Energy’s greatest health risk comes from fossil fuels — precisely why we need to hit the pause button on nuclear power

The greatest energy-related health risks to Americans clearly come from fossil fuels.

The gravest immediate risk is the traditional air pollution that comes from the combustion of coal, oil, and natural gas, which kills 20,000 or more Americans a year, and impairs the health of hundreds of thousands (see Life-cycle study: Accounting for total harm from coal would add “close to 17.8¢/kWh of electricity generated” and Burning fossil fuels costs the U.S. $120 billion a year “” not counting mercury or climate impacts).

The gravest risk in the coming decades is from unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions, primarily from the combustion of coal, oil, and natural gas, which threatens multiple simultaneous catastrophes whose combined impact would very likely harm all Americans and all of humanity severely and irreversibly for many centuries (see “A stunning year in climate science reveals that human civilization is on the precipice”).

But we also live in a world of finite resources and finite investment dollars, which is precisely why we can’t afford to make big mistakes in energy policy, as we have with, say corn ethanol. Right now, it appears that a major push towards new nuclear power would be such a mistake.


Fundamentally, we need to focus on the energy technologies and strategies that meet the combination of low cost (including all environmental and health costs), practicality, and scalability.

Nuclear fails the key tests not because Japan shows nuclear power is inherently unsafe. Nuclear fails the test because it is wildly expensive, and Japan makes clear there is a good reason for that. As Richard Caperton and I wrote in our CNN piece:

New reactors are intrinsically expensive because they must be able to withstand virtually any risk that we can imagine, including human error and major disasters. Why? Because when the potential result of a disaster is the poisoning “” and ultimately, death “” of thousands of people, even the most remote threats must be eliminated.

Nuclear power wasn’t going anywhere in this country before the earthquake and tsunami (see Exelon’s Rowe: Low gas prices and no carbon price push back nuclear renaissance a “decade, maybe two”). It is just far too expensive:

Clearly, we shouldn’t be trying to accelerate the permitting process or reducing safeguards.

Insurers know that the results of a nuclear catastrophe would be ruinous on a scale that would overwhelm any private company, which is why they won’t insure nuclear plants. Instead, the U.S. government “” which is to say taxpayers “” takes on the liability for nuclear reactors.

If one of the 104 nuclear reactors in the U.S. experiences a catastrophic failure, taxpayers will be on the hook to pay for the damages.

Taxpayers aren’t just bearing the risk for operational and environmental disasters, they are also on the hook for financial disasters. No bank will finance a new reactor without a loan guarantee from the federal government, which says that if the power company can’t pay the loan, the government will step in and pay it for them.

Let’s be clear: If something goes wrong with a U.S. nuclear reactor, the American public will be in double jeopardy “” we’ll suffer the health consequences and then also have to pay for it.

Because taxpayers have so much to lose in a nuclear disaster, the government has a responsibility to take every precaution to minimize that risk.

Right now, energy efficiency and demand response are vastly cheaper than new nukes. Increasing the capacity utilization of combined cycle natural gas plants can replace coal for the foreseeable future as new baseload power (in the few places where that is needed and that are too uninformed to be pursuing efficiency).


Even solar power can apparently meet many critical aspects of utility needs cheaper than new nukes — and unlike the nukes, both solar photovoltaics and concentrated solar thermal power are coming down steadily in price.

Nuclear needs to get its act together in this country if it is to see significant growth. The industry had decades to agree on one or two moodular designs that would have streamlined permitting, reduced construction costs and bottlenecks, simplified training, improved oversight, and increased safety. The ONLY reason not to have one or two designs is, supposedly, that multiple designs improve competitiveness and thus lower total costs. #FAIL.

So let’s hit the pause button on new nuclear power plants. Let’s figure out what we’re going to do with the waste and if we can’t get a central repository, then we must figure out how we’re going to make the spent fuel as safe as possible. Let’s get one or two modular designs and see if we can develop a process that gets nukes on a declining cost curve, rather than an increasing one.

It may be that nuclear power won’t be a substantial contributor to solving global warming in this country. There is certainly no intrinsic reason why it should be and there are many plausible alternative pathways, one of which I just posted (see “a practical, affordable (and safe) clean electricity plan”).

For the foreseeable future, we’re certainly not gonna be building any new nukes that the taxpayers aren’t guaranteeing — and since the president and Congress seem to be committed to austerity, nuclear subsidies certainly aren’t going to be dramatically increasing (see Wall Street Journal poll: Most popular spending cut is to subsidies for new nuclear plants).

Right now, the country simply isn’t serious about global warming, but come the 2020s, we’re going to be desperate — and we will engage in a WWII-scale effort to deploy every practical and affordable low carbon technology available. Right now, it doesn’t seem like nuclear will be a big part of that deployment in the United States. If the industry and policymakers want to change that assessment, then they will have to completely rethink what they are doing.

If not, here’s what will do the heavy lifting: