Nuclear Energy: Still Unsustainable

From the July/August 2016 PNL #851

by Andra Leimanis

From 2010 to 2015 New Yorkers often heard gas industry representatives talk about gas as a “safe, clean bridge to a renewable energy future.” Even some environmental organizations said “gas is not as bad as coal” and “fracking can be safe if it’s done right.” However, New Yorkers did not let the false question of which fossil fuel is worse divide us. Anecdotal evidence grew into peer-reviewed research results, and New York earned a fracking ban.

During the past few years, we have often heard false statements regarding nuclear energy. One is that, if we want a renewable energy future, we must keep aging and unprofitable nuclear reactors running because (say nuclear proponents) renewables are “not ready” and we should use nuclear energy as a “bridge” to renewables.  A second is that if we allow nuclear plants to close, the replacement fuel would be gas. A third is that nuclear reactors constitute “zero-carbon” or “zero-emissions” energy.

However, attempts to classify nuclear as clean energy are attempts to divide renewable energy advocates. We shouldn’t accept any dirty and dangerous form of energy because energy efficiency and renewable energy are already available for widespread use to replace both fossil fuels and nuclear energy.  
Nuclear energy remains a dirty, dangerous, and unsustainable way of producing electricity.

Greenhouse gas emissions.
Nuclear energy does not provide “zero-carbon” or “zero-emissions” electricity, and every part of the nuclear energy cycle includes the emission of carbon dioxide (CO2). Although greenhouse gas (CO2, methane and other) emissions from nuclear reactors are lower than emissions from fossil fuels, greenhouse gas emissions from reactors are higher than emissions from renewable energy electricity generators.1   In the future, as higher grades of uranium ore are used up and lower grades are used, greenhouse gas emissions of nuclear energy will increase.2 Renewable energy already outperforms nuclear energy in terms of CO2 emissions and will do so to an even greater degree in the future. But there are problems beyond CO2 emission.

Uranium mining and milling.
  Mining and milling uranium ore for nuclear reactor fuel leaves tailings that retain 85% of the original deposit radioactivity. Radioactive dust is transported offsite and contaminates streams, rivers and drinking water as well as land, building materials, livestock, and plants. Exposure to this dust causes generations of harm. As mining companies shut down, taxpayers are left with the costs of the environmental damage, public health crises and site remediation.

Routine and accidental emissions of radioactivity. 
There is no safe level of radiation. Even very low levels of radiation can have serious health impacts. The legal limit for radiation exposure, based on exposure for a healthy man, is set at a dose that will cause one additional cancer fatality per 286 people exposed. Women and children are more vulnerable to radiation.


Radioactive tritium leaks. Nuclear power plants routinely and accidentally release tritium (radioactive hydrogen) into air and water. Tritium can be ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through skin. Once tritium is inhaled or swallowed, its beta particles bombard cells and could cause mutations. Tritiated water that becomes incorporated into plant and animal DNA is called organically bound tritium, and it delivers damaging radiation doses for a much longer time than ingested tritiated water or inhaled tritiated water vapor. Exposure to tritiated water has been clinically proven to cause cancer, genetic mutations, and birth defects in laboratory animals.3

Unmonitored radionuclides in drinking water sources.
Four upstate New York nuclear plants are located on Lake Ontario and use water from the lake for cooling the reactors and then return it to the lake. Nine million people depend on drinking water from Lake Ontario. In March 2016 over 100 groups called on the American and Canadian governments to list radionuclides as a “chemical of mutual concern” under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and to institute more comprehensive radionuclide tracking to understand impacts on drinking water quality, public health, fish and wildlife survival, and the health of aquatic ecosystems throughout the Great Lakes.4 Similar issues exist with nuclear reactors on the Hudson River.

Radioactive waste.
Nuclear power plants generate radioactive waste products that require over 100,000 years of storage. The United States does not have a long-term nuclear waste storage solution, and all spent fuel is being stored at the nuclear plants in pools or in dry casks. Spent fuel pools at US nuclear power plants actually contain more fuel than the reactor cores do. The pools are overstocked and underprotected.


There are less dangerous and more sustainable ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than to rely on increasingly expensive nuclear energy. Various researchers have created roadmaps for a zero-CO2 economy without nuclear power. While nuclear power supplies too large a portion of US electricity to be switched off instantly, a phase-out of nuclear power plants is doable. Eliminating all subsidies to fossil fuel and nuclear energy sources, and enacting energy efficiency incentives for appliances, buildings and vehicles are among the Clean Dozen policies recommended.5

Converting New York State’s energy needs to wind, water and sunlight sources can be done with existing technology, would be less costly, would create jobs and would improve our health and environmental quality.6

Nuclear energy is not a bridge. It has brought generations of environmental and health damage, nuclear waste, and delayed investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy. Possible dire consequences include reactor meltdowns, nuclear proliferation, loss of life, uninhabitable land and undrinkable water.  
The real bridge to a renewable energy future is renewable energy. A renewable energy future can begin now. We must insist that it happens.



Wolf wearing sheep wool, with "Clean Energy" over nuclear energy.
"Nuclear Power: A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing."  Graphic:  Maizy Ludden





1 Sovacool, Benjamin. “Valuing the greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear power: A critical survey.” Energy Policy 36 (2008) 2940-2953.
2 Storm van Leeuwen, Jan Willem. Can nuclear power slow down climate change? An analysis of nuclear greenhouse gas emissions. PDF. Amsterdam: World Information Service on Energy, Nov. 2015. 70 p.
3 Nuclear Information and Resource Service. Radiation: TRITIUM from Nuclear Power Plants: Its Biological Hazards. (accessed June 27, 2016).
4 Jackson, John. Radionuclides as a Chemical of Mutual Concern in the Great Lakes Basin. PDF. Toronto: Canadian Environmental Law Association, Feb. 2016. 21 p.
5 Makhijani, Arjun. “Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy.” Science for Democratic Action 15,1 (Aug. 2007) 1-14.
6 Jacobson, Mark Z., et al. “Examining the feasibility of converting New York State’s all-purpose energy infrastructure to one using wind, water, and sunlight.” Energy Policy 57 (2013) 585-601.



For More Information

Please visit the Alliance for a Green Economy website to sign up for action alerts and updates about NYS energy issues. Current member organizations include: Atlantic Chapter of the Sierra Club, Citizens’ Environmental Coalition, CNY Chapter of Citizens Awareness Network, Citizen Action of New York, Nuclear Information and Resource Service, Peace Action of Central New York, Peace Action New York State, and Syracuse Peace Council.

Andra is Communications and Outreach Coordinator at Alliance for a Green Economy (AGREE). AGREE  works to promote a just transition to a carbon-free, nuclear-free, and energy-efficient future and educates the public about alternatives that can revitalize the economy and safeguard human health and the environment.