“We’re told we can’t live without nuclear power.
The reality is, we can’t live with nuclear power.”
– George Wald, Nobel scientist, 1979
Nuclear Power is STILL the Wrong Answer!
A tsunami of nuclear power propaganda is sweeping the globe.
We’re told not to worry about radioactive waste. We’re told accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima were not so bad. We’re told it’s okay to continue operating brittle, cracking nukes after their 40-year lifespan is reached. And no need to even think about the weaponization of nuclear plants.
New nukes, we are told, are urgently needed to avert a climate crisis. This is nonsense.
Far better options are being built much faster than nuclear power plants, at a fraction of the cost, and without the grave hazards. They include solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, efficiency, and conservation.
Fifty years ago, in the midst of a national energy crisis, many Americans were led to believe in mega-scale, centralized energy “solutions.” Nuclear power would be “too-cheap-to-meter.” Without nukes, we would “freeze in the dark.” President Nixon warned that America had to build 1,000 new nuclear plants by the year 2000. It was nonsense then; it’s nonsense now.
The Clamshell Alliance was organized in 1976 to confront these lies and stop construction of a twin-reactor nuclear plant in Seabrook, NH. We organized at the grassroots, building on what we learned in the civil rights, anti-war, and environmental movements. We drew attention to the problem through public education and direct action, including a series of nonviolent occupations of the construction site. We inspired similar organizations to form across the nation.
This citizen mobilization, coupled with the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island reactor in 1979, stopped the nuclear power industry in its tracks.
The Nuclear Comeback is based on misleading misinformation.
Now that industry is trying for a comeback, masquerading as the solution to global warming. This is another lie. Climate change is real, but new nukes cost way too much and take far too long to build. Safe, reliable, renewable energy is now a working reality and must be ramped up as quickly as possible. We don’t need to divert energy money into nukes.
We have the power to choose a different future – one that isn’t controlled by profit-driven big oil or big nuclear. We acted together in the 1970s to demand safe, affordable, renewable electric power. Once again, it is time for action. We don’t have time to waste.
Nuclear power cannot address the existential threat of climate change. Worse than that, nuclear power itself is an existential threat to humanity.
Without the threat of global warming, no one would consider new nuclear power plants as a rational option for generating electricity. Why?
- The partial core meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979 shattered the myth that American nuclear plants were safe.
- The catastrophic core meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986 blanketed a large swath of Ukraine with a hundred times more radiation than that released by the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, and sent a radioactive cloud across much of Europe.
- The devasting core meltdown of three nuclear reactors following a tsunami at Fukushima, Japan, in 2011 exposed the nuclear industry’s inability to anticipate radiation catastrophes triggered by natural events. Link
Those accidents had an impact on the nuclear industry. For 30 years after Three Mile Island, no construction licenses were issued in the United States. In Europe, Germany closed its last two nukes in 2023, keeping a post-Fukushima pledge. Spain and Switzerland also are phasing out their nuclear plants.
Nuclear proponents like to say there have been “hardly any” accidents, but records show more than 100 “incidents” causing death or serious damage at plants around the world, including leakage of 400,000 gallons of radioactive water at a Minnesota plant in 2022.
The nuclear industry, in partnership with the Department of Energy, is now waging a vigorous public relations campaign to re-brand nuclear power as a viable solution to global warming. Understandably panicked about the threat of global warming, some well-intentioned people have embraced the industry’s argument that new nuclear power plants should be part of the solution.
8 fundamental reasons why new nukes can’t help solve the climate crisis, and, instead, would seriously impede real solutions.
- Nuclear plants take too long to build. New nuclear plants cannot be built fast enough to meaningfully reduce human carbon emissions. The only conventional nuclear reactors now approaching commercial operation–Vogtle Units 3 and 4 in Georgia – were first approved by the Georgia Public Service Commission in 2009. A combined construction and operation license was issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2012, with completion projected for 2016. The Vogtle reactors are now projected to go into full service by 2024—15 years after first being approved. And that’s a success story.
The Vogtle units are the only survivors of what was supposed to be a “nuclear renaissance,” proclaimed in 2005. Another 30 nuclear units were cancelled before construction even began. And two others – in South Carolina – were abandoned mid-construction in 2017 at a sunk cost of $10 billion. The nuclear renaissance was an abject failure, a waste of precious time and resources.
Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) also would take too long. Originally introduced as experimental reactor designs in the late 1950s, SMRs are still in the developmental stage. The nuclear industry claims, laughably, that SMRs can be built more quickly than conventional reactors. There is no evidence to support this view since no SMR has been built. The leading example of this new technology – NuScale’s SMR project – has been in development since 2001. In 2008, NuScale said its first SMR reactor would be online by 2015-2016. In 2010, NuScale said its first reactor would be online in 2018. In 2018, NuScale said its first reactor would be online in 2026. The Institute for Energy Economic and Financial Analysis cut through NuScale’s corporate happy-talk in 2022 when it noted that NuScale’s SMR project “will not begin commercial operations before 2029, if ever.” A recent Department of Energy report emphasizes construction of conventional, big nuclear plants rather than SMRs.
At best, new nuclear construction – whether conventional or SMRs – will be absurdly too little, and way too late.
- Nuclear plants are simply too expensive to be a realistic solution to carbon emissions. Vogtle Units 3 and 4 in Georgia were initially projected to cost $14 billion to build. The latest estimate is that the two units will cost more than $35 billion. Their combined capacity is a bit over 2 gigawatts (GW). This is grossly more expensive than electricity generated by solar and wind power. In addition, decommissioning a conventional nuclear power plant adds significantly to a reactor’s expense. These costs can be as high as $1 billion and take decades.
SMRs also are too expensive to be a realistic solution to carbon emissions. As recently as 2019, NuScale boasted that it could build a dozen small reactors with a combined capacity of nearly three-quarters GW for just under $3 billion. But oops, by 2022 the U.S. Department of Energy estimated the cost would exceed $6.8 billion. And in early 2023 that figure ballooned to $9.3 billion. Meanwhile, the number of planned SMR reactors shrunk from 12 to six, meaning the project would produce less than half a GW rather than the original three-quarters GW, at a cost of roughly $18.6 billion per GW.
Here’s the good news:
We don’t need new nukes.
- Wind and solar projects are proving every day they can achieve significant reductions in carbon emissions. The hard mathematical truth: new nuclear plants simply can’t compete. If we have limited capital resources to address a truly existential crisis, it is important that we get the biggest bang for our buck. The data is clear as to which investments achieve the most carbon reduction at the cheapest cost and can be put online the fastest. Since 2020 renewables, led by wind and solar, have generated more power in the US than nuclear.
- Wind and solar power are getting the job done and cost less to build. To build wind turbines capable of generating one GW of power costs about $1.3 billion and can be accomplished in roughly a year, compared with the 15 years and $17 billion it is taking to get just one reactor online in Georgia. It’s simple math, not rocket science: compared to nuclear, wind construction creates more than 10 times the power generation capacity for every dollar spent. Wind construction costs have decreased dramatically in the last 10 years.
According to the Global Wind Energy Council, global wind power capacity increased by 93 GW in 2021 alone, to 837 GW total. The International Energy Agency reports that more than 570 GW of additional onshore wind capacity will become operational during the 2022-27 period – the equivalent of 570 traditional nuclear plants or more than 1,000 SMR plants. Growth could be faster with improvements to grid infrastructure to facilitate transmission of all this new power.
What is true of wind is also true of solar: new nuclear plants simply can’t compete. Every GW of solar capacity is roughly equivalent to the output of one traditional nuclear power plant and solar GW have been increasing steadily. The U.S. added more than 12 GW of utility-scale solar capacity in 2021; another 20 GW of total solar capacity in 2022; and 29 GW more of solar capacity in 2023. In fact, more than half of new U.S. electric-generating capacity in 2023 is expected to be solar. Some scenarios to achieve the goal of zero-carbon electricity by 2035, call for solar and wind to provide up to 75 percent generating capacity by then.
- Wind and solar have lower operating costs than nuclear. The wind and sun are essentially free, so fuel costs are negligible when generating wind and solar power. In fact, the lifecycle power cost of solar energy has fallen 10- to 20-fold in the last decade and is now many times lower than the cost of nuclear-generated electricity. Nuclear fuel is expensive and much of the world’s uranium comes from a potentially unreliable nation – Russia. In addition, nuclear facilities must spend significant sums for security to guard and completely isolate reactors and spent fuel pools into the far-distant future. Since no permanent storage of nuclear waste exists, that could be for as long as 220,000 years.
