Opinion: Nuclear power is not the answer to San Diego County’s clean energy needs

Grafton is a Ph.D. student in geography at San Diego State University and vice president of the Geography Graduate Student Association. He lives in San Carlos.

Nuclear? No way!

Only a loon would consider modern American history and the current challenges related to climate change, and decide that nuclear power is the solution. Proponents of nuclear power want to exchange one set of problems for another with little regard for generational well-being or the many excellent alternatives already available. A recent debate around the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant reveals the shallowness of arguments in favor of nuclear energy.

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These questions could not be more timely with the recent release of the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that states it is “unequivocal” that human activities are behind climate change. As climate change accelerates and we head toward a world in which we most likely cross multiple tipping points, San Diego County will feel the effects of a changing planet and our energy security will be threatened. We need only look to the massive wildfires sweeping across the state, increasing coastal erosion and the ongoing drought for evidence of the challenges to come. San Diego County will be particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels as we approach the 2 degrees Celsius threshold increase in global temperatures that the IPCC says will accelerate the effects of global warming, including melting ice sheets at the poles and in Greenland.

While advocates of nuclear power argue that it is the best way to transition to alternative energy sources, the best way is simply transitioning to alternative energy sources themselves. San Diego County is already a leader in alternative energy with a booming solar industry in place and even more solar projects on the way. San Diego Gas & Electric is developing a new 20-megawatt energy storage facility among other projects that will add to the county’s energy security. Combing these efforts with increased investment in hydroelectric, geothermal and microgrids would significantly increase the county’s energy capacity while reducing costs to the consumer.

Nuclear proponents also shout from the rooftops the merits of nuclear on the basis that CO2 emissions are dramatically reduced. Unfortunately, this is joined by a corresponding output of radioactive nuclear waste. We are literally exchanging one pressing set of problems for another. However, we currently have a wide body of knowledge regarding climate change, its imminent impacts and the positive results from adopting alternative energy sources. Comparatively, we know next to nothing about the long-term consequences of storing radioactive nuclear waste on land or when dumped in the oceans, as many countries did prior to 1993 to get rid of this byproduct.

When was the last time you read about a solar panel killing someone? Or wrecking an entire ecosystem? Nuclear power plants that have meltdowns (e.g. Chernobyl) have done both at tremendous cost to their host nations and neighbors. Japan’s meltdown in 2011 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant continues to be a headache for the Japanese government 10 years later. Major environmental pollution has resulted from nuclear reactor meltdowns such as this one and many scientists fear the devastation of marine ecosystems in the affected regions. Why would anyone in their right mind promote more facilities like these that pose enormous threats to nearby residents, generate radioactive waste we cannot properly dispose of and have already been made obsolete by renewable energy sources?

It is worth noting that contrary to nuclear advocates’ claims, experts in the energy sector are far from unanimous in their support of nuclear power. At San Diego State University, we recently conducted surveys of experts across a wide range of sectors with exposure to climate change including the energy sector. When presented with a range of options related to “which alternative energy sector is most in need of additional development in San Diego County,” not a single expert surveyed selected nuclear power. Solar, hydroelectric, geothermal and microgrids all made the cut. Where are these hosts of experts demanding more nuclear energy again?

Policy makers in San Diego County should take note that nuclear is not welcome in our county. What we need is more investment in alternative energy sources and a continued embrace of solar power in line with the current climate action plans at both the city and county levels. We do not need to rely on ancient technology from the Cold War era. Climate change will threaten our energy security but with alternative, renewable energies leading the way we are on track for a sustainable future.

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