Steve's Reflections


In 1999 and 2000, Steve Kirsch outlined his thoughts on a variety of philanthropic and political reform topics. Please select from the list to find those of interest to you.

Reflection #19

"Nuclear Power and its Tremendous Risks"

By Steve Kirsch

Most Americans know that burning fossil fuels is the major cause of global warming. The world’s cars, factories, and power plants are injecting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a much faster rate than it can be removed by natural biological processes.

America is responsible for a disproportionate portion of this problem. We contribute about one-fourth of all greenhouse gas emissions. In the automobile/truck/SUV segment, we consume 43 percent of the world’s gasoline. So Americans must find alternatives to coal, oil, and natural gas.

Nuclear power seems, at first, to be a very attractive alternative. It appears to be relatively cheap and relatively safe, and it produces no greenhouse gases.

This belief is dead wrong.

In general, the safer a reactor is, the more costly it is to build and operate. American style reactors with redundant safety systems, containment shells, and ever-more-elaborate security provisions are so expensive that no company will build them without subsidies.

Even with safeguards, the insurance industry considers nuclear plants risky. The industry was willing to insure New Orleans against a hurricane, but will not insure a nuclear power plant without a strict, low, absolute limit on liability guaranteed by federal law. If Congress repealed this liability cap, the nuclear industry would cease to exist.

Furthermore, American nuclear plants store their waste on site in above ground casks, vulnerable to terrorist attack. Given the long radioactive life of nuclear material and ongoing terrorist concerns, it is wildly irresponsible to propose a major expansion of nuclear power until we know how to safeguard the waste for thousands of years.

And the claim that nuclear power produces no greenhouse gases does not hold up. Nuclear power plants themselves don’t emit carbon dioxide, but the rest of the fuel cycle depends heavily on fossil fuels. Two of America’s most polluting coal plants, in Ohio and Indiana, mainly supply electricity for the very energy-intensive uranium enrichment process.

Nuclear power plants can also result in major accidents. In addition to plant workers who died immediately after Chernobyl (in what was then the Soviet Union), it is likely that up to 8,000 people will eventually die as a result of what happened. The largest nuclear plant accident in history exposed a thousand plant workers to radiation on the first day, and about 200,000 emergency and recovery operation workers over the 18-month initial clean-up. Even better technology and sophisticated and redoubled safety measures cannot guarantee against such disasters in the future.

But the most powerful argument against nuclear power is that, in this increasingly globalized world, America cannot build its economy around nuclear power that it doesn’t want to share with other countries. Nuclear power and nuclear weapons require the same materials and employ the same technical skills. Nuclear power specialists in India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea, and Iran proved to be bomb builders as well. If America uses nuclear energy, others will want the same, and that opens the door to nuclear weapons proliferation.

As a father, I want my children to live in a world in which nuclear war and nuclear terrorism are not possible. Horrible as Sept. 11 was, I can’t help but contemplate the far greater carnage had a nuclear device been detonated there instead. That’s why, in my view, nuclear power is not the energy solution to global warming.

April of this year will mark two anniversaries: Chernobyl’s 20th and Earth Day’s 36th. They come at a time when ignorance about global warming remains. Those who want to sow doubt about it continue a calculated, well-funded misinformation campaign. But it is also a time when the world is alive with ideas for solving climate change.

Those of us in Silicon Valley have a huge concentration of the country’s brainpower and entrepreneurial capital. An ever increasing portion of it should be devoted to finding cost-effective, reliable ways to harness renewable energy sources that produce neither greenhouse gases nor nuclear bomb materials.

STEVE KIRSCH is CEO of Propel Software. He and his wife started the Steven and Michele Kirsch Foundation, which includes a focus on the threat from nuclear weapons. He wrote this article, which was published as “Despite safeguards, nuclear power carries great risk” in the April 24, 2006 issue of the San Jose Mercury News.

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