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The Clean Energy Way to Fight Climate Change

Frances Beinecke

Posted November 7, 2013

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Several leading climate scientists have embraced nuclear power as the way to lick global climate change and there's a new movie out trying to make the case.

We understand the urgency. Climate change is the central environmental ill of our time. We have an obligation to protect our children from the dangers of this widening scourge, and we aren't yet doing enough about it.

Nuclear power has long provided roughly one-fifth of our electricity. Expanding nuclear power, though, isn't the best way to address climate change.

Instead, we need to cut carbon pollution from the dirty power plants that, in this country, produce 40 percent of the dangerous carbon emissions that are driving climate chaos. We must make our cars, homes and workplaces the most efficient in the world. And we 
need to promote wind, solar and other sources of renewable power.

This clean energy approach beats the nuclear play hands down.

After six decades, the nuclear power industry continues to struggle with issues of safety, non-proliferation, waste and cost.

It's been two and a half years since an earthquake, tsunami and human failures led to multiple meltdowns and explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan.

More than 80,000 people still can't go home. It will be at least two more years before authorities can stop radioactive groundwater from spilling into the Pacific Ocean. All six nuclear reactors at the site must be scrapped. Cleanup will take decades and cost tens of billions of dollars.

Those kinds of costs and risks aside, nuclear power presents its own environmental hazards, from the mining and milling of uranium to the storage and disposal of radioactive waste.

Because we haven’t agreed on a way to safely dispose of this waste, it sits, instead, onsite at scores of nuclear plants and other locations nationwide.

Financially, the kind of nuclear renaissance some call for is a pipe dream. Wall Street is loath to finance costly nuclear plants. The Georgia Power Co., is constructing the first new reactors to be built in some 30 years, adding a pair of reactors to Plant Vogtle. The 
project will cost more than $14 billion and likely will rely, for its financing, on up to $8.3 billion in federal loan guarantees.

The so-called "fast reactor" technology that some endorse as the next generation of nuclear plants is no help. Efforts to use this technology in France, Germany, Italy and Japan have all failed.

Even if it worked, this technology is even more costly that our 
current reactors.

There's a better way.

First, let's clean up our existing fleet of fossil fuel power plants, by putting in place the first-ever standards to reduce their carbon pollution. Right now, these plants are allowed to dump unlimited volumes of carbon into our air. That's just wrong.

President Obama has directed the Environmental Protection Agency to change that, with common sense standards to be proposed in June. Let's do it.

Second, let's invest in energy efficiency.

Over the past 40 years, efficiency gains have contributed more to U.S. energy needs than the increase from all other resources combined - nuclear included. That's why our energy consumption per dollar's worth of economic output is less than half of what it was in 
1980. And we can do much more.

Finally, let's expand our use of wind, solar and other sources of renewable power.

Unlike some mythical nuclear solution, clean, safe, renewable power is already driving innovation and job growth. More than 110,000 new clean energy and transportation jobs were announced last year alone across the United States, and the power production from these sources is mounting.

Nationwide, wind turbines generated nearly 5 percent of our electricity during the first six months of this year. The Energy Department says that, by 2030, wind can produces 20 percent of our juice. That's as much as nuclear power now provides, despite six decades of massive taxpayer subsidies.

The cost of solar energy has dropped 80 percent in the past five years. Overall, the National Renewable Energy Lab has shown that we can get four-fifths of our electricity from renewable sources by mid-century.

We face no greater environmental challenge than climate change.  Nuclear power, though, is no panacea.

What we can do, and must, is to invest in what we know will make a difference: clean up our power plants, make our economy more efficient and get power from the wind and sun.

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About

Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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