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NUCLEAR ENERGY: TOO slow, TOO dangerous, too costly

Here in New Mexico we know only too well the true impact of nuclear energy development, from exploitative uranium mining  poisoning indigenous people and lands, to radioactive contamination of water sources downstream from testing sites at Los Alamos to the imposition of dangerous storage facilities in seismically unsound caverns in Carlsbad. But the injustice and local impacts of nuclear energy are not the only reasons why nuclear energy is not the answer to the climate crisis. Stanford Professor Mark Jacobson details the risks posed by nuclear energy:

1. Long Time Lag Between Planning and Operation

One nuclear power plant takes on average about 14-1/2 years to build, from the planning phase all the way to operation. According to the World Health Organization, about 7.1 million people die from air pollution each year, with more than 90 percent of these deaths from energy-related combustion. So switching out our energy system to nuclear would result in about 93 million people dying, as we wait for all the new nuclear plants to be built in the all-nuclear scenario. Utility-scale wind and solar farms, on the other hand, take on average only 2 to 5 years, from the planning phase to operation. Rooftop solar PV projects are down to only a 6-month timeline. So transitioning to 100% renewables as soon as possible would result in tens of millions fewer deaths. 

2. Cost

The levelized cost of energy (LCOE) for a new nuclear plant in 2018, is $151 (112 to 189)/MWh. This compares with $43 (29 to 56)/MWh for onshore wind and $41 (36 to 46)/MWh for utility-scale solar PV from the same source. This nuclear LCOE is an underestimate because it doesn't include the cost of delays, a notorious problem in nuclear energy development, or the cost of catastrophic meltdowns and associated contamination and cleanup costs for land miles around the plant. It also does not include the cost of storing nuclear waste. In the U.S. alone, about $500 million is spent yearly to safeguard nuclear waste from about 100 civilian nuclear energy plants. This amount will only increase as waste continues to accumulate. Investment in nuclear energy does not make sense from a purely economic perspective.

3. Weapons Proliferation Risk

The growth of nuclear energy has historically increased the ability of nations to obtain or harvest plutonium or enrich uranium to manufacture nuclear weapons. The building of a nuclear reactor for energy in a country that does not currently have a reactor allows the country to import uranium for use in the nuclear energy facility. If the country so chooses, it can secretly enrich the uranium to create weapons-grade uranium and harvest plutonium from uranium fuel rods for use in nuclear weapons. This does not mean any or every country will do this, but historically some have and the risk is high, as noted by IPCC. The building and spreading of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) may increase this risk further.

4. Meltdown Risk

To date, 1.5 percent of all nuclear power plants ever built have melted down to some degree. Meltdowns have been either catastrophic (Chernobyl, Russia in 1986; three reactors at Fukushima Dai-ichi, Japan in 2011) or damaging (Three-Mile Island, Pennsylvania in 1979; Saint-Laurent France in 1980). The nuclear industry has proposed new reactor designs that they suggest are safer. However, these designs are generally untested, and there is no guarantee that the reactors will be designed, built, and operated correctly or that a natural disaster or act of terrorism, such as an airplane flown into a reactor, will not cause the reactor to fail, resulting in a major disaster. See, for example, Ukrainian plant Zaporizhia, an explosive football in the Russian war strategy.

5. Mining Lung Cancer Risk

Uranium mining causes lung cancer in large numbers of miners because uranium mines contain natural radon gas, some of whose decay products are carcinogenic. A study of 4,000 uranium miners between 1950 and 2000 found that 405 (10 percent) died of lung cancer, a rate six times that expected based on smoking rates alone. 61 others died of mining-related lung diseases. Clean, renewable energy does not have this risk because (a) it does not require the continuous mining of any material, only one-time mining to produce the energy generators; and (b) the mining does not carry the same lung cancer risk that uranium mining does.

