Nuclear Energy: the Case Against

"We do not need to plunge headlong into a nuclear future," argues Serhii Plokhy, author of the book Atoms and Ashes: From Bikini Atoll to Fukushima. He notes Belgium's adding a 10-year extension to the life of two of its nuclear reactors, France's program to build 14 new reactors, and Boris Johnson's pledge to create supply 25% of the UKs power needs with nuclear energy by 2050. On the surface, the switch to nuclear makes sense. It would not only enable European countries to meet their ambitious net zero targets, since it produces no CO2. It would also make them less vulnerable to Russian threats, and allow them to stop financing the Russian war machine.... What the Russian takeover of [Ukraine] nuclear facilities exposed is a hazard inherent in all nuclear power. In order for this method of producing electricity to be safe, everything else in society has to be functioning perfectly. Warfare, economic collapse, climate change itself — all of these increasingly real risks make nuclear sites potentially perilous places. Even without them, the dangers of atomic fission remain, and we must ask ourselves: are they really worth the cost...? Technological developments, growing international cooperation and rising safety standards did indeed do a great deal to ensure that no major nuclear accident occurred for 25 years after Chernobyl. But the Fukushima explosions demonstrated that such improvements have not eradicated the dangers surrounding nuclear power plants.... Can anything be done to make reactors safer? A new generation of smaller modular reactors, designed from scratch to produce energy, not to facilitate warfare, has been proposed by Bill Gates, and embraced, among others, by Macron. The reactors promised by Gates's TerraPower company are still at the computer-simulation stage and years away from construction. But his claim that in such reactors "accidents would literally be prevented by the laws of physics" must be taken with a pinch of salt, as there are no laws of war protecting either old or new reactors from attack. There is also serious concern that the rapid expansion in the number of plants, advocated as a way of dealing with climate change, will increase the probability of accidents. While new technology will help to avoid some of the old pitfalls, it will also bring new risks associated with untried reactors and systems. Responsibility for dealing with such risks is currently being passed on to future generations. This is the second great risk from nuclear power: even if a reactor runs for its lifetime without incident, you still have a lot of dangerous material left at the end of it. Fuel from nuclear power plants will present a threat to human life and the environment for generations to come, with the half-life of some radioactive particles measured in tens of thousands of years.... Nuclear power plants generally have no alternative to storing their high-level radioactive waste on site....If what we bury today in the New Mexico desert — the waste created by our nuclear ambitions — is so repulsive to us, why do we pass it on to others to deal with? The author's counter-proposal: expanding the use of renewable energy: New research should be encouraged, grid infrastructure should be built up, and storage capacity increased. Billions that would otherwise go to new nuclear infrastructure, with all the attendant costs of cleanup that continue for decades and beyond, should be pumped instead into clean energy. In the meantime, we obviously have an existing nuclear industry, and the solution is not to run away in panic, but to take good care of the facilities that already dot our countryside. We must not abandon the industry to its current state of economic hardship, as that would only mean inviting the next accident sooner rather than later.

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