By Linda Pentz Gunter
Amid rising public outcry over government inaction toward the climate crisis, the nuclear power industry has attempted to advertise itself as “zero emissions,” “carbon-free” and even “renewable” in order to convince politicians and the public that it is essential to solving this world-historical disaster.
However, nuclear power is none of these things, and it in fact stands in the way of achieving an ecologically just society.
Unfortunately, a persistent and widespread public relations campaign by the nuclear power industry is endeavoring to convince some in the climate movement, as well as prominent Democrats in Congress, that nuclear energy has a role to play.
For example, after we checked in recently with the Sunrise Movement, the leading youth climate lobbying group on Capitol Hill, to see where the group stands on nuclear power, a volunteer signing his name “Josh” wrote to my organization, Beyond Nuclear, in an email that, “We don’t think shutting down existing [nuclear] plants makes much sense.” It’s not clear if this is a shift in Sunrise’s official position, since it contradicts the views on nuclear power in a position paper targeted at U.S. representatives that it signed onto in 2019, but, if so, we’ll be working to shift it.
This mythmaking had apparently infiltrated those backing the Green New Deal (GND) in 2019, when Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) said she was happy to leave “the door open on nuclear.”
What AOC, Sunrise, and others may have overlooked is that nuclear power violates the very cornerstone of the GND: a “Just Transition.” Supporting existing nuclear power operation ignores the fact that currently operating U.S. reactors still have to run on fuel manufactured almost entirely from imported uranium — predominantly from Canada and Kazakhstan — often mined by Indigenous peoples. The radioactive detritus left behind by uranium mining and milling has decimated these and other Indigenous communities around the world. These operations, often conducted by foreign corporations, perpetuate racist colonialism.
Choosing to keep nuclear plants running means continued generation of lethal high-level radioactive waste, which is invariably targeted at frontline communities. For example, the proposed but now-canceled deep geological repository site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is on Western Shoshone land. Two U.S. sites currently identified for “temporary” dumps in Texas and New Mexico have significant low-income and Latinx populations. The Goshute’s Skull Valley Indian Reservation in Utah was chosen but also defeated. (All of these sites were, or are, opposed not only by residents but by their political leadership.)
Numerous studies have shown that nuclear power plant operation causes increased rates of leukemia in children living nearby. Keeping nuclear plants operating also runs the incalculable risk of accident or sabotage with consequences that will last for decades or millennia and which violate human rights.