Reality: The waste produced from the nuclear fuel chain, from mining to processing to reactor waste, is some of the dirtiest, most dangerous stuff around. Talk about toxic emissions—the nuclear power industry pollutes our land, air, and water, particularly in indigenous communities, with radioactive isotopes that cause cellular mutations and ultimately diseases like cancer. Oh, and many of these isotopes stick around for millions of years.
Reality: Wind turbines generate cost-effective, emissions-free, homegrown energy with a zero-cost, inexhaustible fuel source (the wind!) and, when appropriately sited, myriad benefits to local communities and landowners. The life-cycle cost of wind energy is competitive even with relatively cheap natural gas plants, and the cost continues to come down, as it does for all renewable energy sources. Wind power is intermittent, but that’s why it’s only one piece of the energy puzzle, and when properly integrated into the grid it provides clean, affordable, low-risk electricity to power your toaster.
Reality: Small Modular Reactors are theoretical small nuclear power plants that could be manufactured in a factory to be transported and built in series on a site instead of a single, large plant. But don’t forget: the nuclear fuel chain is the same for small nuclear reactors as it is for large nuclear reactors. Same problems with waste, same dangers with mining, same risks for leaks and meltdowns, same unassailable financial barriers. Don’t let the new package fool you.
Reality: When all things are considered, coal is one of the most costly energy resources we have, contributing to environmental and health expenses that are through the roof, even if they don’t show up on your bills – yet! And while coal looks deceptively cheap to electric utilities right now, aging coal plants are in need of expensive upgrades to keep them in compliance with environmental regulations. That’s why coal plants across the nation are dimming out and shutting down.
Reality: Yes, Earth’s temperatures have been known to fluctuate over time and the world’s regional climates haven’t always looked the way they do today, but the rate at which we’re currently experiencing these changes is utterly unprecedented, and the reason is clear and simple: humans recently started digging up and burning stunning amounts of carbon-rich fossil fuels. Combusting fossil fuels produces CO2. CO2 traps heat in the atmosphere. This causes changes in climate cycles, weather patterns, ocean acidity, sea levels, migrational timeframes, food growth, fresh water availability, animal habitats, and yes, national security. We’re causing it. And we can stop it.
Reality: This model for our electricity system is sooooo last century, and so is burning prehistoric toxic rocks to produce power. Yes, we need electricity to be available 24/7/365. But this does not mean that we need to make electricity from one big power plant located often hundreds of miles away that operates non-stop shipping electrons through huge, ugly transmission lines. An integrated approach to delivering electricity from a diverse range of energy sources of diverse sizes over diverse geographic locations to dynamic, distributed energy systems that respond in real-time is the 21st century way to keep the lights on with a conscience.
Reality: Every utility says energy efficiency (the various tools and practices that reduce our energy use) is the least-cost, least-risk energy resource available to electric utilities. “The cheapest power plant is the one a utility doesn’t have to build.” So it’s an obvious investment choice for our utilities to make – and can also practically provide 85% of our future energy needs here in the Northwest, as the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, appointed by the governors of the four northwest states, points out in its 6th Power Plan!
Reality: Nuclear power plants don’t emit CO2, but the entire nuclear fuel chain is more carbon intensive than any renewable energy source. Plus, climate scientists say that we only have a matter of years to clean up our act and start reducing our carbon emissions before these problems become irreversible. Nuclear plants take 10 to 15 years to build, and since they cost so much, they actually impede timely responses to climate change from other technologies. Replacing our current fleet of fossil fuel plants with nuclear plants would take decades that we don’t have. Luckily, there are other energy sources that are cleaner, safer, more secure, and faster to develop than nuclear power plants. The choice is clear and we need to act now.