Monthly Archives: February 2012

Nuclear Energy: An Environmental Quandary

“I cannot support issuing this license as if Fukushima had never happened.”

Last week, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the construction of what will be the first new nuclear power plant in more than 30 years – and this over the objection of its chairman.  In opposition, and invoking the nuclear accident at Fukushima, Chairman Gregory Jaczko asserted that any future construction or proposals should be carried out with the utmost attention paid to safety, particularly to avoid the problems that came to light in Japan.  As the International Atomic Energy Agency reported last year [PDF], the nuclear crisis in Fukushima was precipitated in part by 1) insufficient tsunami preparations; 2) miscommunication between the government, regulators, and plant operators.  Presumably, Jaczko’s safety concerns and demands for further oversight would delay the construction of the reactor at the Vogtle site…

Nuclear Power as an Environmentalist Solution?

…but it wouldn’t necessarily stop it entirely.  In fact, Jaczko, calling the vote “historic,” has couched his opposition primarily in terms invoking mismanagement and a concern for proper safety oversight.  At the same time, those in favour of nuclear energy have supported it on the basis of its environmental benefits.  President Obama and his administration have argued that the push for clean, low emission energy would mean “building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country.”  Low emission energy sounds really attractive right now, particularly in light of the non-stop increase in global GHG emissions (and, if you’re in Vermont right now, apparently bizarre deviations from the climatic norm).

But the Obama administration and the NRC aren’t the only agencies in favour of nuclear development!  What I find really interesting is that several environmentalists, including Mark Lynas, George Monbiot (both from the UK), and Bruno Comby from the US have echoed these claims, arguing that clean energy through nuclear power is a no-brainer.  While Lynas and other pro-nuclear greens have publicly worried that their position “would be the end of [their] reputation as an environmentalist,” they have remained steadfast in their position.

Or A Faustian Bargain?

For other greens, this is a tough sell.  Globally, most of the world’s public is opposed to nuclear power, with clear majorities in France (where most of the energy is nuclear) and Germany (which has recently announced a plan to completely phase out nuclear power by 2022).  As the Sierra Club points out, nuclear energy may be considered clean, only if you ignore 1) radioactive tailings; 2) exposure to radioactivity for workers; 3) the problem of storing radioactive material with long half-lives; amid other concerns.  So, can these concerns be weighed against what often seems like the more pressing issue of climate change and energy independence?  Is opposition against nuclear energy on environmental grounds misplaced?  Is there a way to promote greener behavior and consumption without resorting to a process that may lead to long term problems with radioactivity?