Monday, October 17, 2005

An Environmentalist Revisits Nuclear Energy

An Environmentalist Revisits Nuclear Energy

By Patrick Moore, PhD

Nuclear energy is the only non-greenhouse-gas-emitting power source that can effectively replace fossil fuels and satisfy global energy demand.

Yet it’s clear to me that much of the environmental movement—including Greenpeace, the group I co-founded and helped lead for 15 years—has lost its way, caught up in politically correct ideology and stooping to sensationalism to garner support.

As a prime example, Greenpeace and others fail to consider the enormous and obvious benefits of harnessing nuclear power to meet and secure America’s growing energy needs.

These benefits far outweigh the risks. There is now a great deal of scientific evidence showing nuclear power to be an environmentally sound and safe choice.

Today nuclear energy supplies 20 percent of U.S. electrical energy. The demand for electricity continues to rise and, in the coming decades, may increase by 50 percent over current levels. If nothing is done to revitalize the U.S. nuclear industry, the industry’s contribution to meeting U.S. energy demands could drop from 20 percent to 9 percent.

What sources of energy would make up the difference? It is virtually certain that the only technically feasible path is an even greater reliance on fossil fuels. According to the Clean Air Council, annual power plant emissions are responsible for 36 percent of carbon dioxide, 64 percent of sulfur dioxide, 26 percent of nitrogen oxides and 33 percent of mercury emissions

These four pollutants cause significant environmental impact, including acid rain, smog, respiratory illness, mercury contamination, and are the major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.

Prominent environmental figures like Steward Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, Gaia theorist James Lovelock and the late Bishop Hugh Montefiore, former Friends of the Earth leader, have stated their strong support for nuclear energy as a practical means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while meeting the world’s increasing energy demands.

I place myself squarely in that category. Indeed, nuclear power is already a proven alternative to fossil fuels.

Nuclear energy prevents the release of 697 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air, had this electricity been produced by coal. In fact, the electricity sector’s carbon emissions would have been 28 percent higher without nuclear power.

Nuclear energy is the only non-greenhouse-gas-emitting power source that can effectively replace fossil fuels and satisfy global energy demand.

A doubling of nuclear energy production would make it possible to reduce significantly total greenhouse gas emissions nationwide.

But I also believe there should be a much greater emphasis on renewable energy production. The two most important renewable energy technologies are wind energy, which has great potential, and ground-source heat pumps, known as geothermal or GeoExchange.

Answering Nuclear Energy’s Critics

As Brand and other forward-thinking environmentalists and scientists have made clear, technology has progressed to the point where activist fear mongering about the safety of nuclear energy bears no resemblance to reality.

The Chernobyl and Three Mile Island reactors, often raised as examples of nuclear catastrophe by activists, were very different from today’s rigorously safe nuclear energy technology. Chernobyl was an accident waiting to happen: bad design, shoddy construction, poor maintenance and unprofessional operation all combined to cause the only terrible accident in reactor history. Three Mile Island was a success story in that the radiation from the partially melted core was contained by the concrete containment structure; it did the job it was designed to do.

Today, approximately one-third of the cost of a nuclear reactor is dedicated to safety systems and infrastructure. There are over 100 nuclear reactors in the United States and more than 400 worldwide that are producing electricity every day without serious incident.

The fact that reactors produce nuclear waste is often used to support opposition to them. First, there is no technical obstacle to keeping nuclear waste from entering the environment at harmful levels. Second, this is already being accomplished at hundreds of nuclear power sites around the world. It is simply an issue of secure containment and maintenance. Most important, the spent fuel from reactors still has over 95 percent of its potential energy contained within it. Spent fuel should be stored securely so that in the future we can use this energy productively.

Nuclear reactors produce plutonium that can be extracted and manufactured into nuclear weapons. This is unfortunate but is not in itself justification for eliminating nuclear energy. It appears that the main technologies that have resulted in combat deaths in recent years are machetes, rifles, and car bombs. No one would seriously suggest banning machetes, guns, cars or the fertilizer and diesel that explosives are made from. Nuclear proliferation must be addressed as a separate policy issue from the production of nuclear energy.

Other Benefits From Nuclear Energy

Nuclear power offers an important and practical pathway to the proposed “hydrogen economy.” Unfortunately there are no hydrogen mines where we can source this element directly. It must be manufactured, from fossil fuels, biomass, or by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen. Splitting water is the only non-greenhouse gas emitting approach to manufacturing clean hydrogen.

Additionally, nuclear energy could be used to solve another growing crisis: the increasing shortage of fresh water available for human consumption and crop irrigation globally. By using nuclear energy, seawater could be desalinized to satisfy the ever-growing demand for fresh water without the carbon dioxide emissions caused by fossil-fueled power plants.


Nuclear energy—combined with the use of renewable energy sources like wind, geothermal and hydro—remains the only practical, safe and environmentally friendly means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and addressing energy security. The time for common sense, scientifically sound leadership—and growth—on the nuclear energy issue is now.

Co-founder of Greenpeace, Dr. Patrick Moore is chairman and chief scientist of Greenspirit Strategies Ltd. in Vancouver, Canada.


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