of rivers required for hydropower.

An important fact becomes increasingly obvious when you think about it all, that is apparently not so obvious to many people.

Every single time, without exception, that we close a nuclear plant anywhere, the immediate result is that we burn more fossil fuels and spew more CO2. Every single time.

So, even before one starts to learn the reality that much of the fear of nuclear is based on bogus scare tactics (largely coming from fossil fuel interests, of course), it is common sense to wonder whether closing nuclear plants is a good idea in the real energy and climate-threatened world we live in.

The wider world has been wising up to this reality for some time. James Hansen, who is the single scientist most responsible for our understanding of the dangers of fossil fuels, has long supported nuclear. The Union of Concerned Scientists and the Environmental Defense Fund, perhaps the two most scientifically-sound climate-concerned organizations in the world, have modified their policies to accept the newly-understood value of nuclear in a carbon-constrained world.

So it seemed like a sensible battle to join when I encountered activists trying to get the locals around Indian Point — the liberal community I grew up in — to reverse course and keep the plant open. That seemed especially important, and doable, when I learned that the Indian Point power would be replaced by three newer and cleaner gas-burning plants that had been originally slated to replace aging and polluting fossil-fuel-fired generation facilities in New York City.

But my associates have really gotten nowhere with their efforts, and I have gotten nowhere with a few old local contacts. The combination of local interests who had always pushed for closure, combined with a plant owner (Entergy) that is economically challenged by the recent flood of cheap natural gas enabled by fracking techniques, and a governor looking at the national stage and not-at-all interested with challenging environmentalists, has created what NYS Energy Czar Richard Kauffman described to one of my activist friends as a “done deal”.

(It is worth noting here that my other personal environmental hobby horse, besides sanity about nuclear, is “carbon-fee-and-dividend” to raise the price of fossil fuels in relation to other energy sources and protect most people from the consequences of increased energy costs. If we had a robust carbon tax, then Entergy would be able to run Indian Point profitably and wouldn’t be trying to get out of it.)

Indian Point is almost certainly going to close. Entergy is going to foist responsibility for decommissioning the plants on another entity that may or may not have the funding and tech chops to disable it and remove the spent fuel. Two villages and one school district will see their budgets devastated. The local air will be seeded with increased amounts of CO2. There will be increased pressure to build an additional gas-burning plant on the Indian Point site. And it will be a very long time before the “threat” of radioactive spent fuel is physically removed from the site. We still do not have a national nuclear waste repository. There is nowhere to send it.

The whole NY metro area electric grid will be less reliable because the Indian Point power is actually not being fully replaced, on top of the fact that other aging, unreliable plants in New York City will be pushed to remain in service to the extent that they can. We very likely will have power shortages and failures in the years to come as a direct result of closing Indian Point.

The most dire local consequences of this are a few years away. And so are the global consequences, because the closure will accelerate global warming. The politicians who engineered — or enabled — this massive folly, including Governor Cuomo, will be long gone from the scene when the magnitude of the mistake becomes obvious.

The evidence that anti-nuclear is not the right strategy in a CO2-threatened world is right in front of us, in Europe, if only we care to see it. The evidence is clear from the experiences of France and Sweden, which built nuclear infrastructure urgently and quickly for electric generation, and Germany, which dismantled its nuclear infrastructure based on the same motivations that we see at Indian Point There is a net result. France and Sweden have plenty of power, relatively low energy prices, and a reduced carbon footprint. Germany is buying nuclear electricity from France while burning lignite coal, the most polluting form of coal. Burning coal to replace the nuclear they took out means their carbon footprint is getting worse.

Many people are buying into the meme that we have “12 years” to turn this around (a foundational claim for various Green New Deal proposals, almost none of which have an ambitious nuclear component). In light of that, it is significant that both France and Sweden built out their nuclear capabilities in about that amount of time. And right now South Korea is producing factory-built standardized nuclear plants at remarkably low prices.

Renewables are a good thing and we should develop them as quickly as we can. And with enough battery capability, even intermittent renewables can handle much of our energy needs over time.

But until the day comes when we can retire a nuclear plant and replace its power with clean energy, we ought to stop closing them unless there is some sort of emergency. Let’s hope the anti-nuclear activist community has the capacity to take on board what the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Environmental Defense Fund, and James Hansen are saying. If CO2 is the problem, then nuclear has to be part of the solution. At least for the foreseeable future.

Mike Shatzkin is a book publishing veteran who has recently switched most of his activity to addressing climate change. He has written prior pieces in this space about taxing carbon and about the existential danger of CO2. His extensive writing and many speeches about publishing and digital change are on his website.