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The Case for Rationalism Regarding Nuclear Energy

An opinion on nuclear energy versus fossil fuels

We have all heard the term carbon footprint before. In fact, I would guess you haven’t just heard it, but even had it verbally inscribed on your brain on every Earth Day in elementary school. You’re told to wear a sweater instead of turning up the heat, to turn off the lights when you leave a room, to eat less meat, among other little inconveniences. We all know that some small deprivations of comfort here and there are not going to turn the tide of global warming. Unless you want to go and live like Ted Kaczynski, the reality is that there isn’t that much you can do to directly reduce carbon emissions. So why is so much of the blame thrown onto the consumer? Why do we even use the term “carbon footprint” if the foot in question is effectively being pressed into the ground by external factors? The answer is simple.

The concept rose to popularity in the early 2000s after BP, the second-largest privately owned oil company on the planet, released its “carbon footprint calculator.” The company had hired the PR firm Ogilvy & Mather to improve its public image. In what I would call one of the most successful public relations campaigns in modern history, they were able to shift the blame away from multi-billion dollar corporations and onto consumers like you and me. Today, the term is one that no one blinks at.

This is a powerful lesson in the power of public relations, particularly when it comes to climate law. Contrary to BP’s propaganda, global warming can be stopped only legislatively, so public understanding of the issues is fundamental to progress. To make sure that happens, being logical in our approach to climate issues is paramount. Unfortunately, this is often more an ideal than a reality. One of the most glaring oversights of this kind is public opinion regarding nuclear power.

It is clean, reliable, and is not dependent on still-emerging technology. Nuclear power offers us the clearest path to sustainability today. If we actually wanted to reduce emissions, we should be scaling up nuclear power. Instead, we have seen the opposite. Germany has been scaling back its reliance on nuclear power for a while, and this year they closed the last of their plants. What has the result been? Reliance on Russian natural gas imports. Since the conflict in Ukraine has put a stop to those imports, Germany has been forced to go back to burning coal, the most harmful fossil fuel, just to keep the power on. This is not an isolated issue. Nuclear power plants everywhere are being closed and the construction of others is frequently prevented. The United States has seen 12 reactors close since 2013; just one has opened and it was less than two months ago. In fact, the recent additions of two reactors to Georiga’s Plant Vogtle are the first new ones to be approved in the US in the past three decades. Much of continental Europe, including Denmark, Switzerland, and Italy, have phased out or have plans to phase out nuclear power altogether. As a result, nuclear power accounts for less and less of the world’s energy production.

Anti-nuclear groups claim that phasing out nuclear power is a necessary step in expanding the use of renewable energy. A German official cited it as a primary reason for their quashing of nuclear energy to CNN. But where is that slack really being picked up? The unsurprising answer is fossil fuels. Since 1995, global nuclear power generation has decreased by seven percent to about eleven per cent of the world’s power. During that time, wind and solar construction has increased by just under four percent, not nearly enough to make up the difference. If we take a look at countries that have replaced nuclear power, we rarely find renewables filling its shoes. Japan, which got twenty-nine per cent of its power from nuclear energy prior to Fukushima, now gets just three per cent. Consequently, their reliance on coal and natural gas has increased greatly, now accounting for thirty-two and forty-two per cent of power generation respectively. Meanwhile, Germany now draws thirty per cent of its power from coal, although they hope to phase it out by 2038. As for plant closures in the United States, major plants in Florida and California were replaced with natural gas generation. In Wisconsin, the closures were compensated primarily by coal. If eliminating nuclear power seems only to give way to less clean energy, why is it still so common? Two reasons: special interests and emotions.

Starting with the former, I should make it clear that there is no coalition of fossil fuel giants funding a covert anti-nuclear PR campaign (as far as we know, at least). Save for a $200,000 dollar donation to Friends of the Earth, an anti-nuclear group, by Robert O. Anderson, a petroleum executive, in the 1970s, the battle has more been one of lobbying. Pretty much all energy sectors receive federal subsidies, but there’s only so much to go around. Through the magic of lobbying, the fossil fuel industry, with groups like the American Petroleum Institute, has managed to secure tens of billions of dollars in annual subsidies from the US government and inflated the danger of nuclear power to lawmakers. While the six billion dollars in aid to struggling nuclear plants approved last year is a step in the right direction, it simply is not enough. Cost represents the biggest real barrier to nuclear power. It is incredibly expensive to build a reactor, meaning that substantial government assistance is a must.

Probably the single most mentioned reason for getting rid of nuclear power is the risk it poses to those nearby. Since Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima, there has been a degree of panichysteria surrounding any discussion of safety with respect to nuclear power plants. Germany had already been gradually scaling down its nuclear generation, but after Fukushima in 2011, things greatly accelerated and there was a clear policy shift for then-chancellor Angela Merkel, who had previously been pro-nuclear. These fears are understandable. When we hear the horror stories of meltdowns (or watch incredibly graphic HBO series about them), it is easy to feel repulsed by the construction of new plants. However, if we take a step back and actually look at the numbers, we get a very different picture.

Nuclear power, by the ratio of power generated to deaths caused, is among the safest of any power source. In fact, those three major meltdowns I just mentioned resulted in just 32 deaths; 31 of those were from Chernobyl. For reference, wind turbine accidents have claimed 78 lives since the 1970s. Note that there has been controversy regarding the death toll of Chernobyl due to the Soviet Union’s deliberate lack of transparency regarding the incident. The UN estimates that up to 4,000 additional casualties may eventually be attributed to the disaster due to radiation poisoning. Additionally, the surrounding area has been rendered uninhabitable for 20,000 years. These are naturally alarming statistics, but if we consider that fossil fuels result in an estimated 8.7 million deaths each year from pollution, we get a little perspective. Further, Chernobyl was an isolated incident resulting from, yes, a nuclear plant, but also poor maintenance, poor safety standards, and blunderous handling. Nothing like it has ever come close to happening again. In the more than a quarter of a century that has since passed, the only meltdown we have seen resulted from a natural disaster of immense scale and resulted in only a single death.

It is understandable to have a reaction to the historical calamities caused by nuclear power, but that does not make it acceptable to make policy decisions that will affect millions of people based on emotional rather than rational reactions. Even if we want to view nuclear power as a purely transitional technology as we move towards a totally renewable future, we must acknowledge its importance in the present when, as much as we do not want to believe it, renewable energy technology is not capable of sustaining us. Right now, every plant closure just means more burning coal and more blackened lungs. If we are willing to identify global warming as the preeminent threat to our society that it is, we should look to realistic solutions, not just the ones that sound nice. Our climate discourse should be shaped by ideas that address the reality and logistics of our situation, not idealism and big oil’s talking points.