Nuclear power is the safest form of abundant energy, which is not only low-carbon but environmentally friendly.
In addition to the threat it poses to humanity, climate change fueled by our wanton burning of fossil fuels poses an existential threat to wildlife and is a key factor in the mass extinction event our planet will likely soon experience. Unless we transition to renewable energy sources like solar, hydro and wind power wholesale, and fast, life on Earth as we know it may well be doomed.
Or so the conventional wisdom goes.
Unfortunately, while those renewable power sources are good for reducing carbon emissions globally, they often have a deleterious impact on wildlife in the immediate vicinity.
Hydropower dams routinely wreak havoc with aquatic environments, with fish and other aquatic animals being killed or maimed and natural bodies of running water being replaced by stagnant, algae-filed reservoirs. Giant wind turbines can decimate bird populations, with researchers in India finding that turbines in that country function in essence as apex predators by killing off hawks and eagles; meanwhile, in the United States at least 140,000 birds a year are killed by collisions with wind turbines.
Solar farms, for their part, take up large swathes of space that could otherwise have served as unspoiled wildlife habitats – and can also wind up killing significant numbers of birds.
Of all the primary sources of low-carbon energy, the one that may pose the least risk to nearby wildlife habitats could be nuclear energy. As Michael Shellenberger, a prominent environmentalist who is cofounder of the Breakthrough Institute and founder of the think tank Environmental Progress, argues: “If you want to save the natural environment, you just use nuclear.”
Shellenberger says many of his fellow environmentalists remain opposed to nuclear energy on purely ideological grounds, on the basis of outdated views: “What they do is dress up their anti-nuclear [stance] in all sorts of nonsense,” says Shellenberger, an outspoken advocate for nuclear energy. “They go and tap into people’s unconscious fears of the Bomb. That’s really the main event.”
Does Shellenberger’s argument hold true when it comes to protecting wildlife? By way of evidence, consider the cases of several nuclear plants whose surroundings have become sanctuaries for endangered species.
In Finland, the Hanhikivi nuclear plant is scheduled for construction on an eponymous peninsula in the Bay of Bothniaon with weedy coves and meadows on seashores. A protected wildlife reserve nearby is home to several species, including swamp frogs, and serves as the route for migratory birds. Only a couple of kilometers away from the plant is a Natura 2000 nature protection area.
“Obviously, constructing a nuclear power plant will have an impact on the environment,” acknowledges Kristiina Honkanen, who was until recently director of Fennovoima, a Finnish power company that has been tasked with constructing the plant. “From being a natural habitat, the Hanhikivi peninsula will become an industrial area. Its use for recreation will change and there will be fewer fishing grounds,” she elucidates. “However, throughout the construction we make sure that the effects on the environment stay as minimal as possible.” As part of its efforts to minimize environmental impact, the facility went so far as to shelter rare plant species and relocate resident frogs.
Both in Europe and around the globe, nuclear plants regularly cohabit with – and often serve as – protected wildlife areas. The area around the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu is teeming with avian species; as many as 146 species of birds recently found to inhabit the area. Their numbers have increased in recent years, much to the delight of local conservationists. In this and other cases, the exclusion zones around nuclear plants seem to serve as bird sanctuaries where grey herons, cormorants, egrets and numerous other species, including rare birds, can thrive.
Similarly, around the Turkey Point Nuclear Power Plant in Florida, endangered crocodiles are staging a comeback. The crocodiles are taking advantage of the 168 miles of cooling water canals, thriving alongside manatees and loggerhead turtles. The operators of the plant have a team of biologists in their employ, and they are tasked with running a monitoring program aimed at ensuring that crocodiles and other threatened species remain well-protected around the area, which is free of interference from people.
In the end, the greatest service any type of low-carbon energy can perform for wildlife – be it hydropower, nuclear, solar, or wind – comes from the benefits they provide in replacing fossil fuels like coal, which destroys wildlife and natural habitats at every stage of the process.