Californians might have thought the subject of nuclear power was laid to rest in 1976, when the state banned construction of new plants. But 32 years is a long time, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger can now be counted among a rising number of people who think that the threat of global warming provides a good reason to reconsider our distaste for radioactive waste.
If he’s sending up this idea as a trial balloon, we’d like to borrow Schwarzenegger’s Harrier jet from “True Lies” to blow it out of the sky.
In a recent speech in Santa Barbara, Schwarzenegger decried environmentalists who use scare tactics to “frighten everyone that we’re going to have another blowup and all of those things.” He was referring to the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island disasters, which thoroughly soured Americans on the concept of nuclear power. It’s true that Chernobyl was an ill-maintained monstrosity, and nuclear safety has improved since the 1979 Three Mile Island meltdown. It’s flatly wrong to conclude that this means nuclear plants are safe.
Nuclear waste remains highly toxic not for a few years but for millenniums; if the ancient Egyptians who built the Great Pyramid had also built nuclear plants, the waste would still be deadly. This material is being stored on-site at nuclear plants, including the two in California (San Onofre and Diablo Canyon) because Congress has been unable to agree on the location for a national repository. As these plants age, the chance of a system failure increases.
“There’s no greenhouse gas emissions” with nuclear plants, Schwarzenegger told the Sacramento Bee. This is a constant refrain of the nuclear power industry, but it isn’t true. Nuclear plants are fueled by uranium, which is becoming harder to find; uranium mining generates a good deal of carbon, which increases as we dig deeper for the radioactive material. Although nuclear power is considerably cleaner from a greenhouse-gas standpoint than alternatives such as coal-generated power, those mining emissions are nonetheless significant.
More compellingly, given the cost and time frame for building nuclear plants, it would be impossible to build them quickly enough to make an impact on global warming. There are safer, quicker, cheaper and cleaner alternatives, such as solar and wind power, greater efficiency measures and decentralized power generators that produce electricity and heat water at the same time. Let’s exhaust them before even considering the nuclear option.