The Boston Globe has recently been throwing its editorial weight behind nuclear power. It laments the scheduled closing of Pilgrim in June, claiming that the only serious response to climate change is nuclear power. In encouraging a renaissance in this moribund industry it joins the strange bedfellow of president Trump, who enthusiastically supports both nuclear power and coal.
The Globe’s argument is the familiar two-part pro-nukes one. First, nuclear energy is a clean energy source and thus an important ally in the fight against climate change.
Second, wind, solar and other renewables will never be able to supply enough electricity to replace dirty fuels and so are not a serious response to climate change.
These claims have been often refuted. First, nuclear power is not the carbon footprint-free technology it may appear to be. It does have a carbon footprint from uranium mining and processing, transportation, plant construction and operation, and nuclear waste management. It is a considerable improvement over traditional fuels, but many times dirtier than genuine renewables such as solar and wind.
Globe editorials also ignore the 1000 pound elephant of the discussion: the failure, many decades in, to solve the achilles heel of this technology, the disposal of waste, which remains lethal into the distant future.
It is estimated that it would take 1500 to 2000 new nuclear reactors worldwide (compared with fewer than 400 at present), a new reactor every two weeks for the next 60 years at a cost of trillions, to make a meaningful dent in greenhouse emissions with a corresponding quantum leap in the disposal problem.
See the documentary with the ironic title “Containment” for a dystopic view of how it will be living into and beyond the forseeable future when, with many times the reactors we have now, every place in the world would be a nuclear backyard.
And of course there will, inevitably, be more Chernobyls, more Fukushimas.
Second, the Globe position belittles the accelerating progress renewables such as solar and wind have made, despite half-hearted government support (as contrasted with the subsidized nuclear industry. ) Whole nations (Spain, Germany, Italy, etc.) have committed to a nuclear-free future , eschewing the technology or replacing existing reactors with renewables.
But no question, although nuclear power in this country has flatlined for decades and the upward trajectory of renewables is inspirational, there is a struggle for the energy future. Many plants have gone off-line (and of course our own Pilgrim planned for closure in June), but recently a couple of new ones planned. There is talk of a “nuclear renaissance,” which has received a boost from the Trump administration. But also recent polls have for the first time shown public opinion substantially against the construction of new nuclear plants.
We should not underestimate the power of sheer will (political and otherwise), information, and ideas in determining the course of the struggle. Is there any doubt that in California, which recently voted to shut down its last nuclear plant, the progressive intention to achieve 100% renewables, power plants that neighbors don’t fear, will give it the best short at bringing about that future?
In contrast, in neighboring Arizona (the sunniest state in the nation) a ballot measure in November to commit to 50% renewables by 2030 was defeated, leaving in place the current goal of 15% by 2025, in large measure due to an all-out effort of the local power company.
Self-fulfilling prophecies work both ways.
The Globe is the most influential newspaper in an area which, in the fight to close Pilgrim, has become one of the most progressive in the nation when it comes to the energy future. It is really too bad that it has chosen to become part of the problem rather than part of the solution–on the wrong side of tech history.