The alarms raised by the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over the dire situation around Ukraine’s war-torn Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant offer the most extreme — and most compelling — case for discontinuing the use of nuclear power.
The consequences of an attack on the six-reactor Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station could result in a core meltdown, a fuel pool fire or radioactive waste cask breach that would send a radioactive plume across potentially thousands of miles, depending on the scale of the disaster and the direction of the wind.
Fires are the biggest risk, especially for the unprotected fuel pools that are not housed within the more robust containment area of the reactor building. Given the proximity of the six Zaporizhzhia units to each other, a fire at one of the Zaporizhzhia reactors or fuel pools could spread to any or all of the other five.
The radioactive fallout released by such fires and explosions would persist in the environment for decades or longer. The 1986 Chornobyl disaster in Ukraine, which involved only one, relatively new reactor with a small radioactive load, rendered 1,000 square miles of land — the Exclusion Zone — too radioactive for human habitation even today. Ukraine is home to a total of 15 reactors, most dating back to the 1980s, plus the closed but still dangerous Chornobyl site. As such, they all house huge radioactive inventories of fuel, in the reactors and irradiated in the pools and waste casks.
However, it is not enough simply to admonish warring countries, as the United Nations has done, not to shell nuclear power plants — likely unenforceable given the violently entrenched conflict over the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Nuclear power is also a liability beyond the war zone.
Numerous studies by the nonprofit advocacy group Beyond Nuclear, where I work, have demonstrated that keeping current reactors running, and especially building new ones, is too slow and too expensive a way to address the climate crisis. Added to that, nuclear power has never solved its radioactive waste problem, and mining the uranium needed to fuel reactors comes with significant environmental justice violations.
Furthermore, nuclear power cannot be relied upon to operate safely, or even at all, under the now rapidly worsening climate conditions. Many plants are coastal and vulnerable to sea-level rise. Flooding is also a risk at inland reactors, all of which sit on a body of water, needed to cool the reactor.
Drought and heat waves reduce those cooling water supplies, or render the water too warm to use, forcing reactors to power or even shut down, as we have already seen in France. Wildfires could result in catastrophic conflagrations at nuclear plants. Nuclear plants also need to shut down in violent weather conditions. All of these deficiencies of reliability are directly related to the high risks of using nuclear power.
Nuclear power is also not an efficient way to reduce carbon emissions. In fact, As Stanford professor of civil and environmental engineering, Amory Lovins, continues to point out, nuclear power actually makes climate change worse.
Renewable energy can achieve greater carbon emissions reductions faster and at less cost than nuclear power. Combining renewables with energy efficiency is even more effective. Lovins has shown that, in the U.S., it now costs more to run the country’s aging reactor fleet than to provide the same services through new renewables, or by using electricity more efficiently.
Nuclear power and renewables also have a tendency to cancel each other out. Countries that have prioritized nuclear power have squeezed out renewables. As a result, nuclear-dependent countries such as France have scant renewable energy supplies for essential backup when nuclear power shuts down due to war, weather extremes, or other factors. As a result, France imports renewable electricity from Germany, a net power exporter and where nuclear power is about to be 100 percent phased out.
Nuclear power is also expensive. “New plants cost 3–8x or 5–13x more per kWh than unsubsidized new solar or wind power, so new nuclear power produces 3–13x fewer kWh per dollar and therefore displaces 3–13x less carbon per dollar than new renewables,” Lovins wrote in Bloomberg last December.
In fact, current analysis shows that nuclear power is the most expensive form of energy, and renewables are the least expensive, when factoring the costs of construction and installation. The investment bank Lazard analyzed the levelized costs of energy (a measure of the average net cost of electricity generation over the lifetime of a generator), concluding that wind and solar energy are about five times cheaper than nuclear power.
The costs of wind and solar have declined by 90 percent between 2009 and 2021, while nuclear costs have increased by 23 percent over the same time period, according to the 2022 Annual Energy Outlook from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
As Stanford professor of civil and environmental engineering Mark Jacobson showed this year with his 100 percent renewable road map, the U.S. could meet all its clean energy needs with renewables and zero nuclear power.
Jacobson’s paper also lays to rest the red herring argument over land use. Nuclear proponents assert that nuclear plants take up less space than wind or solar farms. But Jacobson’s plan “requires only ~0.29% and 0.55% of U.S. land area for footprint and spacing, respectively, for new energy technologies.”
In this context, one should also not forget that a 1,000 square mile radioactively dangerous exclusion zone is not exactly a productive use of land.
Jacobson also addresses concerns around jobs, pointing out that a 100 percent renewable economy delivers “~4.7 million more long-term, full-time jobs than lost across the U.S.”
Even under COVID-19 recovery conditions in 2021, renewable energy delivered growth in the U.S. job market. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, “solar energy jobs increased by 5.4%, adding 17,212 new jobs. Wind energy jobs increased by 2.9%, adding 3,347 new jobs. Energy efficiency jobs increased by 2.7%, adding 57,741 new jobs.” Meanwhile, “nuclear electricity, coal, and petroleum jobs decreased in 2021.”
The promised and much-touted “new” reactors remain an illusory mirage. As physicist Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists writes in Advanced Isn’t Always Better, they come with numerous and unaddressed safety problems that fail to justify the kind of financial support they currently receive, largely through tax payer-funded subsidies.
Many of the so-called next generation of reactor designs are considered “small,” but they can range from truly small 10 megawatts to not really small at all 450-550 megawatts.
One of these “small modular reactors” is the Natrium, a project of billionaire Bill Gates. Gates has already received an $80 million subsidy for a scheme that nuclear nonproliferation experts such as Gregory S. Jones view as a high proliferation risk. Jones sees the project as a likely failure with an unrealistic timeline that would only deliver the reactor, if at all, several decades from now, far too late to address the climate crisis.
Furthermore, small modular reactors rely on an assembly line of mass production in order to be even vaguely economical. This is an unattractive business proposition since it is more economic to build one large reactor than hundreds if not thousands of small ones and explains why the small modular reactor design, which has been around for decades, has been consistently rejected by investors.
Given all the evidence, what explains the pervasively stubborn insistence on the continued use of nuclear energy, and government-funded nuclear expansion plans, when it is clearly the least-suitable answer to the climate crisis on every front?
Perhaps a clue is to be found in a 2017 report by the Energy Futures Initiative — The U.S. Nuclear Energy Enterprise: A Key National Security Enabler — which states that: “a strong domestic supply chain is needed to provide for nuclear Navy requirements. This supply chain has an inherent and very strong overlap with the commercial nuclear energy sector and has a strong presence in states with commercial nuclear power plants.”
A 2019 Atlantic Council report — The Value of the US Nuclear Power Complex to US National Security — reiterates this, stating: “Civil nuclear underpins military nuclear” and that “the lack of a civilian nuclear sector would present an immediate and significant economic shock (and impact on the labor force) — which, in turn, would have immediate and longer-term budgetary implications for the US government.”
This is a connection that many who oppose nuclear weapons, but not nuclear power, fail to recognize. And it’s a pathway further enabled by the IAEA, which is in the business of promoting nuclear energy even as it decries the grave risks around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.
Note: This piece has been amended to remove a line that suggested an analogy between the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster and what could happen if fire spread at Zaporizhzhia.