Water temperature, which drives the energy of hurricanes, has steadily increased along with the ferocity of hurricanes hitting the U.
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Contributing to increased flooding is that hot air holds more water that is released as rain, and rising sea level gives a higher baseline for flooding to begin. The scientific credibility has increased of the potential for catastrophic events, such as the abrupt loss of the Antarctic ice cap leading to flooding of coastal cities, and migrations intensifying the threat of conflict due to loss of local food sources. Just in Europe and the US, deaths from unprecedented heat waves since are in the tens of thousands, a number likely to be far higher in less developed parts of the globe.
Before even one case of cancer due to loss of nuclear waste containment can be anticipated, the direct and indirect death toll from climate change globally likely will be in the millions. Further, while the expert committees on nuclear waste were charged to determine whether the radioactivity would exceed acceptable risk levels for the entire population, they did not estimate total cancer cases.
The acceptable lifetime cancer risk was chosen by Congress to be one chance in , lifetime. At this level, if we conservatively assume at most 10, people at risk in the Yucca Mountain area, much more than the present population, it would require ten lifetimes to accumulate , people — resulting in approximately one additional cancer case every years. The natural background risk of radiation increases with altitude such that just two round trips by plane from the East to the West coast exceeds the risk level of protection used as a ceiling for nuclear waste risk.
In public health, we routinely make siting decisions that lead to a slight increase in risk to a small number of us in order to protect a much larger percent of the population. Consider the si ting of a clinic for drug addicts or a halfway house for the mentally ill. We rightly object when a single community bears the brunt of many such siting decisions, a signal of environmental injustice.
Some scientists are calling for 100 percent renewable energy. That’s the wrong approach.
We need to recognize and recompense those in the Yucc a Mountain area for the risk that will eventually be borne by their descendants. But preventing predicted future droughts in an already arid region will also benefit them. The nuclear power issue illustrates a common problem when political issues are bas ed at least in part on scientific and technical understanding. Politicians who very adroitly respond to shifting economic or political factors tend to be cased in cement when the underlying science changes. While a major issue, nuclear waste is not the sole concern about nuclear power sources.
But since the earlier deliberations about Yucca Mountain we have had an additional two decades of a continued record of no loss of life or any loss of containment through accident or terrorism in the U. Costs also have been a significant issue, particularly affecting decisions about building new power plants. But these costs and the subsidies to extend the life of existing nuclear power plant must be considered in comparison to the costs of climate change that could be averted. They also should be compared to some of the Green New Deal programs which are far more costly and of less proven efficacy.
We will eventually stop using nuclear power, but we should not do so until we have replaced all of our major fossil fuel power sources with renewable energy. Instead, we are condemning our descendants to the inevitable destructive effects of the extent of global climate change partially preventable by nuclear power, and to ecosystem changes including irreversible loss of species.
We should not use 20th-century science to make 21st-century decisions that will be particularly harmful to our 22nd-century descendants. Because the risks of climate change are overwhelmingly greater than the risks of all stages of the nuclear cycle combined. I am convinced that to have a chance of avoiding the existential threat of runaway climate change, we must keep the globe's clunky, aging, awkwardly designed nuclear reactors limping along for the foreseeable future.
The problem? We are accelerating in the wrong direction. A recent boom in coal and natural gas, and a recent shuttering of nuclear plants, means that while carbon emissions leveled off briefly in the mid s, they are increasing again. Global carbon budget Credit: Graphic by Nigel Hawtin, www. Yes, there's some good news in solar and wind, which are growing exponentially as prices drop. Remarkable as their growth has been, it has not offset the growth in coal, oil, and gas use over the same time—much less replaced existing fossil fuels. When renewables have replaced all existing fossil fuels in power production, that's the time to consider closing existing nuclear plants.
In the U. Since , competition from cheap natural gas—and lack of an effective price on carbon—has led to the closure of five nuclear plants in the US. Six more plants are scheduled for closure by although they could operate for decades longer, and they would be cost-effective if we priced the negative externalities of fossil fuel pollution with a carbon fee.
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These six plants generated nearly 60 million megawatt hours in That's more than all of U. Retiring nuclear plants in the U. If we were to retire U. If the Megawatt Pilgrim reactor is closed as scheduled in , that would "remove in one day more zero-emission electricity production than all the new windmills and solar panels Massachusetts has added over the last 20 years. Germany retired 8 of its 17 reactors after Fukushima, and the decline in its emissions quickly came to a halt. Germany's emissions increased from , fell in , but increased again in Even with a sustained commitment to bringing new solar and wind online, Germany's decision to shut nuclear plants undermined its climate efforts.
