Environment Column

For sustainability’s sake, rethink nuclear energy

/ The Daily Orange

Every time there’s an oil spill, we rally to clean it up. But what we should be doing is questioning the safety and practicality of nuclear energy generation.

An unknown amount of oil spilled from the Indian Point Energy Center into a discharge canal in late September. The incident, which caused oil to flow into the Hudson River, occurred after a cooling turbine malfunction and is a prime example as to why we cannot continue to depend solely on nuclear energy.

With malfunctioning machinery, fires and more than 40 oil spills and unexpected shutdowns since 2011, it’s clear that Indian Point is an aging plant from the 1960s that needs to be decommissioned.

Instances like this oil spill in Buchanan, New York, show the tremendous amount of vigilance nuclear energy requires and how much other harm energy plants can cause. Oil spills like the ones that have happened in the past and groundwater contamination have serious consequences. Even more serious is the fallout from radioactive nuclear waste, which is a byproduct of the nuclear energy these machines produce.

One regional initiative to combat nuclear energy is Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to power New York state with 50 percent renewable energy by 2030. Though ambitious, it’s a commendable and important step to get the state moving toward an extremely necessary and urgent shift away from dirty energy. But the significance and utility of a proposal like Cuomo’s is undermined with the existence of poorly maintained, out-of-date nuclear power plants like Indian Point.

Even on the Hill, the present dangers of nuclear energy are closer than we think. The FitzPatrick nuclear power plant in Oswego, New York, is just under 40 miles away from the Hill. And just this past June it was responsible for an oil spill. This plant is due to close in January 2017 because of repeated cases of malfunction, though the plan to shutter the plant has been met with resistance in order to save jobs.

“If something creates jobs for a community, there’s nothing you can do to critique it or even suggest it might need to go away,” said Matthew Huber, a geography professor in SU’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. “So it’s a bit problematic when we start to think about all the energy transition we need away from not only nuclear, but fossil fuels, where you’re always going to hear ‘But what about the jobs?’”

The opposition to shutting down aging plants has a point: a 2015 World Nuclear Industry Status Report points to the building of new plants and the decommissioning of old ones as the main reason for stunted growth of the electricity production industry. Nuclear power now only provides 10.9 percent of the world’s electricity production, remaining stagnant since the 1980s due to rapid decommissioning.

In that vein, there are some positive qualities about nuclear energy. Life cycle analysis shows that nuclear energy has a low global warming potential, which means it’s better than fossil fuels. But it is not sustainable as a renewable energy source because it still requires uranium.

Paul Souder, a nuclear physics professor at SU, highlighted the diversity of viewpoint when it come to nuclear energy, saying “opinions about nuclear power among experts in nuclear physics vary widely. Largely because many issues are very complex.”

Of course, the entire concept behind nuclear energy stems from the idea that humans are capable of anything. It is the idea of “Yes, we can destroy, but what’s even more important is what we can create something to mitigate our destruction.” But of the 30 countries operating nearly 450 nuclear reactors, Finland is the only one getting serious about building a permanent nuclear waste repository that will need to last 100,000 years.

We must reconsider where our energy is coming from. And equally as important, we must understand the transition away from fossil fuels will take time. Because although renewable energy forms have risen, we have to be practical with our expectations.

With cases like Indian Point in particular, the disadvantages of nuclear energy are paramount. Even Cuomo called for an investigation of the facility in December 2015. With its location just 25 miles north of New York City, hopefully recent events will serve as the catalyst to shut down Indian Point before, as Cuomo has said, the site becomes “one problem too many.”

So despite the upsides to nuclear energy, we cannot mistake it as the end goal.  A shift from fossil fuels to nuclear is just a shift from one finite resource to another. If anything, nuclear can be a stepping stone as we make the crucial transition to renewable energy and doing so would demand extreme cautions and regulations.

Victoria Chen is a senior international relations major, and an environment and society minor. Her column appears weekly. She can be reached at vlchen@syr.edu.

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