- Community control. Solar, wind, and other renewable sources of power also are much better candidates than nuclear power for decentralized electricity and local control – power facilities owned and run by communities to provide power – not profit.
- The wind and sun are reliable sources of energy when combined with storage. The nuclear industry likes to claim that solar and wind power are “intermittent” because the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. Even before modern batteries became available, utilities throughout Europe were able to address intermittency by simply mixing power sources over a wide enough geographic area to compensate for changeable weather conditions. Today, steady advances in battery storage technology are solving the intermittency problem far more quickly and cheaply than building new nuclear plants ever could. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, battery storage capacity in the United States in 2020 reached about 9 GW by the end of 2022, and is expected to reach 19 GW in 2023 and more than 28 GW in 2024. Tax credits for EVs and home improvements (heat pumps/solar panels, etc.) are part of recent federal legislation, but continued development of storage battery technology, including those that don’t rely on rare metals, also are needed to help wind and solar power achieve their full potential.
- Energy efficiency is the least expensive and potentially most effective single way to combat carbon-induced climate change. A watt of electricity saved is a watt of electricity that does not have to be generated in the first place. According to Amory Lovins energy efficiency is an untapped resource hiding in plain sight. Lovins – an adjunct professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford who has advised major firms as well as the Pentagon on energy issues – notes that efficiency measures instituted from 1990-2016 saved more energy in 2016 than was produced by burning oil in 2016.
Even greater savings are available from integrative design of buildings, appliances, equipment, vehicles, and industrial processes. Integrative design of a building, for example, means integrating architecture, structural engineering, passive solar, and HVAC. Lovins says it’s an area widely neglected, despite offering savings that are “almost unimaginable.”
More reasons why nukes are a bad idea (with links to our supporting statements):
- There is still no safe, permanent storage of highly radioactive waste, including so-called low-level waste.
- The nuclear industry still relies on a federal insurance plan that grossly limits nuke owners’ liability in case of an accident.
- Renewable energy is available today, and is far cheaper than nukes.
- The 2022 federal Inflation Reduction Act has added new incentives for communities to develop safe renewable energy.
We humans must make smart choices if we want to avoid increasingly catastrophic climate change. And we must make those choices now.
Nuclear power is not a smart choice because nuclear power is incapable of playing a meaningful role in reducing carbon emissions. Even if it wasn’t outrageously dangerous, it would still be outrageously expensive and take an outrageously long time to build.
Our energy future, our country’s future, and our planet’s future are not a matter to be left to ‘experts” who bet on the wrong horse. Renewables are rapidly leaving nuclear in the dust.
Some policymakers like to talk about pursuing an “all of the above” strategy for fighting carbon emissions, as if there is an endless supply of money—and time– to throw at the problem. But this simplistic rhetoric cannot hide the hard math: there is not an endless supply of either money or time. Diverting financial and human capital to nuclear construction inevitably drains resources from renewable technologies that can do the job far more effectively, faster, and cheaper.
We cannot afford to waste time and money trying to rehabilitate nuclear power. We are fortunate that cheaper, cleaner, safer, faster-to-build energy technologies are now available to help us seriously accelerate the work of addressing climate change.
A technological and social transformation is underway, but it will not happen automatically. We must choose the future we want. If we want to live, we must choose life.
Clamshell Alliance May 2023
Cathy Wolff, Eric Wolfe (primary authors)
Adam Auster, Anna Gyorgy, Arnie Alpert, Benjie Hiller, Bob Backus, Brenda Loew, Brian Tokar, Cate Woolner, Charles Light, Cory Greenberg, Dave Small, David Detmold, Doug Bogen, Donna SanAntonio, Harvey Halpern, Harvey Wasserman, Jay Gustaferro, Jeanine Burns, John & Jeanine Doberman, Judith Kaufman, Kristie Conrad, Leigh Ford, Lynn Chong, Nelia Sargent, Paul Gunter, Patty Parker, Paul Klinkman, Pete Blose, Peter Kellman, Phil Stone, Robin Read, Roy Morrison, Sharon Tracy, Shel Horowitz, Steve Thornton, Susanae Glovacki, Suzan Moss, The Enviro Show, Thea Paneth, Tom Wyatt