City’s Sustainability Task Force must not fall prey to nuclear power propaganda
By Linda Pentz Gunter
Normally, we do not use these pages for what might be considered strictly “local” news. But in light of the inadequate ending to the COP26 climate conference — where the words Not Good Enough are its only fitting epitaph— it is important to remind our own communities that we are past time to return to the past. We cannot afford to do anything now, such as clinging onto slow, outdated and unaffordable energy technologies like nuclear power, that would make climate change worse.
Our community, Takoma Park, Maryland, just outside Washington, DC, is a “nuclear-free city.” A number of months ago, many of you were drawn into a struggle — at our invitation — to preserve the Nuclear-Free Takoma Park Committee, a group of citizens tasked with upholding the city’s storied nuclear-free zone ordinance. Takoma Park was one of the first US cities to become a Nuclear-Free Zone, doing so in 1983.
After a protracted battle, the committee survived, for now, but with a giant caveat. Both its existence and purpose would be reviewed by a newly-established city entity comprised of nine Takoma Park residents — a Task Force on Sustainable Banking and Investments. The Task Force is primarily charged with defining and identifying “steps to implement sustainable banking and investment policies that fulfill both the City’s nuclear-free and climate change goals”.
But the Task Force has also been asked to “Review and recommend updates to the implementation specifics of the nuclear-free ordinance, to best fulfill the purposes of the ordinance and to coordinate with the city’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals and other priorities.” Why go there at all?
The original Nuclear-Free Zone Ordinance in fact addresses both nuclear weapons and nuclear power. It states: “Residents and representatives are urged to redirect resources previously used for nuclear weapons and nuclear power generation towards endeavors which promote and enhance life.”
However, it was not until December 2009, on an initiative I took, not only on behalf of our Takoma Park-based organization, Beyond Nuclear, but also as a then member of the Nuclear-Free Takoma Park Committee, that Takoma Park agreed to purchase 100 percent wind power, thus becoming a truly nuclear-free city. The city previously had purchased approximately 40 percent of its electricity from nuclear power.
Now, with the climate crisis bearing down on all of us, action to stem the worst of its impacts is our most urgent collective responsibility. So why would the Task Force not be content with addressing the first mandate only, one that would see Takoma Park divest itself from both fossil fuel and nuclear weapons financiers?
The city and its Task Force will likely hear the usual rationale — that nuclear power is low-carbon (which it isn’t, when looking at the entire fuel chain), or even that it is zero-carbon as its false advertising suggests (it isn’t. Nor are renewables, for that matter). All of this misses the point. Simply being “carbon-free” does not establish climate-effectiveness.
As you can read in our series of Talking Points on this matter, to protect the climate, we must save the most carbon at the least cost and in the least time, counting all three variables – carbon and cost and time.
An energy source that is too expensive or too slow will inevitably save less carbon per year than faster options. This means that even if the nuclear industry’s “zero-carbon” lie was true, using nuclear power would still be counter-productive in the fight to save our climate.
The nuclear industry also argues that, well, it is here now (and, that lie again, “low carbon”) so it would be foolish to close reactors and replace them with renewables. But again, the data show that closing an old nuclear plant, rather than keeping it running, and replacing it with energy efficiency alone, would save more carbon. Running current reactors now costs more than building and running new modern renewables.
The nuclear power industry’s track record has demonstrated this quite spectacularly, with costs for new nuclear plants routinely ballooning while completion times are extended indefinitely. The much-touted Small Modular Reactors won’t save us, either. They are too far away, and a poor investment given how many would be needed to make a dent in carbon emissions (again, so far in the future as to be too late anyway.) All that wasted time and money would have delivered us renewable solutions instead.
Takoma Park has been a leader not only in sustainable practices, but also on the nuclear-free frontlines. Even though it cost the city more money to switch to 100 percent wind power, it was a prescient move. Renewable energy prices are plummeting. Nuclear power costs keep soaring.
There are of course multiple other reasons not to use nuclear power, including the industry’s history of environmental racism, something Takoma Park, which prides itself on inclusion and diversity, should eschew.
A return to the purchase of nuclear-powered electricity would put Takoma Park among the ranks of those sabotaging progress on the climate crisis, as well as seriously undermining its national and global leadership as a truly nuclear-free city.
Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at the Takoma Park-based non-profit, Beyond Nuclear. She is a former member of the Nuclear-Free Takoma Park Committee.
Headline photo by Erin Page/Creative Commons-Flickr