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Is Nuclear Energy Clean?

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The nuclear industry appeals to our concerns about global warming when it promotes itself as being the "clean energy". You've probably seen the ads. And advertisers know if you repeat something enough times it starts to be taken as "fact". We hear "nuclear is clean" over and over, including from provincial government officials who reflexively say nuclear is the way to reduce greenhouse gases.

But is it? Coal plants create a lot of carbon while they generate two-thirds of the world's electricity. Nuclear plants don't directly spew carbon, so the industry argues we should replace coal plants with nuclear ones. Sounds logical, right? Actually, calling nuclear "clean" is a play on words. Carbon is emitted all along the nuclear fuel chain, from the hard-rock mining to nuclear plant construction, and therefore a "full carbon audit" must be done to draw any solid conclusions. Nuclear plants also emit a host of cancer-causing radioactive isotopes; even dust-mites show that being invisible doesn't make something "clean".

2,500 nuclear plants would have to be operating by 2050 for it to play the same relative role in electrical generation as coal does today. This would require a nuclear plant being built somewhere every week. There are presently 439 operating nuclear plants, worldwide, only 35 new ones under construction and perhaps 80 more being planned, with several hundred approaching decommissioning. As a means to address global warming, nuclear is an unrealistic, uneconomic pipe dream.

Anyway, it wouldn't solve anything if all these plants were built. The International Energy Agency (IEA) scenario has nuclear power expanding four-fold and requiring 32 expensive new nuclear plants yearly until 2050. But this would only reduce total carbon by 4%, while we need a minimum of 50% cuts by then. Because of this, 300 international NGOs are calling for the removal of nuclear power from the list of ways to reduce carbon under the Kyoto Protocol.

A 2008 Stanford University environmental engineering study compared the capacity of several energy options to reduce carbon and other air pollutants. The best options, in rank order, were wind, concentrated solar, geothermal, tidal, photovoltaics (solar), wave and hydro. Nuclear power and coal (even with carbon capture) ranked poorest after bio-fuels. So-called "clean coal" emitted at least 60 times more carbon and air pollution than wind. Nuclear emitted 25 times more. Rather than being "clean", nuclear is an obstacle to carbon reduction. The choice is not "nuclear versus coal", but between these polluting technologies and the new sustainable energy ones. We had best get on with it, soon.