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August 6 and 9: Perils and Possibilities

August is a month of memorial and actions for a nuclear free-world. August 6th and August 9th mark the 65th anniversary of the U.S. dropping atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which many believe was an unnecessary act for Japan’s surrender and one which killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians. It also launched the perilous era of nuclear weapons and power plants.

August is a month of memorial and actions for a nuclear free-world. August 6th and August 9th mark the 65th anniversary of the U.S. dropping atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which many believe was an unnecessary act for Japan’s surrender and one which killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians. It also launched the perilous era of nuclear weapons and power plants.

What can we learn from this tragic history? Two lessons come to mind. First, nuclear weapons – even in limited numbers – are too dangerous in the hands of any country, including our own. They poison the prospect of human security, both as offensive weapons and as a deterrent strategy. Only abolishing them makes sense for a secure and humane future. The U.S. Conference of Mayors took this position unanimously on June 14, 2010 and called on Congress to radically reduce new spending proposed by the Obama administration for nuclear weapons modernization and to “redirect funds to meet the urgent needs of cities.”

Second, nuclear power is tightly linked with nuclear weapons, and contrary to current groupthink, its technology is neither “clean” nor “safe.” Thus, proposals to eliminate nuclear weapons while expanding nuclear power plants are a contradictory and doomed strategy for renewable, clean energy production and international security.

Nuclear power plants are not designed by God. Old and new plants alike always carry risk of accident from material fatigue and failure; reactor malfunction or meltdown; human error in design, building, monitoring, maintenance, and regulation; and natural disaster. In this era of unconventional war, power plants are vulnerable to sabotage and attack. Existing evacuation plans in case of accident are widely known to be unrealistic paper exercises. After 50 years, we still don’t have a permanent disposal plan for nuclear wastes; nor do we have a method to neutralize them. Uranium mining has disproportionately contaminated Native American miners and lands and will continue to do so, given the uranium deposits there. Finally, nuclear power reactors generate the fissile materials enriched to fuel nuclear bombs and inevitably create the risk of nuclear weapons development.

Not Economically Feasible

The economics of nuclear power is as trouble-ridden as the technology. The nuclear industry is underwritten with taxpayer money in the form of tax subsidies and limited liability and, in a free market, would not exist. Two pending Senate bills, the Kerry-Lieberman Bill (American Power Act) and the American Clean Energy Leadership Act, would give the industry tens of billions of dollars more in federal tax breaks, tax credits and loan guarantees, while protecting equity investors and industry from financial risk. The risk of default on those loans, as estimated by the Congressional Budget Office, is well above 50%. In 2009, Moody’s Investor Services concluded that investment into nuclear power was a “bet the farm” risk. The “nuclear renaissance” is simply a bailout, not unlike the Wall Street bailout, for nuclear power companies who face bankruptcy without a massive government infusion of tax-payer funds.

Not only is this unfair to sustainable energy competition, such as solar and wind industries, but it doesn’t solve nuclear waste disposal, mining pollution, risks of subterfuge, no safe evacuation in case of serious accident, and the risk of weapons grade materials production. Consider the statement by Jon Wellinghoff, the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, that new coal and nuclear plants are unnecessary and a poor choice of energy investment compared to renewables. Moreover, comparative analysis of dollar for dollar spent on nuclear versus renewable energy industries shows that solar and wind industries create more than three times as many jobs as nuclear power. Is there any other industry – which pollutes from “cradle to grave,” with no safe disposal solution, implicated in weapons development, and unable to pay its own way – so coddled and enabled by Washington?

A Carbon-Free Nuclear-Free Future is Possible

How can we achieve a carbon-free, nuclear-free future? For one, the US can emulate the commitment to conservation, mandatory green building design, renewable energy technologies and fuel efficient practices in Europe, which has reduced the average carbon use per capita to one-half that of the average American. Europe has three times the wind power of the US, and photovoltaic capacity is growing by 70 percent annually in recent years. Renewables fuel 40 percent of Sweden’s energy needs and 14 percent of Germany’s electricity compared to 6 percent of US electricity. Recycled energy from cogeneration (combined heat and power) systems constitute from 20 to 50 percent of energy use in many European countries compared to 8 percent in the US. The fuel standard for European vehicles is 50 mpg by 2012 compared to the US average of 35.5 mpg by 2016. The EU has earmarked more than three times the amount of money for high-speed trains than the Obama administration. Were the United States to achieve the fuel economy standards of Europe, demand for oil would drop by an estimated 20 percent – a timely thought given the oil pollution tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico. Government regulation and support have spurred the EU growth in conservation, efficiency and renewable technologies. This investment in turn has resulted in new job sectors in green technology, hundreds of thousands of new jobs, and advanced technological expertise as well as green technology exports to global markets, including the US and China.

A critically acclaimed companion study, Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy, was recently produced as a joint project of the Nuclear Policy Research Institute and the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. The study has laid out a carbon-free and nuclear-free roadmap for US energy policy, citing the critical juncture of climate disruption, insecurity of oil supply, and nuclear proliferation as interrelated factors that compel a new energy direction. Scientists analyzed more than twenty five available and nearly available renewable technologies, green building design, and high efficiency vehicles and fuels for three factors: readiness for large-scale use, next steps for large-scale implementation, and CO2 abatement costs. The overarching finding is that “a zero-CO2 energy economy can be achieved within the next thirty to fifty years without the use of nuclear power.” Further, eliminating CO2 emissions can be achieved with “available or foreseeable technologies,” at affordable cost, without buying carbon credits from other countries, and could phase out oil imports within 25 years. The authors’ conclusion: oil insecurity and pollution, nuclear proliferation, and climate disruption can be critically reduced within a few decades with aggressive, coherent government policy.

We Americans find ourselves in a perfect storm of multiple failures and crises – two trillion-dollar wars with ill-defined purpose and no end in sight; threat of precipitous climate change; resource wars without a drastic conversion away from fossil fuels; an environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico spawned by a reckless risk-taking industry; a nuclear power revival that undermines international security; and a Great Recession spawned by extreme inequality of wealth. We need to recover large ideas and ideals: precaution in technology, a world without war and weapons of mass destruction, and re-distribution of wealth in our society. Local expressions of these large ideals are necessary, more than ever: bring the wars dollars home; shut down aging, leaking nuclear power plants; buy locally; invest in a green economy; and support peace and social justice education.

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