But that does not eliminate the climate hit from closing nuclear plants. In California, "Pacific Gas and Electric has announced that it plans to replace Diablo Canyon with zero-emitting resources, primarily renewables and energy efficiency. The utility has about eight years to prepare for these replacements. Substituting one zero-emissions source with another does nothing to slow climate change. Radiation is indeed frightening.
Risk is worth interrogating more closely, however.
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Risk is not just how scary something is. It's defined as hazard the harm from something times probability the chance of that something happening. For example, the hazard of mutant zombies chewing our faces off is vast, but the probability one trusts is zero, meaning that the zombie risk is zero. The hazard of a full nuclear meltdown—defined as core damage from overheating—is indeed very high, but not as high as most of my students imagine.
When I ask my students what would happen if one of our three nuclear power stations here in Michigan went into full meltdown, they make wild guesses: "the complete eradication of all biodiversity in North America? Our state uninhabitable for the next , years? To better evaluate the hazard from a meltdown, we look at the worst case scenarios calculated for Fukushima. If TEPCO had entirely evacuated the Daiichi plant during the disaster, full meltdowns at all 4 reactors would have occurred, and if that had necessitated the evacuation of personnel from neighboring nuclear plants, those could have melted down as well.
The U. Doubting TEPCO and the Japanese government's figures, they modeled even worse possibilities, calculating how far radiation could have travelled, given prevailing winds. While media speculation at the time centered on the potential evacuation of Tokyo, the U. The results for such worst-case scenarios, assuming unfavorable wind patterns from the reactor site and a lack of precipitation, suggested that radioactive plumes in excess of EPA standards would not reach within 75 to miles of Tokyo.
Chernobyl radiation map Yes, that represents an enormous hazard, even if it doesn't mean that entire continents would be rendered uninhabitable.
Chernobyl was an even worse disaster, magnified by poor Soviet nuclear design and worse maintenance. The mile radius exclusion zone around Chernobyl is still off limits for permanent residents, and the Zone of Alienation has reached miles. People who work in the exclusion zone must rotate in and out to limit radiation exposure, and extremely toxic hot spots persist. But while these hazards are high, the probability of them recurring is much lower than the probability of climate change.
The nuclear industry has experienced 3 partial meltdowns in 17, cumulative reactor-years of commercial operation, which translates to a 0. That's a significant probability for something with such a high hazard, which means the risk is real. The industry is very good at responding to historical disasters and designing new safety systems to lessen the risk of the same accident occurring twice, but probably less good at anticipating new things that can and will go wrong in such complex systems.
Opposition to Nuclear Energy. Concerns about meltdowns are matched by anxiety about waste storage for many people who oppose nuclear.
Long-term waste storage for high level nuclear waste is a huge cost issue. Technical solutions exist for the containment of high-level waste, as Finland's current project to build the world's first high-level, long-term waste storage facility shows—but most countries have been unwilling to pay the necessary costs. But Finland has a negative externalities law for industries, so the company pays, not the public.
In comparison, the environmental and health costs of coal mining in the U. Consider Michigan, I tell my students, most of whom are from the state. Do these coal plants present risks as great as our nuclear plants? Students typically assume not. They guess that historically, global deaths from nuclear disasters and radiation exposure have been much higher than global deaths from coal. But they are off by fold. For every person that has ever died in a nuclear accident or from long term radiation exposure, more than have died from coal.
Death rates from nuclear energy production. Coal represents a kind of "slow violence," in Rob Nixon's evocative phrase, so it's largely underestimated. But they are enormous. Nine million people died premature deaths from pollution in , mostly from air pollution. Coal kills millions each and every year—even ignoring the risks of climate change. Roof top solar sees deaths installers fall off roofs and wind turbines cause deaths. In the United States, nuclear has led to 0. Worldwide, including Chernobyl and Fukushima, indirect deaths from radiation exposure and increased cancer risk including direct deaths, nuclear's history has witnessed 90 deaths per trillion kWhr of energy production.
Indigenous peoples have disproportionately borne the risks from mining and processing of uranium. But shutting down nuclear wouldn't solve the environmental justice problem, because continued reliance on fossil fuels also disproportionately hurts the poor. I know what the urgencies are here in the immediate, right now … I also know we can't get there unless we substantially support and even embolden the nuclear energy sector.
We've got to support the existing fleet. These are harder to measure with certainty. Take a look at the end-Permian mass extinctions million years ago. As Peter Brannen writes, "Today the consequence of quickly injecting huge pulses of carbon dioxide into the air is discussed as if the threat exists only in the speculative output of computer models.
But, as scientists have discovered, this has happened many times before, and sometimes the results were catastrophic.