Nuclear’s long odds

Climate change is here, but nuclear power as a solution faces economical and historical challenges.


A light breeze rustled the leaves clinging to the trees behind the Sunflower Café in Sonoma, California, Nov. 8. By the time I downed my second cup of coffee, it had stiffened into a gusty gale from the northeast; when I stepped outside 30 minutes later, billowing clouds of acrid, yellow-brown smoke were descending on the town square like a flock of J.K. Rowling’s Dementors.

By the next day, the Camp Fire, more than 100 miles to the east, had burned an astonishing 70,000 acres, consuming the town of Paradise and killing more than 88 people, many of them desperately trying to flee through tinder-dry woodlands. In San Francisco, residents wearing masks struggled to breath air thicker than Beijing’s toxic soup. Meanwhile, outside Los Angeles, the Woolsey Fire, fanned by the same late-season winds, raced through chaparral toward the sea, burning the houses of both rich and poor.

Coming on the heels of a deadly hurricane season and a tempestuous election, the blazes delivered an unmistakable message: Climate change is here, no matter how vociferously some deny it, and we have to take notice.

The activists profiled in this issue’s cover story agree. Yet, their solution — a global expansion of nuclear power to replace carbon-spewing fossil fuels — is embraced by few in the U.S. To them, the solution is clear: Go nuclear or risk the planet. But, as Jonathan Thompson writes, nuclear power’s future is more uncertain than ever. Utilities have largely turned to cheaper natural gas and solar and wind, and are considering shuttering existing nuclear plants as they come up for relicensing. Meanwhile, the long-hoped-for (and heavily subsidized) new generation of small, nimble plants — “nukes in a can” — has had trouble gaining traction, even in the conservative Interior West.

It’s not just the economics. After all, we could decide to swallow the costs and go all-in on nuclear to slow what the latest National Climate Assessment report (released, ironically, the day after Thanksgiving) says is already upon us: the accelerated floods, droughts and fires that will cost us tens of billions of dollars annually.

Paul Larmer, executive director/publisher
Brooke Warren/High Country News

But nuclear power and weapons production are both still saddled with a legacy of spills and meltdowns and radioactive waste, contaminating sites like eastern Washington’s Hanford nuclear complex. As Heather Hansman reports in our second feature, the prospect of safely cleaning up these places seems as far away now as it did when cleanups started three decades ago.

Today’s climate-savvy nuclear advocates acknowledge these obstacles but refuse to give up. The odds are long, the challenges perhaps insurmountable, but any optimism is welcome in these dark times. As my plane departed the Oakland airport Nov. 10, I could barely make out the San Francisco skyline. A few minutes later, we broke out into blue sky.

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