Climate change, nuclear power, and renewable energy: environmental reality vs political rhetoric.

Author:Hynes, H. Patricia
 
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A torrent of editorial comment about climate silence followed in the path of the powerful hybrid storm Sandy--a silence that pervaded the 2012 presidential and vice-presidential campaign debates and that stubbornly persisted during and after this complexly dangerous storm, until recently.

While silent on climate change, both President Obama and Republican contender Romney reserved a sizable niche in their energy independence portfolio for nuclear power. And both tout nuclear power as "clean"--code for no global-warming emissions; "safe"--that is, safely managed and regulated; and "reliable"--meaning steady energy output.

Nuclear Nemesis

March 2011's meltdown and explosions in three Fukushima nuclear reactors triggered a sea change in much of the world's faith in nuclear power. The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2012 graphically conveys an industry reeling and in decline from the multiple impacts of world recession, the Fukushima disaster, and immense competition from renewable energy development and natural gas, with costs growing and credit ratings and share prices plummeting. Nineteen reactors were shut down in 2011 while only seven came on line. Five industrial countries announced phase-outs of their nuclear power plants: Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Taiwan, and Japan. At least five countries that planned for nuclear power have declined to develop it, including Egypt, Italy, Jordan, Kuwait and Thailand. Australia is the latest country to opt out of a nuclear energy future. China and other countries have delayed new construction starts. This is merely a partial portrait of the industry in free-fall.

Superstorm Sandy could be--and should be--the climate's counterpart of Fukushima for the United States. Coming near the end of a year of record-shattering weather events, with dire assessments of climate change by scientists, the insurance industry and business analysts, the catastrophe of Sandy should compel both major parties to confront the joined-at-the-hip reality that climate change is upon us and that it magnifies risks of nuclear plant accidents.

Nuclear power was designed with climate scenarios and risk analysis of the 1950s and 1960s, pre-dating the severe climate change epoch we have entered. Extremes of weather are reducing its reliability and rendering it more dangerous in five inter-related ways:

* Reliance on massive amounts of water, more than any fossil fuel plants, thus competing with agriculture for water during...

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