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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Nuclear Energy and Climate Change: A Debate

Air Date: Week of April 2, 1999

Should the world take the threat of global warming more seriously, the fortunes of the nuclear power plant makers could change. If, that is, you assume the premise that nuclear power can help combat global climate change. That premise was defended and challenged in a formal debate held recently in New York City. We've asked the 2 debaters to summarize their arguments, and here's what they had to say.

Notwithstanding questions about safety or economy, the production of nuclear energy does not emit the greenhouse gases that many scientists say contribute to global climate change. So, can nuclear power help keep the planet's temperature stable? We posed that question to Maureen Koetz, director of Environmental Policy for the Nuclear Energy Institute and Ed Smelof, director of the Pace Energy Project at Pace University Law School.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Perhaps the nuclear age is winding down, and Mr. Bruschi's phone will never ring. The gap between the cost of nuclear and other technologies like solar and wind is narrowing. Indeed, some energy experts say in certain place, high-tech windmills are already cheaper than atomic power. Still, should the world take the threat of global warming more seriously, the fortunes of the nuclear power plant makers could change. If, that is, you assume the premise that nuclear power can help combat global climate change. That premise was defended and challenged in a formal debate held recently in New York City. We've asked the 2 debaters to summarize their arguments, and here's what they had to say.

KOETZ: Can nuclear energy help avoid climate change? It already does. And in the future, it can do even more.

CURWOOD: Speaking in favor of nuclear energy is Maureen Koetz. She is the Director of Environmental Policy for the Nuclear Energy Institute.

KOETZ: Concerns about global climate change have led many nations to join together in an effort to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases. As part of an international treaty signed in Rio de Janiero in 1992, the US agreed to voluntarily cut emissions back to 1990 levels. In 1990, America's nuclear energy plants were generating 20% of our electricity. Those plants emitted no greenhouse gases. If that 20% had been produced by fossil-fuel plants, an additional 140 million tons of greenhouse gases would have been released.

Today, nuclear plants keep a total of 155 million tons of carbon out of the atmosphere every year. Let's put that into perspective. Right now, to get to its original voluntary commitment under the Rio treaty, the United States would be required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 160 million tons. If nuclear plants weren't serving as a cleaner workhorse, the United States would have to make twice as many cuts to automotive, industrial, or power-plant emissions. That's right, twice as many. Put simply, the United States cannot meet its greenhouse-gas-reduction goal without increased use of nuclear energy.

Opponents of nuclear energy would argue that renewables, such as solar and wind, can easily displace our current nuclear plants and still achieve greenhouse gas reductions. Even if that were possible, it makes no sense to replace one non-emitting source with another. Our goal should be to keep all the clean electricity generation we have now, and develop more.

The crucial role played by nuclear electricity in avoiding greenhouse gas emissions is not lost on our competitors in the global marketplace. For example, over the last 10 years the United Kingdom increased its share of nuclear-generated electricity from 19 to 30%. Thanks in large part to that nuclear power, Great Britain is likely to meet its greenhouse-gas-reduction targets. So, not only here in the United States but worldwide, nuclear energy is already helping to avoid the possible effects of global warming.

SMELOFF: Nuclear power cannot be counted on to fight global climate change for 3 reasons.

CURWOOD: Speaking against nuclear power is the director of the Pace Energy Project at Pace University Law School, Ed Smeloff.

SMELOFF: First, it is too expensive. Second, nuclear power lacks broad-based public support. And third, the long-term safe management of nuclear waste is far from being resolved. Among the major sources of electricity generation, nuclear power is the most expensive. A new nuclear power plant costs 3 times as much to build and run as a new natural gas-fired power plant. In fact, nuclear power is now even more expensive than many renewable energy technologies, including wind, biomass, and geothermal power. The only way that this trend could be reversed is if taxpayers subsidize nuclear power. That seems unlikely, since public support for building new nuclear power plants has all but evaporated. The subsidy required to keep just 1 uneconomic nuclear plant running can be as much as $65 million a year. And that is on top of the staggering cost of safely managing radioactive waste for eons to come.

Money wasted on nuclear power would be unavailable for other, more effective ways of preventing global climate change. In the short term, a far more economical way to reduce greenhouse gases is to replace coal power plants with less-polluting natural gas-fired ones. Gas is twice as clean as coal, and new gas plants twice as efficient, leading to a fourfold reduction in greenhouse gases for the same amount of electricity.

Over the longer term, the role of renewable energy technologies will need to increase to prevent destabilization of the Earth's climate. Several states, including California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, are already requiring that an increasing share of electricity come from wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass technologies. With growing public support these technologies can surpass nuclear in electricity production early in the 21st century, and be a less costly solution to global climate change.

CURWOOD: Ed Smeloff is Director of the Pace Energy Project at Pace University Law School. We also heard from Maureen Koetz, Director of Environmental Policy for the Nuclear Energy Institute.

 

 

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