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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.


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The Wolf in Zero Carbon Clothing

Posted on January 25, 2011

By H. Patricia Hynes

This essay is in response to: How can we integrate scientific evidence into our climate and energy policy choices?

An historic crossover took place in North Carolina in 2010: the cost of electricity per kilowatt hour generated from photovoltaics (PV), after steadily falling for decades, rivaled that of nuclear power. After 2010, PV electricity is projected to be less expensive in the state than that of nuclear, with a trend of rapidly divergent costs between the two energy sources. 

Why is this significant for climate change and energy policy choices? Policy talk about a “nuclear renaissance” abounds nationally and internationally, given the growing specter of climate change. Nuclear power is touted as a zero carbon energy source and then  bundled in with renewable energy technologies as the suite of clean energy technologies we must pursue to eliminate climate-change driving CO2 emissions.

But nuclear energy is a wolf in zero carbon clothing whose environmental health, international security, and economic impacts outweigh its energy benefits. In its life cycle, nuclear power generates radioactive tailings at mine and mill sites and creates spent nuclear fuel with no disposal solution. Nuclear power plants routinely release small amounts of radioactive isotopes during operation, and they can release large amounts during accidents. In this era of unconventional war, power plants are vulnerable to sabotage and attack; and existing evacuation plans in case of nuclear power plant accident are widely known to be unrealistic paper exercises. Energy reliance on water-intensive technologies is a fateful relationship, as illustrated in the summer, 2003, heat wave that gripped half of Europe and caused a record number of deaths. The prolonged heat wave triggered a water shortage resulting in insufficient water for electricity production for air conditioning. Hydropower production declined and nuclear power plants shut down causing industrial activity shutdowns, computers crashes, and harvest failures. Finally, nuclear power reactors generate the fissile materials enriched to fuel nuclear bombs and inevitably create the risk of nuclear weapons development.

What, then, are the possibilities for a carbon-free future? For one, the U.S. can emulate the commitment to conservation, mandatory green building design, renewable energy technologies and fuel efficient practices in Europe which has reduced the average carbon use per capita to one-half that of the average American. Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy, a study from the Nuclear Policy Research Institute and the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, lays out a carbon-free and nuclear-free roadmap for U.S. energy policy. In it, Arjun Makhijani analyzes more than 25 available and nearly available renewable technologies, green building design, high efficiency vehicles and fuels for readiness for large-scale use, next steps for large-scale implementation, and CO2 abatement costs. The overarching finding is that “a zero-CO2 energy economy can be achieved within the next thirty to fifty years without the use of nuclear power.” Further, their study found that eliminating CO2 emissions can be achieved with “available or foreseeable technologies,” at affordable cost, without buying carbon credits from other countries, and with phasing out oil imports within 25 years.

In 1980 I designed a passive solar house, based on my environmental engineering masters’ thesis. My builder was eager to learn solar design and went on to build dozens of similar houses over the next year. Federal and state tax credits for solar heating stimulated local industry and jobs, including small building businesses, a rooftop solar hot water heater build/install industry, and so on. By the end of 1981, solar tax credits were eliminated by the Reagan administration, demand for solar house design declined, new niche solar companies closed up shop, and reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear energy was re-instated as the direction of US energy policy. Conclusion: federal and state policy is a determining factor in sustainable energy and our climate future, together with social demand and business initiatives.


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