Op-Ed by Jim Warren
(The nuclear industry’s) hoax has persuaded some people who should know better
that nuclear power is a realistic and indeed an indispensable solution to climate change. — Amory
Lovins, Rocky Mountain Institute
What’s the most compelling reason Progress Energy should stop planning new reactors at its
Shearon Harris nuclear plant?
Global climate change. North Carolina doesn’t have time to gamble on new nuclear plants, nor
spend years fighting over whether to build them.
Global warming is accelerating toward potentially catastrophic weather changes — including more
severe storms and droughts. Experts, including NASA climatologist James Hansen, warn that the
process could become unstoppable within 10 years and that greenhouse gas reductions must
Efforts to resuscitate nuclear power are impeding climate stabilization by squandering time and
resources needed to cut greenhouse gases. And if Progress Energy actually commits to new
reactors, the result would be increased greenhouse gas emissions for many years.
Hold it! Isn’t nuclear “clean”?
Only in the artful tongue of the nuclear companies’ public relations machine.
True, using the heat of nuclear fission to generate electricity produces no greenhouse gasses
directly. But in building the power plant — a major undertaking — enormous amounts of fossil fuel
would be used for producing and transporting concrete, metal and plastic components. They
would cause toxic and greenhouse emissions during years of construction. Although some of that
energy would be expended outside North Carolina, the entire life-cycle emissions would be
attributable to the Harris plant.
Researchers van Leeuwen & Smith and others estimate it could take nine to 25 years of plant
operation just to break even with the energy going into nuclear plant construction,
decommissioning and the multi-faceted, energy-intensive fuel cycle.
It could take well over 20 years before the first new Harris reactor (Progress has said it could be
on-line in 2016 if a decision to proceed is made) contributes any net greenhouse gas reductions.
It’s entirely possible that it never would, due to:
1) Numerous unknowns involving design, licensing and construction, 2) the dwindling supply of
high-grade uranium (lower grade ores require even more energy to convert into reactor fuel) and
3) potential project failure caused by a severe nuclear accident or terrorism anywhere, loss of
federal subsidies, economic downturn — or by society becoming energy-smart. Those and other
scenarios could leave North Carolina ratepayers with a multi-billion dollar nuclear albatross and a
spike in power bills.
Standard & Poor’s warns that new reactors are high-risk investments. That’s why Progress
Energy will gamble only if federal — and probably state — subsidies can be secured.
The nuclear PR machine also claims reactors are increasingly safe and economically sound. If
true, why does the industry insist taxpayers insure new reactors against disasters — and help
• • •
Even if new nuclear plants were safe, North Carolina cannot simultaneously build large power
plants and cut greenhouse gases. We must address the enormous challenge of climate change
through a concerted effort to enhance energy efficiency programs, while phasing in readily
available co-generation and renewable energy technologies.
This debate must not be dominated, as in the past, with Progress Energy spending millions of
ratepayer dollars to block such programs — nor using its lobbying muscle, image advertising and
targeted philanthropy to persuade regional leaders to endorse new reactors without scrutinizing
the merits and risks.
We urge civic leaders to conduct open, balanced forums where the utility can explain its plans
and answer the critics’ tough questions.
Despite NC WARN’s long-running criticism about Progress Energy’s practices, we urge its
managers to avoid a prolonged fight over new reactors, and join citizens in a cooperative
approach for mitigating the unprecedented challenge posed by global warming. We propose
realigning the rate structure so the utilities can benefit by helping customers save electricity — and
avoid gambling on new plants — instead of the current system that drives maximum energy sales.
Otherwise, North Carolina must reassert its control over the corporate charter and monopoly
market granted to Progress Energy by the people. The time has come for responsible action.