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Senate Letter on Nuclear Plant Subsidies

Dear Senator,

As medical health professionals from across the United States, we are deeply concerned about the serious consequences for human health posed by climate change.  Already we are seeing the symptoms of climate change in the form of more intense heat waves, worsening air quality, pest and water borne diseases and extreme weather events. Scientific consensus is that in order to mitigate climate change, we must act quickly and definitively to stabilize greenhouse gas pollution.  We are writing to urge you to pass climate change and energy legislation that supports solutions that will reduce greenhouse gases with the most economical, cleanest, and fastest approaches.  New nuclear reactors do not meet these criteria. 

Electricity produced by new reactors would cost two to three times more than renewable energy and efficiency measures.  Even prior to the current credit freeze, the nuclear industry was unable to borrow money from Wall Street, which deemed it too risky.  The nuclear industry is asking for over $100 billion in loan guarantees. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the likelihood of default on loans to build new reactors would be “very high -- well above 50 percent.” Both the Government Accountability Office and CBO have concluded that the credit subsidy cost (the risk of default) paid by the borrower is very difficult to calculate and is more likely to be underestimated than overestimated -- leaving U.S. taxpayers to bail out failed nuclear projects.

In addition to be extremely expensive, nuclear energy is also polluting. Uranium, which like coal must be extracted from the ground, has created serious health problems for communities surrounding mines and enrichment plants.  Uranium miners experience higher rates of lung cancer, tuberculosis, and other respiratory diseases. In addition, nuclear reactors create enormous quantities of radioactive waste each year, including 2,000 metric tons of high-level radioactive waste and 12 million cubic-feet of low-level radioactive waste in the U.S. alone.  More than 58,000 metric tons of spent fuel has already accumulated at reactor sites around the U.S. for which there is currently no permanent solution.  Reprocessing would only exacerbate the waste problem by creating proliferation threats, costing hundreds of billions of dollars, and creating complex waste streams to manage that threaten public health.

Nuclear power also requires large quantities of water for cooling. During droughts, which are expected to become more frequent and intense due to global warming, nuclear reactors are forced to reduce output or even shut down. Reactors may need to discharge hotter water during heat waves, which can be harmful to river ecosystems that cannot maintain healthy aquatic life above a certain temperature. During the heat wave of 2003, 17 French reactors were forced to power down or shut down completely as river water temperatures rose. 

Finally, nuclear reactors are slow to deploy.  A new reactor would take approximately 10 years to construct -- much longer than efficiency and renewable projects, which can be deployed in months or a couple of years. In order for nuclear energy to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a new reactor would need to come online every 18 days for 40 years. 

The task of dealing with climate change is formidable, but we must not delay because the cost of inaction is far greater.  Only sound investments in economical, expedient, and truly green technologies will allow us to avert the pending public health crisis caused by climate change.  Given the immediacy of the climate crisis we face, we should not waste our limited resources to subsidize new nuclear reactors, which are expensive, slow to construct, and polluting. Risking taxpayer money on loan guarantees and other finance mechanisms for new reactors is the least effective way of addressing the climate crisis.


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