By David Suzuki with Faisal Moola
One could be forgiven for thinking we’ve overcome the problems associated with nuclear power. Everywhere you turn, nuclear is being touted as a “green” energy source and a solution to global warming. Our prime minister recently sang the benefits of both nuclear power and uranium mining in a speech to a business crowd in London, England. “As the largest producer of uranium, we can contribute to the renaissance of nuclear energy, a no-emissions source that will be expanding here in Britain and around the world,” Stephen Harper said.
If only it were so easy. Those of us old enough to remember Chernobyl and Three Mile Island also remember a time of concern about nuclear waste, nuclear-weapons proliferation, accidents at nuclear power plants, pollution from uranium mining”¦
Have those problems gone away? Has science found a way to deal with them? Unfortunately, the answer is no – and those aren’t the only problems. Nuclear power is also expensive and heavily subsidized by taxpayers’ money, and it isn’t even totally emissions-free. Although nuclear energy’s ability to provide large-scale continuous power makes it tempting, we have better ways to deal with our energy needs.
To start, waste from uranium mining and nuclear power plants is a serious issue, especially considering that much of that waste is highly radioactive. Although we can recycle some waste from power production, we still haven’t really figured out what to do with most of it. One method for large-scale storage is to bury it, but that’s basically a policy of out-of-sight, out-of-mind – we don’t yet know the full consequences. It’s also expensive and the waste has to be transported over long distances where the probability of a mishap is very real.
And although nuclear has a relatively good safety record compared to some other large-scale energy technologies, the consequences of an accident can be far worse – as we learned when a reactor at a nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, Russia, exploded in 1986. It sent radioactive fallout into the air over Russia, Europe, and even parts of North America and led to an increase in cancers in the areas with the highest concentrations of fallout.
If nuclear energy really does expand “around the world”, as Prime Minister Harper predicts, the dangers of weapons proliferation will continue to grow.
Nuclear power plants also take a long time to build and are incredibly expensive – and are notorious for going massively over budget. Canada has subsidized the nuclear power industry to the tune of $20 billion over the past 50 years. Just think of what we could have done by putting that kind of money into renewable energy.
Nuclear energy isn’t even all that green when it comes to global warming. If you look at the life cycle of nuclear power, the technology produces greenhouse gases at every step, from energy-intensive uranium mining and transportation to constructing and decommissioning power plants. (Looking at the life cycle of energy technologies hasn’t been always been a common practice, but it’s an important step that has allowed us to identify problems with energy sources that look attractive at first glance, such as corn-based biofuels.)
If we were to look forward instead of backward, Canada could become a leader in energy technology and innovation. As costs for renewable energy go down, costs for old-school technologies like nuclear power and fossil fuels continue to rise. Advances have also been made in power-grid management, meaning renewable sources can be more easily integrated into energy systems.
The government of B.C. has recognized that nuclear energy isn’t a panacea; in April, it banned uranium mining in the province. Keep in mind that uranium is a limited resource. The European Commission estimated in 2001 that global supplies of uranium could last as few as 12 years if capacity increases substantially and will only last from about 40 to 70 years with current usage rates. Prices have already been skyrocketing as uranium becomes scarce.
As we rethink our energy future in light of the dangers of further increasing greenhouse gases, we have an enormous opportunity. I believe that rather than putting all of our faith in big technology (big dams, coal plants, nuclear), investing in a decentralized grid of diverse, small-scale renewable energy sources would be far more resilient and reliable.
We should all get behind renewable energy in order to avoid the dangers and expense of an expanding nuclear industry. But there’s something else we can do: use less energy. Conservation means we could avoid having to build expensive power plants, and we’d also have cleaner air and some real solutions to global warming. Many people have already switched to more energy-efficient appliances, as well as finding other ways to reduce energy consumption. All of those small things add up to make a big difference. People really do have the power.
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