The Case for Nuclear Power

By PATRICK MOORE, Ph.D., a co-founder and former leader of Greenpeace, currently (2009) co-chair of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition.

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: This article first appeared in the C.E.P Quarterly, spring 2009, Vol 4, #3


When I helped found Greenpeace in the early 1970s, I was convinced that nuclear energy was wrong for the world. Now I realize that it may just be the best power technology for the future.
Nuclear energy has proved safe and secure while it generates virtually emissions-free electricity for our homes and businesses. But at the same time, there is general concern that our continued reliance on energy sources that emit significant amounts of greenhouse gases may be harming our environment.
As a result, most of the industrialized world is engaged in a broad effort to identify ways to reduce its use of carbon-based energy. Ironically, while many environmentalists promote this cause, there are still some who have not fully embraced an obvious solution – nuclear power.
The simple fact is nuclear energy has a much more positive track record than its critics will concede – both on safety and environmental grounds. In the United States, nuclear energy produces almost 75 percent of the nation’s clean electricity, while providing power to one out of every five homes and businesses. Nuclear power plants help America avoid almost 700 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, the same impact as taking 99 percent of all passenger cars off the country’s roadways.
Our world’s environmental challenges would not be so serious if it weren’t for the fact that our energy needs are growing. By the year 2030, Americans are going to need 21 percent more electricity, fueled by a growing population and the proliferation of consumer electronics, among other things. While these technological advances enable society to be more productive, we need a power source that isn’t harmful to our environment.
Emissions Free and 24/7
The nation wants to cut its dependence on foreign oil, a situation that makes it vulnerable to the whims of foreign regimes. While some electricity still comes from burning oil, nuclear energy’s real benefits to U.S. energy security will come as the transportation sector shifts from petroleum to electricity.
The plain fact is, without nuclear energy we would be in an even deeper hole in terms of our energy demand, environmental protections, and national security. Promising renewable technologies such as hydroelectric geothermal, biomass, and wind will all play a meaningful role in the nation’s future. But even if those sources contribute 25 percent of electricity needs by 2025, as President Barack Obama may seek to mandate, we still need to account for the remaining three-quarters of our electrical power. Nuclear energy is the only large-scale, virtually emissions-free solution that runs around the clock.
Given this, it is no surprise that a nuclear renaissance is unfolding. Across the nation, more than 30 new reactors are being considered. Ten states have passed policies instituting some form of cost recovery assurance for nuclear plant construction. Three states have introduced – and one has passed – legislation requiring that nuclear energy be included in some form of clean or alternative energy portfolio. And six of the 13 states with moratoria on new nuclear plants are considering lifting those bans.
These state-based policy reforms have the backing of the American people. Two-thirds of respondents to a national poll by Zogby International last year said they support the construction of new nuclear power plants in the U.S. Beyond its environmental credentials, these supporters see nuclear energy delivering a much-needed economic shot in the arm for communities hit hard by the recession. Each new reactor demands up to 2,400 construction workers at peak periods, according to a report released by the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, which I chair with former EPA Administrator Christie Whitman. And with nuclear’s record on emissions, those jobs can be characterized as clean energy or “green” jobs.
Rethinking Reprocessing
The last remaining hurdle to an even greater groundswell of support for nuclear energy centers on responsible management of used nuclear fuel. Earlier this month, the Obama administration dealt a setback to a proposed repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, when it cut off most of the funding for the site in its new budget proposal. I see this latest development as an opportunity to rethink the issue of recycling used nuclear fuel in a way that allows the U.S. to reap the benefits of the 90 percent of energy that remains within the fuel bundle after it’s gone through the reactor. After all, France, Russia and Japan are doing this today.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu has shown himself to be a firm believer in the promise of nuclear energy. Earlier this month, he told the Senate Budget Committee that nuclear energy is “an essential part of our energy mix.” He added that the administration’s decision on Yucca’s funding should not prevent the industry going forward with “aggressive licensing” of new reactors.
I couldn’t agree more. As Dr. Chu also points out, used fuel rods are stored safely at nuclear plant sites across the country awaiting storage by the federal government – as has been the case for more than 30 years. During this time, the spent fuel has been kept safe against all major threats, including contamination, sabotage, and theft. The volume of used fuel rods is also amazingly small: All of the commercial used fuel rods in storage today across America could be stacked on a football field 10 yards deep.
As the administration examines its options for a permanent storage site, the nuclear energy industry supports Secretary Chu’s decision to convene a “blue ribbon” commission to take a fresh look at nuclear fuel management over the next 12 to 24 months. This way, we would ensure that all key stakeholders – government officials, scientists, states, utilities and industry representatives – can develop a strategy that supports the continued future use of nuclear energy.
And while we’re at it, the United States needs to formulate a strategy for reprocessing spent uranium and catching up with countries currently putting such technology to use. Recycling reactor fuel will greatly reduce the volume and radioactivity of the byproducts requiring disposal. Nuclear can therefore become truly sustainable reusing up to 95 percent of spent uranium.
The next decade is shaping up to be a transformational period in America’s energy story. Some of the biggest growth sectors of the nation’s economy – technology and telecommunication – are “fueled” by electricity. Modes of transportation are migrating to engines that will draw their power from the grid. Fresh mandates from Congress and state governments will demand that our electricity sources are clean, as well as abundant, reliable and domestically produced.
Nuclear energy is a critical part of the solution to meet these demands. America must use all its resources – conservation, efficiency, renewable energy, nuclear energy and clean coal – to create a sustainable energy future.
Dr. Moore is a co-founder and former leader of Greenpeace. Currently he serves as co-chair of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition.