Lately I’ve been having a lot of discussions with colleagues about various pathways to net zero carbon as we undertake the arduous task of preparing the US’s nationally-determined contributions to greenhouse gas emission reductions under the Paris Agreement. One topic which keeps bubbling to the surface is the role of nuclear energy. There is tremendous debate around nuclear power that will not subside any time soon.
On one hand, proponents argue the only way we can get to net zero carbon is by using nuclear energy, as renewable sources, such as wind and solar power generation, are insufficient to meet our energy needs. Bill Gates makes this point in his new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. Although Bill doesn’t need the publishing royalties, his book is worth reading.
Nuclear energy proponents suggest that new, smaller reactor designs are safer and do not pose the risks embedded in legacy nuclear plants — illustrated by the disasters at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. Based on what I’ve read, it appears they have a point. Without taking a significantly deeper dive into the engineering, there seems to be a good argument that next generation reactors do not present similar risk profiles.
Whether newer reactor designs are safer ignores a key point. Power generation at a nuclear plant is only one part of the larger nuclear fuel chain cycle. On the front end, we have to examine how uranium is sourced and refined prior to its use as fuel in a reactor, and on the back end, we need to determine how spent fuel and radioactive waste is disposed of.
For some background on the effect of uranium mining and milling on the public health of local communities check out Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed, a book by former LA Times reporter Judy Pasternak which provides a compelling account of uranium mining in Arizona’s Navajo country. Mining activities resulted in radioactivity poisoning drinking water sources and homes. To this day, there are communities that have no access to safe drinking water, and people are still suffering profound health effects.
As for disposal on the back end, radioactive waste generally comes in a couple flavors. First, we have the high-level waste that consists of the spent nuclear fuel rods. You do not want to be anywhere near this stuff, yet high level waste is piling up in locations across the country because construction of the site designated for disposal, the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada, has been politically stalled for decades because of opposition from Nevada’s congressional delegation and local communities.
In addition to high-level radioactive waste, we also have large volumes of waste that’s still radioactive, but not as hot as the spent fuel rods. The dilemma we face is the volume of this waste is poised to grow dramatically. Many of the US’s nuclear power plants are nearing the end of their life cycle and need to be decommissioned. That involves disassembling and disposing of large volumes of everything from concrete to pipes and equipment that has been irradiated over a plant’s life cycle. Last year the US Nuclear Regulatory Agency proposed a new interpretation of its waste disposal rules that would have permitted operators to dispose of this type of waste in virtually any landfill. I worked in collaboration with other lawyers and activists around the country to oppose this new regulatory interpretation, which we believe was initiated by the nuclear power industry as a cost savings measure. In short, it would be cheaper for operators to dump this waste in landfills than to dispose of it at more heavily regulated and licensed facilities. The NRC withdrew its proposed interpretation of the rule in the face of opposition from citizen groups and local governments, but the problem of how to dispose of this waste isn’t going away and we’re going to have to address the question sooner as opposed to later.
Are advocates right that nuclear energy is a crucial component of getting us to net zero carbon emissions? Maybe, but the answer isn’t easy. Regardless, I don’t believe we can have a meaningful discussion about nuclear energy unless we look beyond questions of reactor safety and address both the front and back-end of the entire nuclear fuel chain cycle. As a baseline, we have to provide real environmental justice and help the primarily indigenous communities whose homes and health have been wrecked by uranium mining and processing. That should be the first order of business.