The nuclear solution to climate change is similar to Sherlock Holmes’ 7% solution. It might be temporarily effective, with terrible consequences down the road.
The point of working against climate change is to preserve the environment (which is our life support system) instead of degrading it as climate change will do. When the nuclear power industry promotes the view that nuclear power is “the solution” to climate change, that misses entirely the point of working against climate change.
It is true, in the narrowest sense, that nuclear reactors do not emit greenhouse gases. In that narrow sense, they do not contribute to climate change. Leave aside for the moment the question of how much in the way of greenhouse gases are emitted creating the steel, concrete, copper, etc. to build the plants. Also leave aside for the moment the question of how much more greenhouse gases are emitted mining, extracting and concentrating the uranium to fuel the reactors.
Let’s look at what nuclear reactors do emit.
In “normal” operations, a reactor leaks radioactive materials, largely tritium, into the environment. And in the catastrophic mode of operation (a meltdown), a reactor blasts tons and tons of extremely radioactive material into the environment – radioactive cesium, strontium and iodine in addition to uranium, plutonium and other materials.
In catastrophic mode, the Chernobyl meltdown caused hundreds of square miles to be permanently evacuated. Reindeer, which concentrate radioactivity by eating lichen which themselves concentrate radioactive materials, will not be fit for human consumption for generations. This is also true of many other forms of wildlife downstream or downwind from Chernobyl.
In catastrophic mode, 3 reactors at Fukushima also caused hundreds of square miles to be evacuated. Officials in Japan, responding to the wishes of Tepco, the company that owns the reactors, are pushing for risky early resettlement of some of these areas, although the so-called cleanup has been inadequate and temporary. The Fukushima reactors have also been spilling radioactive materials and water into the Pacific Ocean for 5 years now, and will continue to do so indefinitely into the future.
Plants in the ocean, and then fish that feed on the plants, and then fish that feed on smaller fish, concentrate radioactive materials dissolved in the water. Consequently, eating Pacific tuna, salmon and other fish is not nearly as safe as it was before the Fukushima disaster. Nothing is going to change this situation, besides making it incrementally worse, in the foreseeable future.
That’s four reactors so far, out of roughly 500 large reactors in the world, that have gone full-on catastrophic. Several others, such as Fermi 1 and Three Mile Island in the Unite3d States, have had partial meltdowns, which destroyed the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in them and caused more hundreds of millions to be spent on cleanups which are not yet complete.
Given that reactors are more accident-prone as they age and their components fail, it’s reasonable to say that the odds of a disaster are so far around 1% over the lifetime of a given reactor, and those odds are creeping upward. It depends on what you call a disaster. If only total meltdowns are counted, the odds are still under 1%. If you count reactor self-destruction with “minimal” radioactive release as a disaster, then the odds are already considerably closer to 2%.
This does not even consider long-term consequences of the thousands of tons of high-level (intensely radioactive) waste that reactors generate in the form of spent fuel. No solution for how to safely store spent fuel has been found. Let’s repeat that, in all capital letters: NO SOLUTION FOR HOW TO SAFELY STORE SPENT FUEL HAS BEEN FOUND. None.
In summary, nuclear reactors degrade their immediate environment in normal operation. The destroy great swaths of the environment in case of meltdown, and degrade much more that is downstream or downwind. And long-term, reactors have already created enough high-level waste to to destroy the environment all over the earth, unless we can discover or invent a way to store it properly.
Putting spent fuel in dry cask storage units is safer than leaving it in already overcrowded spent fuel pools at reactor sites. Each new dry cask should be good for a hundred years or so. That should buy time to figure out some ultimate means of safe storage, keeping this stuff out of our biosphere for the next million years. That’s by no means guaranteed to be successful, but it is what we ought to try.
Now, if the point of working against climate change is to preserve the environment which is our life support system instead of degrading it, that’s also the point of working to prevent any more nuclear reactors from being built. It’s the point of working to close down the nuclear reactors that already exist. It’s the point of putting spent fuel in dry cask storage as rapidly as possible.
There is no reason to call nuclear power “the solution” for climate change. It makes no more sense than calling amputation “the solution” for a broken arm. It is true that after amputation, you’ll no longer worry about the arm being broken. If we build a bunch of new nuclear reactors, soon we will not need to worry about climate change.