New Debate Over Nuclear Option

Supporters of nuclear energy say it's a safe, clean alternative to traditional sources. A new report argues it's not as clean as many think

In recent years, as prices for oil have surged and concerns over global warming have grown, experts around the world have debated ways to develop alternatives to traditional energy, from using corn for ethanol to harnessing wind for electricity. And governments from India to Britain to the U.S. are considering whether to make more use of a long-standing, but controversial energy source: nuclear power.

In the U.S., politicians as diverse as President George W. Bush and onetime rival Al Gore have expressed interest in expanding nuclear power (see, 3/21/07, "Gore Rings a Green Alarm"). A key reason is nuclear power's reputation for being clean, because such plants typically don't generate the carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming. Just this month, Exelon (EXC) won approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for a site on which they could build the first new U.S. nuclear power plant since 1979.

The controversy, of course, has long been over the hazards of using radioactive materials to produce energy. Twenty-eight years ago this week, on Mar. 28, 1979, an accident at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania sparked protests against nuclear plants in the U.S. The movement was solidified seven years later by the Chernobyl meltdown in the Soviet Union. Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club remain staunchly opposed to nuclear power.

A Popular Perception Challenged

Now, some scientists and other experts are beginning to raise a different question about nuclear power: Is it really as clean as supporters contend? A report, released on Mar. 26 by a British nongovernmental organization called the Oxford Research Group, disputes the popular perception that nuclear is a clean energy source. It argues that while nuclear plants may not generate carbon dioxide while they operate, the other steps necessary to produce nuclear power, including the mining of uranium and the storing of waste, result in substantial amounts of carbon dioxide pollution. "As this report shows, hopes for the climate-protecting potential of nuclear energy are entirely misplaced," says Jürgen Trittin, a former minister of the environment in Germany and a contributor to the report. "Nuclear power cannot be promoted on environmental grounds."

The report, called "Secure Energy? Civil Nuclear Power, Security and Global Warming," examines a number of risks from nuclear power development, including concerns over the disposal of radioactive waste and the threats from terrorist groups. But its most novel component may be the quantitative examination of carbon emissions on a comprehensive basis. "Carbon emissions are a global problem and it's time to look at the carbon released by nuclear power globally," says Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen, author of the report's chapter on carbon emissions. "The assumption has long been that the [greenhouse] effect is zero, but the evidence shows otherwise." The report comes as British Prime Minister Tony Blair is pushing to build a new generation of nuclear plants in the name of curbing global warming.

Environmental groups like Greenpeace, the Rocky Mountain Institute and Germany's Öko-Institut have argued in recent years that nuclear power comes with hidden carbon emissions. But the Oxford Research Group study is the most quantitative and up-to-date advancement of this assertion, as its authors look to steer the fierce policy debate stirring in Britain.

Looking at the Numbers

Supporters of nuclear power dismiss the arguments as disingenuous. "It's a silly argument," says Craig Nesbit, a spokesperson for Chicago-based Exelon, the largest U.S. provider of nuclear power. "It's an argument environmentalists against [nuclear power] have concocted to make it sound like nuclear is not a carbon emission-free energy source, when in fact it is." Nesbit says that based on such an approach even wind or solar power create carbon emissions.

True enough, van Leeuwen says. But he argues that it's precisely this kind of overall approach that's necessary to understand the carbon impact of new energy sources. The British report says that nuclear's carbon emissions "lie somewhere between renewable energy sources and fossil fuels." The report estimates that while coal, the primary source of electric power in the U.S., produces 755 grams of carbon per kilowatt hour, the range for nuclear is between 10 and 150 grams per kilowatt hour. Wind power is 11 to 37 grams.

But van Leeuwen contends that nuclear will become more carbon polluting over time. The reason is that it will become more difficult to do things like extract uranium ore and store nuclear waste, requiring more materials, equipment, and energy. The report calculates that if world nuclear generating capacity remains at today's level—just over 2% of the world's energy supply—then by 2070 uranium-fueled nuclear power would produce as much CO&sub2; as a gas-fired power station, or nearly 400 grams of carbon per kilowatt hour. If the world increases its use of nuclear power, the emissions could go even higher. "The claim of the nuclear industry that nuclear power emits low levels of CO&sub2; and other greenhouse gases is not based on scientifically verifiable evidence," reads the report.

Moving Ahead, Slowly

Authors of the report also say that since building nuclear plants can take up to 10 years, they wouldn't help curb carbon emissions within the next decade, which is the time frame many scientists say bold steps must be taken to slow the warming trend. "It's a case of too little, too late," says van Leeuwen, a physical chemist and a member of the review panel for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (The IPCC is the international group of scientists that issued a report in February confirming that global warming is a real phenomenon, and that humans are its main agents.)

While Exelon has won preliminary approval for its new nuclear plant in Clinton (Ill.), it isn't proceeding with construction right away. Nesbit says the company will not go ahead with building the Clinton plant until it's clear that market conditions and local support for the plant are favorable. The decision to commit the $6 billion to $10 billion for construction could take several years.

Nesbit says that a majority of Americans support nuclear power now—provided there is adequate plant security. Exelon is moving cautiously, exploring other sites in Texas. "The bottom line is that you can't be carbon emissions-free on a mass scale without nuclear power," Nesbit says.

Other U.S.-based nuclear power providers are seeking opportunities, too. Charlotte (N.C.)-based Duke Energy (DUK), the fourth-largest provider of nuclear power in the U.S., is looking to construct more plants. The company's Chief Executive Officer, Jim Rogers, testified before a joint House of Representatives committee on Mar. 20, calling for more openness to the nuclear option, as well as a mandatory cap on carbon emissions in the U.S. That day, the utilities commission in North Carolina green-lighted the company's efforts to build a new nuclear plant in Cherokee County, S.C., jointly owned by Southern Company (SO).

Revisiting Positions

Nuclear power producers are hoping the tide of public fear and environmentalist opposition is turning. While not voicing outright support, a handful of American environmental groups have recently expressed openness to at least consider nuclear power as part of the energy mix of the future. The Union of Concerned Scientists, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Environmental Defense are among those expressing cautious openness. The Union of Concerned Scientists said in a position paper this month that atomic energy "should be considered as a longer-term option if other climate-neutral means for producing electricity prove inadequate," though it opposes new capacity until problems like waste disposal are resolved. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has also expressed support for exploring ways to get more nuclear plants on line.

Still, many of the best-known environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, are opposed to nuclear power because of concerns about the disposal of radioactive waste, the proliferation of deadly nuclear material, and the high cost of constructing nuclear plants. In addition, the location slated by the U.S. government to store the bulk of U.S. nuclear waste, Yucca Mountain in Nevada, is not permitted to do so because of fierce opposition from Nevada residents and politicians.

For now, nuclear supporters will proceed cautiously with plans to expand operations. But they could be hindered if groups like the Oxford Research Group can convince the public and governments around the world that even the safest nuclear operation won't help stop global warming.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.