Phase Out Nuclear Power to Avoid Another Disaster

Until recently, nuclear power plants generated nearly a quarter of the electricity used in Germany, which boasts Europe’s largest economy. But following this spring’s disastrous earthquake and tsunami at Japan’s Fukushima plant, where hydrogen explosions and reactor meltdowns sent highly radioactive material spewing into the sea and air, the government disconnected eight of Germany’s 17 reactors. Three months later, they were closed permanently. Now Chancellor Angela Merkel – bravely reversing her original decision taken less than a year ago to extend the life of Germany’s nuclear plants – has decided to retire the remaining nine reactors and phase out Germany’s use of nuclear power entirely by 2022.

President Barack Obama and the United States should do the same.

Instead of continuing his senseless campaign for an American “nuclear renaissance,” Obama should emulate Merkel and reverse course. In so doing, he would join his German counterpart in leading the world into a new global economy in which wind, biomass, solar, and other renewable energy sources, matched with a new emphasis on enhanced efficiency, are developed fast enough to replace the lost power from nuclear plants. At the same time, Obama could avoid risking another catastrophic nuclear accident (weren’t Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima enough?) and simultaneously save lives, communities, and, not coincidentally, hundreds of billions of dollars.

A disaster similar to that in Japan could happen again – anytime and anywhere – including here in the U.S., where there are 23 nuclear power plants using the same flawed General Electric Mark 1 reactors as the Fukushima plant. Nuclear opponents and proponents alike – including Nuclear Regulatory Commission personnel – have long said the GE design is prone to precisely the sorts of explosions and containment failure that happened at Fukushima.

Perhaps worse, there is still no feasible plan for the long-term storage of the tons of radioactive waste that have been generated by decades of commercial nuclear power generation. Instead, this “spent fuel” continues to reside in dangerous “temporary” storage pools located on the reactor sites, while billions of taxpayers’ dollars have already been wasted in a futile federal effort to find a safer and more permanent waste repository.

Of course, as in Germany, there are powerful industrial and political interests here in America who will fight the shift away from nuclear, citing higher costs and climate change among other considerations, so we should prepare for an arduous battle. We will need to foster more energy efficiency by investing in conservation measures in homes and factories, expanding the national power grid, and increasing energy generated from renewable sources like wind and solar. But while there are undoubtedly many challenges, the goal of a nuclear-free future is still eminently attainable and desirable.

Furthermore, the innovation and new technology that such a move would spur should offer a clear economic advantage to those first to enact such a policy. As Germany’s Federal Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen points out, “New technologies and products, new export opportunities and thus employment and growth will be created.”

Germany’s planners are convinced they can abandon their reliance on nuclear energy in large part because of their already demonstrated progress in renewable energy, which now accounts for 17% of its electricity output, a number they estimate will double in a decade.

As Elizabeth Rosenthal recently noted in the New York Times, “The world is watching Germany’s extreme energy makeover, as politicians from New York to Rome have floated their own plans to shut or shelve reactors.”

If Germany’s 80 million people can make the leap to a nuclear-free economy – the first major industrial nation to make the transition – what are we Americans waiting for?

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

(Editor’s Note: An updated Second Edition of O’Connor’s award-winning book, “Nukespeak: The Selling of Nuclear Technology from the Manhattan Project to Fukushima,” will be published on October 4 by Sierra Club Books as an ebook.)