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Nuclear energy’s impact on emissions ‘too little, too late’

89572_nuclear_smoke1Building more nuclear power plants is too slow and costly a way to cut carbon emissions and fight climate change, according to a new study from an environmental organisation in the US.

A better approach would be to invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy, both of which could yield benefits far more quickly, the report concluded.

“Generating Failure: How Building Nuclear Power Plants Would Set America Back in the Race Against Global Warming” was produced by Environment Illinois.

“When it comes to global warming, time and money are of the essence and nuclear power will fail America on both accounts,” said Brian Granahan, staff attorney and clean energy advocate with Environment Illinois. “With government dollars more precious than ever, nuclear power is a foolish investment that will set us back in the race against global warming.”

Some of the report’s key findings include:

  • To avoid the most catastrophic impacts of global warming, the US must cut power plant emissions roughly in half over the next 10 years.
  • Nuclear power is too slow to contribute to this effort. No new reactors are now under construction in the US, and building a single reactor could take 10 years or longer. As a result, it is quite possible that nuclear power could deliver no progress in the critical next decade, despite spending billions on reactor construction.
  • Even if the nuclear industry somehow managed to build 100 new nuclear reactors by 2030, nuclear power could reduce total US emissions of global warming pollution over the next 20 years by only 12 per cent — far too little, too late.
  • In contrast, energy efficiency and renewable energy can immediately reduce global warming pollution. Energy efficiency programs are already cutting electricity consumption by 1 – 2 per cent annually in leading states, and the US wind industry is already building the equivalent of three nuclear reactors per year in wind farms.
  • Building 100 new reactors would require an upfront investment on the order of $600 billion dollars — money that could cut at least twice as much carbon pollution by 2030 if invested in clean energy. Taking into account the ongoing costs of running the nuclear plants, clean energy could deliver five times more pollution-cutting progress per dollar.
  • Nuclear power is not necessary to provide clean, carbon-free electricity for the long haul. The need for base-load power is exaggerated and small-scale clean energy solutions can actually enhance the reliability of the electric grid.

“We can spend $600 billion on nuclear power and fail to make a difference until it is too late,” said Granahan. “Or we could spend the same money on energy efficiency and clean energy, and achieve twice the carbon reductions at a much faster pace.”

The report, which stresses the need for immediate emissions reductions from existing power resources, comes within days of scheduled US Environmental Protection Agency hearings on a proposed rule to curb emissions from large polluters such as oil refineries and coal plants.

“As we work to clean up our old, dirty coal plants, the emphasis must be moving forward to a cleaner future, not turning the clock back,” Granahan said. “But by diverting resources away from energy efficiency and renewable energy, investments in a fleet of new nuclear plants would do just that, setting us back many years in the battle against global warming and setting us up to fail.”

“New nuclear power investments would actually worsen climate change because the money spent on nuclear reactors would not be available for solutions that fight it faster and at lower cost,” said Peter Bradford, a former US Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner. “Counting on new nuclear reactors as a climate change solution is no more sensible than counting on an un-built dam to create a lake to fight a nearby forest fire.”

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