Many see nuclear power as a necessary part of any carbon-neutral mix. The reality isn’t so simple.
DECEMBER 5, 2019
So does the Green New Deal need nuclear to achieve its lofty goals? Does zero-carbon energy infrastructure necessitate a nuclear buildout, or at least an embrace of already-existing nuclear as a bridge fuel, as countries like Sweden have done? Unfortunately, the case for nuclear as a green technology is not so simple—the technology faces a spate of environmental and economic challenges, while its track record as a bridge fuel shows it may be more rivalrous than concomitant with renewables. In fact, it may be the nuclear industry that needs the Green New Deal, not the other way around.
So if new construction can’t be counted on, and the window for adding new nuclear to the fleet has already shut, what about the reactors we currently have? Has their environmental potential gotten short shrift?
While nuclear fission emits far less carbon dioxide than energy production by oil and gas, the process of getting to that energy generation complicates nuclear’s claim to zero-carbon status. Uranium mining, processing, and transport are all carbon-intensive procedures done by diesel-powered heavy machinery. Instead of carbon, the plants themselves emit heat, often in great quantities, which can warm nearby air and water dramatically, killing fish and wildlife and afflicting neighboring habitats.
And while nuclear may maintain a cleaner sheet than fossil fuels when it comes to CO2, its record on H2O is less rosy. An American nuclear plant can require between 19 million and 1.4 billion gallons of water a day, just for purposes of cooling. Because of that implacable thirst, it’s imperative that nuclear plants are constructed near major water sources.
Thus, nuclear plants dot our rivers and coastline, each of which carries with it its own climate-specific challenges. Plants built near abundant freshwater—rivers and lakes—have been forced to contend with the twin challenges of too much water and not enough. In recent years, nuclear reactors, like those on the Great Lakes, have been forced to shut down when droughts have plagued rivers and lakes, reducing water levels to perilous lows. Meanwhile, in places like Nebraska, flood risks have necessitated shutdowns. And in France, which sports one of the most robust nuclear programs in the world, heat waves have caused water temperatures to surge to the point of shutdowns multiple summers in a row.
In fact, a 2012 study published in Nature Climate Change forecasted a decrease in thermoelectric power generating capacity of up to 19 percent in Europe and 16 percent in the United States for the period 2031-2060, just due to lack of cooling water. Extant nuclear plants may not accelerate a rapidly warming climate, but it remains to be seen if they can functionally exist in one.
Coastal plants face climate-induced challenges of their own. Hurricane Sandy, which laid siege to the Atlantic coast in 2012, forced seven nuclear plant shutdowns due to flooding, storm debris, and wind damage. Earlier this year, Bloomberg Businessweek identified 19 U.S. nuclear plants under threat from rising seas, and 54 facilities (out of a national total of 60) that “weren’t designed to handle the flood risk they face.” And that was before a November report found nearly four times as many people as previously thought are living on land that is likely to flood at least once a year on average by mid-century. Large-scale retreat from low-lying coastal cities is going to be a reality, and nuclear power plants can’t move with a shifting coastline. Even if they could, plants that draw on saltwater for cooling would suffer similarly diminished capacity as global ocean temperatures rise, as well.
Those rising sea levels are also a problem for the ever-perplexing, still unresolved issue of waste disposal. Beyond the controversial Yucca Mountain disposal site in Nevada, which has failed to get off the ground, much nuclear waste is simply stored on site. At the now-decommissioned San Onofre plant in Southern California and the Pilgrim plant in Cape Cod, the waste is buried beneath the sand at the water’s edge. “Four decades of radioactive waste being stored right there on the water line,” says Kate Brown, a professor of Science, Technology, and Society at MIT. “It’s a short-term solution for a long-term problem.”
That also means that sea-level rise threatens waste disposal, and with no way to check for leaks, the impact of rising seas on that waste remains largely unknown. But in the Marshall Islands, the site of one of the largest American nuclear waste disposal venues, known as the Runit Dome, the effect of sea-level rise is certain: The concrete encasement is now at risk of collapsing as rising seas encroach.
“Today renewables account for 40 percent of German energy production; 15 years ago it was in the single digits,” says Greg Jaczko, former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission under Obama. Not only have renewables taken over the energy share once produced by nuclear, “they’ve done enough of a build that they’re going to eat into coal.”
It’s the same story in Japan, where emissions spiked briefly after Fukushima caused a wide-scale shutdown. Even today, only a couple of the country’s nuclear reactors have been brought back online. But thanks to an aggressive build-out of renewables, emissions are below where they were with a fully operating nuclear fleet. Countries that have chosen to decommission slowly have seen their renewable build-outs stymied accordingly; dependence on nuclear has decelerated an inevitable process. Sweden’s reliance on nuclear has been an impediment to renewable development, which is part of the reason the deadline for decommissioning keeps getting pushed. Bridge fuels have a way of making themselves permanent.