In 1979, a nuclear meltdown occurred at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Facility in Pennsylvania. The accident released radioactive gases into the environment although how much and to what effect has never been clearly determined.
A few years out of college at the time, I was already convinced that nuclear was a dirty word. It of course brought to mind the most devastating terror weapon that had ever been unleashed. And we were still in a Cold War world where some of the world’s leaders seemed more than willing to start an all-out war over territorial disputes in places like Southeast Asia or the Middle East. With the news of Three Mile Island, it seemed that we were also now on course to radiate ourselves.
Forty years later and we face a different threat that can potentially make Earth a much less pleasant place to inhabit: climate change. Last year’s Paris Climate Summit concluded with an agreement to set a goal of limiting global warming to lesss than 2 degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial levels. Doing that means limiting carbon emissions and nuclear energy is in fact clean energy, at least in terms of production.
Can you be an environmentalist without embracing nuclear energy? That was the question discussed earlier today by a Future Tense-sponsored panel in Washington.
Eleven percent of worldwide electricity is now produced by nuclear power. In the U.S. nukes account for 20% of electricity production. In France, it’s 70%. Some countries, notably China and India, are making major investment to develop nuclear energy.
Most of the nuclear reactors in the U.S. were built in the 60’s and 70’s. After that we got “cold feet,” according to Aaron VanDeventer, chief scientist of the Founders Fund, a VC firm that makes energy investments. He attributed our “cold feet” to the cinema generated “narrative of nuclear disaster” that caused us to overestimate the risk.
Robert Hill, technical director of nuclear energy R&D at Argonne National Laboratory, also downplayed the risk, suggesting that since Three Mile Island, “the safety record of the nuclear industry in the U.S. has been stellar.” Hill raised doubts about whether renewable energy sources like solar and wind will ever be enough to replace fossil fuels. He described the next generation of nuclear plants, reactors that have not yet been built, which will be designed to reduce costs and allow recycling of spent fuel. He also talked about the future development of smaller, modular reactors.
But the economics are working against nuclear energy in the opinion of Joseph Romm, founding editor of ClimateProgress.org. Over the past couple of decades Romm’s charts show a continuous decline in the costs of clean energy techniques including solar, battery, wind and LED. “Renewables have largely crossed over the price point they need to,” Romm said. At the same time costs for nuclear plants have steadily increased. Combine that with the low cost and wide availability of natural gas and the result is that utilities are in no rush to move to nuclear.
Despite the fact that “we’re going to get very desperate to reduce carbon pollution over the next decade,” Romm estimated that the best scenario for nuclear power by the year 2050 is that it will account for 17 or 18% of global electricity. He expects the solution to be wind, solar and hydropower because “nuclear has priced itself out of the market.”
Three Mile Island was of course not the last nuclear mishap. The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine had a catastrophic accident during a systems test in 1986. Fifty emergency workers died in the immediate aftermath of the accident and the World Health Organization reports that “about 4000 cases of thyroid cancer, mainly in children and adolescents at the time of the accident, have resulted from the accident’s contamination and at least nine children died of thyroid cancer.”
More recently, in 2006, damage from a tsunami produced three nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. Estimates of the fatalities that will be a result of that accident vary but some are as high as 10,000. A screening program in 2012 found that 35% of the children who lived in the area had abnormal growths on their thyroids.
I now live about 50 miles south of the Indian Point nuke in New York State. I’ve often worried that they might have built that one too close to the Ramapo Fault. And when I drive south to the Jersey Shore every summer I’m not happy to see the Oyster Creek Nuclear Plant located just off the Garden State Parkway and only a short distance from the beaches and ocean that the shore economy in based on. You can even see people swimming, boating or fishing within sight of the plant. I’m not anxious to get closer to either of them.
Future Tense is a partnership of the New America Foundation, Arizona State University and Slate magazine. You can view today’s event on the New America Web site.