In their determination to save the world from greenhouse gases, some environmental organizations have gone over to the other side, while the Sierra Club nationally has maintained its longstanding opposition to commercial nuclear power. Some local Sierra groups seem not so sure. "Is Nuclear Power a Great Way or a Terrible Way to Cut CO2 Emissions?" was the title of the program of the Sierra Club's Northwest Cook County group, which I attended by Zoom Feb. 9.
A great way, argued Madison Hilly of the Campaign for a Green Nuclear Deal. It's not true that nuclear power plants take too long to get built to make a difference in the race to combat climate change. "It's the fastest way to prove up carbon-free energy," she claimed. And to the argument that nuclear is too expensive, she acknowledged that it requires more money up front. But it's worth it because the energy is "dispatchable," meaning available anytime, whether or not the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. She listed the major nuclear-power accidents – Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima – explaining how each wasn't as bad as people think.
Neither is nuclear material as bad as people think. She showed herself in a photo beside a reactor fuel control rod, and she's still alive to tell about it. (It's the used, or "spent" fuel that is highly radioactive.) And she said all the nuclear power waste in the world could be stored on one football field in a stack 50 feet high. ("Yes," replied an audience member, perhaps thinking ahead to Super Bowl, "but you didn't mention that all the fans in the stands would be dead.")
One of the problems of nuclear power, Hilly said, is that "some people are afraid of it." I was thinking maybe I was the problem. Then David Kraft of the Nuclear Energy Information Service, based in Chicago, took over for the second part of the program. His position: It's a terrible way to cut CO2 emissions. NEIS is an anti-nuclear organization that has been fighting this battle for 42 years.
A lot of the problem with nuclear power lies in the details, Kraft said, starting with, "Nuclear waste is not as benign as was portrayed." But that's not the issue at hand. "We're here to discuss: What is nuclear's role in a climate-disrupted world?" There is no way to scale up nuclear power units fast enough to make a significant carbon difference by 2030 or even 2050, Kraft said, citing several authoritatives studies. There are 411 operating nuclear power reactors in the world, and 130 of those are scheduled to close. There are only 53 reactors under construction worldwide. Half of those under construction are behind schedule, including one in France that is eight years behind. Two units at the Vogtle power plant in Georgia have been under construction since 1989. The cost was originally estimated at $14 billion; by now the cost is estimated at $34 billion.
"We can't nuke climate change," Kraft said. "We don't have time." Solar, wind and conservation technologies are available now, at lower cost.
The Clinton Nuclear Power Station, 50 miles northwest of Springfield, is a key player in the nation's debate over power. Placed into service in 1987, the owner 30 years later, Exelon, said they would retire the plant in 2017 because it was no longer economical to operate. This prompted a bailout by the Illinois General Assembly and Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2016, under legislation called the Future Energy Jobs Act. Under FEJA, the state agreed to pay Exelon $235 million a year to keep its Quad Cities nuclear station and the Clinton plant open for at least 10 more years. The Clinton plant is currently licensed to operate until 2026. Constellation Energy, the plant's current operator, has said it will apply during the first quarter of 2024 to extend the operating license beyond 2026.
It would be better to set aside money now to transition communities like Clinton away from their financial dependence on a large power plant, than to continue to keep old nuclear plants working beyond their scheduled lives, Kraft said. On Jan. 31 this year, the Clinton reactor experienced an unplanned incident called a "turbine trip," which resulted in an automatic reactor "scram," or shutdown, to avoid a major accident. The safety systems worked this time. But as power plants age, the risk of accidents becomes greater. Meanwhile, highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel continues to accumulate, with no federal long-term waste-storage plan in sight.
Another form of nuclear waste is often overlooked. The combination of state political power, organized labor and private corporations that converge around commercial nuclear power invites political corruption. The pending charges against former House Speaker Michael Madigan, alleging he accepted jobs and favors amounting to bribes from Commonwealth Edison, Chicago's electric utility, is a case in point, Kraft said. Similar scandals have occurred in South Carolina and Ohio, demonstrating that nuclear energy is not clean energy.
In an interview, Kraft acknowledged that it's hard to convince progressives bent on stopping the fossil fuel industry that nuclear energy poses problems just as bad. "It's an arcane subject," says the veteran of the battle against nuclear greenwashing. "But we keep speaking and Zooming. We show up." He said he's sad that the anti-nuclear movement hasn't progressed further, but he's pleased that more young people are getting involved. He knows this fight of his life just may save the planet.
Fletcher Farrar is editor of Illinois Times.