Nuclear Power Key to Reducing Nation’s Carbon Footprint, not just Vermont’s

by Marshall Bornemann

There is an old saying, “don’t let the facts get in the way of your argument.” This is especially tempting if you think your point of view is morally right and would benefit the world if it prevailed. I am talking about global warming, Vermont Yankee, and the inconvenient (for some) truth that nuclear power is very low-carbon.

Anti-nuclear global warming activists in both the Washington, D.C. area, where I now live, and in my previous home of Vermont just hate this fact. Because if it’s true, the obvious conclusion is that they should “think globally and act locally” and support Vermont Yankee and nuclear power in general, just as many other global warming activists like NASA scientist James Hanson and Whole Earth Catalogue founder Stewart Brand support nuclear energy. It’s just common sense.

Instead, some activists resort to cheap obfuscation. They concede that there are no carbon gas emissions coming from nuclear power plants, yet pronounce that nuclear isn’t as low-carbon as wind, solar, and hydropower because refining uranium is energy intensive. And while refining does require energy, wind, solar, and hydro all use various amounts of energy at some point in their life-cycles.

Wind turbines and solar panels are made by car-driving employees in energy-burning factories, not by elves in tree trunks. The most modern solar panels require precious metals which must be refined. Wind farms cannot be built without the bulldozing of roads and blasting of mountaintops. Even small hydro dams use many tons of factory-made concrete and steel. You need to use energy to make energy, and for every form of energy the energy use “bubble” occurs at a different point in its life-cycle. Sometimes it’s obvious to the general public, sometimes it’s not.

Study after study has demonstrated this fact: nuclear power, hydro, wind, and solar are virtually identical in “life-cycle” carbon emissions per kilowatt-hour. The U.S. Renewable Power Laboratory – the renewable power research center for the U.S. Department of Energy – conducted an exhaustive study and concluded that “nuclear is similar to renewables and much lower than fossil fuels in total life-cycle [greenhouse gas] emissions.”

Hanson, the reputed father of the global warming movement, recently came out in support of nuclear power. President Obama’s nominee to be the next U.S. Secretary of Energy, Dr. Ernest Moniz of MIT, supports nuclear power and believes it will be key to meeting carbon reduction goals.

Nuclear’s critics also bring up the spent fuel problem, overlooking yet another fact: recycling spent fuel is far more technologically and economically feasible than putting a solar panel on every building and redesigning our entire transmission grid. And even if it were not, if global warming is the imminent global threat they say it is, wouldn’t it make sense to just store the spent fuel somewhere?

In the face of hard science, expert testimony, and common sense, it would behoove Vermont’s global warming opponents – starting with our governor – to support Vermont Yankee’s continued operation. Or, at the very least, explain why “the most important problem in the world” really isn’t Vermont’s problem, except when fighting it coincides with our state energy policy. That is a remarkably parochial attitude that does not play well in any serious discussion of solving problems on a national level. To say “it’s someone else’s problem” is not leadership.

Vermont should back up its green rhetoric, or back off. Either produce another 600 megawatts of low-carbon power, or stop trying to close Vermont Yankee. Or at the very least explain why the state I once called home is trying its hardest to shut down its single largest device in the fight against global warming.

Marshall Bornemann is a former South Burlington resident, and is currently enrolled at American University in Washington, DC.