6. Carbon-Equivalent Emissions and Air Pollution

There is no such thing as a zero- or close-to-zero emission nuclear power plant. Even existing plants emit due to the continuous mining and refining of uranium needed for the plant. Emissions from new nuclear are 78 to 178 g-CO2/kWh, not close to 0. Of this, 64 to 102 g-CO2/kWh over 100 years are emissions from the background grid while consumers wait 10 to 19 years for nuclear to come online or be refurbished, relative to 2 to 5 years for wind or solar. In addition, all nuclear plants emit 4.4 g-CO2e/kWh from the water vapor and heat they release. This contrasts with solar panels and wind turbines, which reduce heat or water vapor fluxes to the air by about 2.2 g-CO2e/kWh for a net difference from this factor alone of 6.6 g-CO2e/kWh.

7. Waste Risk

Last but not least, consumed fuel rods from nuclear plants are radioactive waste. Most fuel rods are stored at the same site as the reactor that consumed them. This has given rise to hundreds of radioactive waste sites in many countries that must be maintained and funded for at least 200,000 years, far beyond the lifetimes of any nuclear power plant. The more nuclear waste that accumulates, the greater the risk of radioactive leaks, which can damage water supply, crops, animals, and humans.

"Pink" hydrogen is a double jeopardy false solution - hydrogen produced from nuclear power.  Why should New Mexico be concerned about Nuclear-Hydrogen Hub development?

In the United States, there have been just over 100 commercial nuclear reactors at 65 nuclear power plants across the country (NRC) producing electricity since the 1970s. Today, many have been closed and decommissioned, whereas several are continuing beyond their original closure dates; and only one nuclear power plant is adding new reactors. There are no nuclear power plants that are currently producing hydrogen, but the DOE is “investing billions to ... scale-up the production of clean hydrogen by leveraging the nation’s existing energy assets, including nuclear power plants” (DOE, 2022). The DOE is working with utility companies to develop nuclear-powered hydrogen demonstration projects at four sites, including Palo Verde Generating Station in Arizona, of which PNM owns “just over 10%.” (DOE, 2022) (PNM,2022). Does this mean that New Mexico ratepayers could possibly become investors of hydrogen development themselves, or liable for any risk?

Also in New Mexico, while there are no nuclear reactors, there are several concerns including a proposal to build and operate the a high-level radioactive waste storage site for all U.S. commercial nuclear power plant waste (Holtec, 2022), coupled with federal financing for research to reprocess that waste. Adrian Hedden of the Carlsbad Current-Argus newspaper reports, “A team of scientists at New Mexico State University earned $8.5 million in federal grant funding from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop a method to recycle spent fuel leftover from decommissioned nuclear power plants” (DOE, 2022). While there is no public discussion of using reprocessed nuclear power waste for pink or red hydrogen development, there is funding in place to start the process.

Last and possibly most important, New Mexico depends heavily on federal funding of the two national nuclear laboratories in our state: Sandia National Labs and Los Alamos National Labs. With these federal entities, and existing MOUs, along with several other nuclear facilities in the southeast, New Mexico is considered by some to be a highly-advanced nuclear technology state, and by others it is considered to be a nuclear sacrifice zone. In southeast New Mexico, the state has North America's only uranium enrichment facility (Urenco, 2022), the world’s only deep geological repository for nuclear weapons waste, and possibly the largest radioactive waste dump in the world for commercial nuclear power plant waste. The biggest impact to Indigenous peoples of New Mexico is the threat of new uranium mining.

- Excerpt from New Mexico Hydrogen Hub Development: An Analysis of Hydrogen Energy and Energy Economic Development in New Mexico 

But don't we need nuclear energy because wind and solar are intermittent? NO!

Nuclear advocates claim nuclear is still needed because renewables are intermittent and need natural gas for backup. However, nuclear itself never matches power demand so it needs its own backup. Even in France with one of the most advanced nuclear energy programs, the maximum ramp rate is 1 to 5 % per minute, which means they need natural gas, hydropower, or batteries, which ramp up 5 to 100 times faster, to meet peaks in demand. Today, in fact, batteries are beating natural gas for wind and solar backup needs throughout the world.


A dozen independent scientific groups have further found that it is possible to match intermittent power demand with clean, renewable energy supply and storage, without nuclear, at lower cost.

Derivations and sources of the numbers provided herein can be found here.

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