You Decide

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detail of green leaf, child gazing at colling towers, red radioactivity symbolImage CreditShould the United States build more nuclear power plants?

  • Yes? But have you considered...
  • No? But have you considered...

…nuclear power is the least practical option for reducing greenhouse gases?

With so many states already getting behind clean energy, why take a chance on an energy source we know is lethal?

Take California: State law requires that by 2020, greenhouse gases will be reduced 20 percent from 1990 levels. That same law mandates an 80 percent reduction by 2050.

Yes, the state relies on electricity from three existing nuclear power plants—two in Southern California and one in Arizona—but it’s not planning to break ground on new nuclear facilities to meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals. Instead, California is relying on a diverse electricity menu that includes energy efficiency, large solar plants, wind farms and combined heat-and-power units that capture excess heat from industrial operations.

In this green energy environment, building new nuclear reactors is not only outdated, but also impractical. The Sierra Club estimates that for nuclear energy to have a significant role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, a new nuclear reactor would have to come on-line every 45 days—an impossible schedule, as it now takes up to 10 years to build and license a single nuclear power plant.

Large solar and wind power plants, by contrast, can come on-line in a few years. In 2007 alone, the United States added 5,200 megawatts of wind power. In 2008, energy companies signed contracts for more than 5,000 megawatts of solar electricity. Meanwhile, we’ve been debating nuclear power for decades, and so far we haven’t seen a single new plant come on-line.

When compared with wind power, solar power and energy efficiency, nuclear power is a waste of time and effort.

… nuclear power is part of a practical solution to global warming?

The threat of climate change may be grave, but it doesn’t have to be lethal. Scientists estimate that if the world’s industrialized nations were to shut down their coal power plants, we could yet stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and spare the earth the worst depredations of global warming.

To do so, of course, we will need a readily available replacement that can provide a baseload source of power—that is, an energy source that can produce electricity around the clock.

It’s a tall order. Wind power is available only when the wind happens to blow—about 30 percent of the time on average. Solar power, too, has its constraints: It’s available only when and where the sun shines. Though geothermal energy may be able to run 24 hours a day, trapped steam is available only in certain places.

So wave the “green” flag if you like, but we’re not going to save the planet with experiments in renewable energy. Nuclear power, on the other hand, is proven, reliable and ready for construction. It remains the only alternative energy source that does not rely on the vagaries of local weather or geology to function. It can deliver a baseload level of electricity and produces no carbon emissions. 

Nuclear power is even better than coal in terms of reliability. A nuclear reactor can run for 18 to 24 months without a single shutdown, exceeding the running time of both coal and natural gas power plants. Nuclear power is also available more than 90 percent of the time, and unlike fossil-fuel power sources, nuclear power emits no air pollutants, such as sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, all of which can cause cancer and asthma in local communities.

Although nuclear power today provides just one-fifth of our energy, it already has had a significant impact on carbon emissions. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry lobbying group, nuclear-generated electricity prevents the emission of more than 2.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide worldwide each year. In the United States alone, they argue, nuclear power annually prevents nearly 700 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, coal power annually produces 2.1 billion metric tons of CO2—about 35 percent of all U.S. carbon emissions.

If you take global warming seriously, the question is not whether to build new nuclear power plants, but where and when to build them.

Considering this, should the United States build more nuclear power plants?

Nothing about the issues facing America today is black and white. With these You Decide activities, you can explore both sides of an issue, put your own critical thinking to work, and discuss the pros and cons with others. In the end, perhaps you will ask different — and better — questions than those presented here.


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