Critics argue nuclear power not answer to climate change

COLUMBIA -- Cranking up more nuclear power plants won't answer the country's energy needs and it's a poor way to fight global warming, two nuclear power critics said Wednesday during a stop in Columbia.

A buildup of nuclear plants could cost taxpayers billions of dollars and create more high-level atomic waste, said environmentalist Brent Blackwelder and Robert Alvarez, a former U.S. Energy Department official.

Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth, said the U.S. already has enough trouble disposing of the highly toxic waste generated at nuclear plants.

He and Alvarez traveled from Washington to speak at USC as the debate over climate change heats up.

"The idea that this somehow might be a clean solution to global warming" is a misconception, Blackwelder said of nuclear energy. "They're going to have insurmountable problems with the waste. If you can't handle it now, how can you possibly launch forward like this?"

It's quicker to launch energy efficiency programs and develop alternative energy sources than to try to build a nuclear power plant, which can take years to receive environmental approvals, he told about 75 people at a forum at USC's Learning Center for Sustainable Futures.

With pollution from coal-fired power plants a major contributor to global climate change, utilities such as SCE&G and Duke Energy are studying whether to build more nuclear plants.

The South Carolina-owned Santee Cooper power company has been criticized heavily for attempting to build a new coal-burning plant in Florence County. Coal's impact on climate change has prompted some environmentalists to say they'll listen to arguments in favor of nuclear power.

But Blackwelder said South Carolina and other states could learn from aggressive efficiency programs that have made a difference in California. California residents use only about half the electricity per person, on average, that other Americans do, he said.

Changing light bulbs

Switching from a traditional light bulb to a compact fluorescent bulb can cut 70 percent of the electricity needed for the light, he said.

Utility company spokespeople say they're trying to be more efficient and find alternative energy sources, but it's hard to realize enough energy savings to offset the country's growing power demands.

"Absolutely these things help, but they won't get us where we need to go," said Theresa Pugh, director of environmental services for the American Public Power Association.

Nuclear, coal and hydro-power are the only proven sources to supply major amounts of electricity, some industry officials say.

Alvarez, a former senior Energy Department official, said the agency is wrongly pushing a plan to recycle used fuel to serve existing commercial nuclear reactors and new ones that would be built.

The program will produce dangerous amounts of radioactive cesium and strontium and cost as much as $500 billion, said Alvarez, who authored a study on reprocessing earlier this year. Two sites near Aiken and Barnwell are under consideration for a nuclear recycling plant.

"This shouldn't (use) a penny of taxpayer dollars," said Alvarez, who assessed the recycling program in a report earlier this year.

The U.S. Department of Energy said in a statement Wednesday that the recycling program will help meet the world's demand for energy and reduce nuclear proliferation threats.