Debunking the Nuclear Advantage

Unsafe and unclean, it is expensive and economically unsustainable: Now we know

Opinion | Jessica Spiegel | April 2011

The horrific events unfolding in Japan – revealed by footage of smoke-emitting reactors and abandoned towns in the contamination zone – are confirming suspicions that nuclear energy is neither clean nor safe. Tokyo’s drinking water has been declared hazardous to infants and consumers have been advised against eating vegetables grown in the prefecture that is home to the damaged Fukushima plant. Residents of northern Japan now live in the perpetual fear of radioactive poisoning.

The Japanese are not alone in their fears; a recent CBS poll revealed a 14 point drop since 2008 in U.S. citizens who approve the building of new nuclear plants – down to 43% – and only 35% believe our government could handle a nuclear accident. America’s nuclear plants, many of which closely resemble the Fukushima design, lie in precarious areas. Toxic tritium leaks have been discovered at 20 nuclear plants in the U.S., and still, the Obama Administration considers nuclear energy an integral part of its comprehensive energy plan – because of its reputation as a "green", carbon-free source of power – and the lobby pushing for new nuclear plants is growing louder.

Not only is nuclear energy unsafe and unclean, it is also expensive and economically unsustainable. To build a new plant costs an estimated $10 billion, most of which will come from taxpayers’ pockets, with lavish subsidies going to everything from construction to disposal of hazardous wastes. Recent studies have put the cost of a kilowatt hour of nuclear energy at two to three times that of current electricity rates. If these costs are combined with the expense of a disaster similar to Japan’s – not to mention the immeasurable human suffering – the logic in pressing for more nuclear energy becomes difficult to defend.

Meanwhile, the costs of truly clean, safe and renewable energy – in the form of wind, solar, hydrogen and the construction of highly efficient buildings – are dropping by the day. With government assistance wind energy can be as cheap as natural gas, and the price of producing solar energy is expected to drop more than 20% each time capacity doubles. These sources are also proving to be disaster-resistant: Off shore wind farms located less than 200 miles from the epicenter of the Mar. 11 earthquake remain fully functional and are lighting the homes in hard-hit areas while other power sources have failed.

The long-term health risks of the nuclear disaster in Japan are unforeseeable, as are the natural disasters that could strike a plant within U.S. borders. But for the time being, pro-nuclear advocates will continue with claims that no one in Japan has yet died of radioactive poisoning – even though thousands are still expected to die from the Chernobyl nuclear tragedy and even more will perish as a result of pollution emitted from the burning of fossil fuels.

Thanks to industry-friendly politicians, subsidies will be secured for the dirtiest and most dangerous energy sources, while truly clean, safe, renewable and affordable sources wait at our doorstep.

How long will it take for our leaders to take notice?

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