(April 25, 2006 WashingtonDC) The 20th anniversary of the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl is a stark reminder that nuclear power is the last technology in the world we should be pursuing to lessen global warming.
On this day we mourn all those who lost their lives, those who were forced to leave their homes, those who have already suffered radiation-induced cancers, and those who live in fear of cancer. Seven million people are suffering as a result of the accident. There is a dead zone the size of Rhode Island where humans are banned.
Last year PR flacks for the nuclear power industry began touting a vast world-wide expansion in nuclear plants. This go-round, they’re peddling nuclear power as the solution to global warming in a multi-million dollar ad campaign that portrays nuclear power as clean and carbon-free. But the nuclear industry has yet to solve some critical problems that have killed new reactor orders since the 1970s. Two of the worst are the failure to create a repository for nuclear waste, and the intimate and unbreakable connection to the proliferation of nuclear weapons to more and more unstable countries.
Let’s start with disposing of high-level nuclear wastes, which must be isolated from all living things for thousands of years. There is no repository for these wastes, and it will be many years before the first one opens (if one ever does). As spent fuel rods accumulate on the grounds of every commercial reactor, those sites have become de-facto high level nuclear waste dumps, housing in buildings that are flimsy compared to the nuclear reactor containment buildings beside them. These spent-fuel buildings are one of the most vulnerable points of the nuclear power fuel cycle. A small group of terrorists with hand-carried weapons could blow one open, with the possibility of producing a highly-radioactive cloud of debris that would bring Chernobyl -like devastation or worse as it passed over.
Now we go to proliferation. In a post-9/11 world, I now believe that nuclear power’s greatest liability is accelerating the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the greater and greater likelihood that a failed state or a terrorist group will use one or more of these nuclear weapons.
By building so many more reactors, we vastly expand the number of scientists and engineers with knowledge about working with nuclear materials. And as we have seen, in country after country, civilian nuclear power programs have been used as a cover for developing nuclear weapons. The current stand-off over Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program turns exactly on this point, with the Iranians claiming they are doing civilian research. But atoms are atoms, and uranium and plutonium will fission and give off energy wherever you choose to put them, whether in a power plant or the core of an atomic bomb.
In the light of Chernobyl, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, nuclear power plants are one of the worst possible technologies we could spread across the world. We already know that investing in end-use energy efficiency would get seven times as much reduction in demand per dollar spent compared to producing the same amount of electricity in a nuclear plant. And the efficiency route would also produce real savings quickly, compared with nuclear plants that have taken five or more years to build.
The genie may already be out of the bottle for existing nuclear weapons states, but we should be doing everything possible to keep that genie from expanding any further.
Contact: Dick Bell, 202-669-4125