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Nuclear energy is clean, safe energy

A recent guest column appearing in the Herald by spokespersons from Sierra Club, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth asserts that, “Nuclear power is a losing proposition.” A fact-based test of this claim yields an opposite result.

The culture of anti-nuclear activism has dwindled significantly in recent times precisely because of the recognition that nuclear energy provides unmatched benefits to the environment. There was nothing new in the arguments of the recent column. They were recycled from a generation ago and largely debunked through five decades of America’s successful operation of more than 100 carbon-free nuclear power plants.

The authors’ claims also contradict a bipartisan chorus of contemporary opinion leaders who have real expertise. For example, Christie Todd-Whitman, former secretary of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), recently pointed out that, “Nuclear energy provides 98 percent of Florida’s carbon-free electricity, and Florida’s reactors have effectively offset 15 million tons of carbon emissions each year, which is the equivalent of removing 3 million cars from the road annually.”

As America’s former top environmental regulator, she explained that additional nuclear plants will help Florida comply with the upcoming rules under President Obama’s EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

She’s right and she’s joined by a diverse group of other experts throughout the political and scientific spectrums. Carol Browner, a former secretary of the Florida’s Department of Environmental Regulation, has said, “Preserving our existing nuclear plants will be a key part of our efforts to reduce carbon emissions and build a cleaner-energy future and safer environment for our children.” She has credibility on this topic. She was also the longest serving administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from 1993 to 2001 and also served as director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy for President Obama.

Obama’s current EPA leadership also disagrees with the authors of the column. A recent Bloomberg News article, New nuclear power seen as winner in Obama’s clean-power plan, quotes U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy saying: “Nuclear facilities will be credited because it’s new, zero-carbon generation that will be credited as part of a compliance strategy … that’s entirely consistent and appropriate.”

Although activist organizations can still grab local headlines and motivate donors by opposing nuclear energy, they often do it with shock-talk and false claims. For example, a group in Knoxville, Tennessee, recently started a petition drive to oppose a new nuclear plant in Florida by alleging that one foot of sea-level rise would “put it under water”. They said this without realizing, or admitting, that the new power plant units, to be added to the two units that have operated at this site for the past 30 years, would be built 26 feet above sea level, a height providing a margin far exceeding even the most draconian future sea-level rise projections.

The group also failed to disclose that sea-level rise was already considered and analyzed in detail by technical experts as part of the Site Certification Process conducted by the Department of Environmental Protection and an independent administrative law judge who then recommended approval of the proposed site.

The informed environmental community, once opposed to nuclear energy, has now largely come full circle on utilizing science and the atom as a clean source of electricity. It has been well-stated by Dr. Patrick Moore, a leading environmental activist the last half century and former co-founder of Green Peace: “My opinion that nuclear energy is safe, clean and sustainable was formed in the mid-1990s during the reconsideration of energy policy in light of climate change.

“It is obvious that nuclear energy, when replacing fossil fuel technology, reduces CO2 emissions by more than 95 percent. My primary reasons for supporting nuclear energy are that it is superior to other technologies as a long-term, cost-effective, safe and clean source of electrical power.”

Of course, all opinions, and the authors of those opinions, must be shown respect. Everyone should be heard. But, we should also apply a reasonable level of fact-checking to help gauge the strength of opinion-based arguments, particularly in the context of policy decisions that depend on technical accuracy. Nuclear energy and the environment are examples.

When it comes to the environment and providing clean, emission-free supplies of electricity, nuclear is not a “losing proposition.” To the contrary, all of us who care about the environment, including activists, lose if we do not deploy more nuclear energy in the future.

Jerry Paul is the former principal deputy administrator of the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration. He is a nuclear engineer, attorney and former member of the Florida Legislature where he served on the House Natural Resources Committee and chaired the House Environmental Regulation Subcommittee.