October 30, 2008

Nuclear Options

Civilian nuclear power, offering the prospect of relatively cheap electricity, arose in the 1950s as a cure-all for the energy predicament. Eisenhower was an enthusiast; he called it "Atoms for Peace." The idea was to spread nuclear knowledge around the world and convert it to abundant energy. He thought desalinization plants powered by nuclear energy could solve the Middle East's notorious water problem. How quaint, the modern reader says, for nuclear power sharply diminished in appeal once concerns over safety and nuclear proliferation took center stage in the 1960s.

The dangers of global warming, the existence of high oil prices, and the specter of peak oil have all conspired to give nuclear power a "new look." The absence of CO2 emissions is a huge plus (though the construction of nuclear plants are themselves energy intensive). Abundant electricity could encourage a shift to a transportation system keyed to electricity, diminishing the need for oil. Is nuclear power the key to dealing with both global warming and peak oil?

There are serious downsides: the waste problem has not been resolved; cost pressures in the industry rose enormously in recent years, plus various other environmental dangers including carbon intensive construction and cleanup costs. On the other hand, the French seem to be living smartly with nuclear power. The Swiss and the Swedes are in the game. Are they all idiots? It is doubtful one should proceed on that premise.

I'm not ready to make a case for nuclear power, but we are obliged to listen to the cases that are being made. The potential contribution to mitigating the emissions problem has made some prominent environmentalists reconsider their previous opposition and come out strongly for the nuclear option. One example is James Lovelock, inventor of the "Gaia hypothesis," who argues that we "cannot turn off our energy-intensive, fossil-fuel-powered civilization without crashing." Lovelock believes that wind and solar do not offer a short range solution and recommends a crash program to build nuclear reactors.

Others, like Lester Brown, dismiss the nuclear solution. Brown notes that "Amory B. Lovins and Imran Sheikh put the cost of electricity from a new nuclear power plant at 14¢ per kilowatt hour and that from a wind farm at 7¢ per kilowatt hour. This comparison includes the costs of fuel, capital, operations and maintenance, and transmission and distribution. It does not include the additional costs for nuclear of disposing of waste, insuring plants against an accident, and decommissioning the plants when they wear out. Given this huge gap, the so-called nuclear revival can succeed only by unloading these costs onto taxpayers. If all the costs of generating nuclear electricity are included in the price to consumers, nuclear power is dead in the water."

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