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The debate over nuclear energy is heating up again. While many argue that it’s unsafe, just as many people see it as the only viable option to combat climate change. President Barack Obama has taken up this second position, calling for “a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country,” last week during his State of the Union address.
But his remarks may have been unfortunately timed. Just as he was touting the merits of nuclear energy, a plant in Vermont was actively leaking radioactive tritium.
While the amount of the substance found hasn’t presented a safety concern yet, according to health officials, it has brought a more troubling statistic to light: Similar problems of varying sizes have occurred at more than 20 nuclear plants in the U.S. over the last several years. The public hasn’t heard about many of them because they haven’t resulted in health problems. But just the idea of radioactive material being accidentally released calls to mind disasters like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island — cautionary tales that have kept nuclear development stagnant for more than a decade.
With more leaks springing up just as many plants are coming to the end of their 40-year licenses, the future of nuclear as a major source of energy in the U.S. — despite the president’s endorsement — is looking pretty bleak. It’s unlikely that people will support the construction of new plants as many old ones are being condemned and decommissioned. In almost every case, there are too many questions about waste disposal, drinking-water contamination, and real estate prices to move forward.
But this hasn’t deterred Obama, who got a big and rare round of applause from the right side of the aisle when he trumpeted new funding for nuclear during his speech. Republicans like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) have long been proponents of nuclear as the best, greenest option for power generation. Perhaps to appease him and his cohort, Obama proposed that loan guarantees to nuclear projects be tripled to more than $54 billion. This money will be vital to the construction of a new generation of reactors.
But the new push for nuclear isn’t just a hat-tip to conservatives. It’s also necessary if the U.S. is going to hit Obama’s ambitious greenhouse gas emissions targets. Even though Congress has yet to pass a climate bill making these cuts federal law, the president has very publicly announced that America will slash its emissions by 17 percent (below 2005 levels) by 2020, and by 80 percent by the year 2050. Solar, wind and geothermal — even combined — won’t be able to hit these numbers. Nuclear will have to be part of the power mix.
Nuclear reactors generate a staggering amount of energy. Just one can produce more than a gigawatt of emissions-free power — enough for roughly 1 million homes — and the equivalent of 2,500 wind turbines. In 2008, the U.S. had 104 nuclear power plants (none younger than 13 years old), and they generated 19.6 percent of the country’s energy. All the solar panels and wind turbines combined only accounted for 5 percent of the country’s energy that year. That puts the issue in stark perspective.
Will Obama, fortified by bi-partisan support and new money, get his way? If his plan moves forward, more leaks and potential dangers are sure to surface. Will the public react as negatively as it has in the past if nuclear can be successfully green-washed? And will solar and wind suffer if nuclear proves itself to be the magic bullet many politicians say it is? If the State of the Union was any indicator, it looks like we’ll get some answers this year.