In recent years, some environmentalists and environmental groups (read this New Yorker article for a list) have enthusiastically embraced nuclear power plants as clean energy sources that will help us in the fight against climate change, global warming, sea level rise, and other climate-driven natural disasters. Watching a Russian tank fire at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine last week — an event that nuclear experts warned could have resulted in a meltdown at the facility and the release of dangerous amounts of radiation into the environment — I couldn’t help but wonder if nuclear energy is still a viable clean-energy option.
Russian shells fired at the six-reactor Zaporizhizhia Nuclear Power Plant, the largest in Europe, Thursday night set fire to a training building next to the plant. Fortunately, operators at the plant were able to shut down most of the facility’s reactors and stabilize the site without incident, but the threat clearly isn’t over. News reports say since Russian forces took over the power plant, the staff there are working under extreme stress with limited contact with the outside world. In addition, Russian forces have also taken over a second nuclear power plant and are moving toward a third.
These developments demonstrate that no matter how safe some environmentalists and environmental groups may consider nuclear power plants, the truth is they are clearly not benign and indestructible. In the last 35 years, two of the worst nuclear accidents in history already demonstrated this fact.
After human error led to the 1986 meltdown at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine in 1986, so much radioactivity was released into the atmosphere that 39,000 square miles of land — mainly in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia — was contaminated with fallout. In 2011, a tsunami inundated the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant and caused three nuclear meltdowns that forced the evacuation of 154,000 residents in a 12 mile radius around the plant. Containing the site could take up to forty years.
Nuclear reactors aren’t the only threat to the environment, either. Nuclear waste, too, poses an environmental threat. Typically highly radioactive byproducts of nuclear power generation are stored on-site where they could be disturbed by natural disasters, war, terrorists and operator errors.
Before the Russian attacks against the Ukrainian nuclear power plants, nuclear power boosters insisted that when you weigh the damage nuclear reactors inflict on the environment against the damage that burning oil, coal and natural gas are now causing, nuclear power is the best option to allow us to cut back on the use of climate-warming fossil fuels without seriously damaging the world economy. It’s still too early to see if they still take this position after witnessing how easy it was for the Russian military to attack and seize the Ukrainian nuclear power plants at great risk to the environment.
Public opinion, too, will play a role in the future of nuclear power. Before the Russian military took control of the Ukrainian nuclear power plants, Americans were split almost evenly in their support or opposition to nuclear power. The outcome of Russian military control of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants will certainly influence the level of support for nuclear power and its future in the fight against global warming.
While the future of nuclear power is sorted out, it’s clear that we need to invest massive amounts of capital and brain-power in the development of truly safe and clean renewable energy sources, such as solar panels and wind turbines, to combat climate change. Conservation will have to play a role, too.