Wednesday, November 30, 2005

A definite maybe on nuclear power

I’ve been thinking of doing an “off the reservation” series of blog posts on issues where I stray from the general left-of-center tilt in this blog. Maybe I’ll just start with this one, where I endorse Belette’s “maybe” approach to nuclear power.

One criticism I’ll make of parts of the environmental movement is showing insufficient desperation over global warming. Fighting certain windmills because you think they’re ugly, like Robert F. Kennedy Jr., isn’t showing desperation. Rejecting nuclear power outright is also showing insufficient desperation, so I think a pragmatic assessment of nukes is better.

Commenting on subjects raised in Belette’s post: as he suggests, there’s no way nukes will help meet emission targets in 2012, that’s way too soon to construct operating plants. This does touch on the worst argument against nukes, though – because they’re not a panacea, therefore they’re not worth pursuing. My take is that if they’ll help in the more distant future, I’ll take the help.

The economics issue is the biggest one. As Steve Bloom points out in Belette’s comments, conservation is a lot cheaper way to reduce CO2 than nukes are. I don’t have the figures but I think wind power is also cheaper (but it doesn’t work everywhere). If you add all the subsidies over the last 60 years that nuclear power received to its cost, it would be off the table completely. But, past subsidies are a sunk cost – it might be worth pointing out to nuke fans how subsidized their industry of choice has been, yet that doesn’t determine what we should do now. Steve may be referring to present/future subsidies, but I’m not aware of all that much for mature technology, as opposed to new nuclear tech. This is also where the “no panacea” argument rears its head – nukes won’t accomplish everything, but they could be one more solution to add to the mix.

Now here’s an idea that goes way off the reservation – one way to reduce nuclear power costs would be to reduce safety margins. Nukes are ridiculously safe compared to the thousands of people killed annually by coal power plant emissions, so reducing nuclear safety margins and shifting power from coal to nuclear would end up with a net safety benefit. This is politically unacceptable, though, so it’ll go nowhere.

As to nukes producing emissions comparable to coal/gas, I also highly doubt it. Even when I worked for Natural Resources Defense Council and we were fighting some lies on emissions put out by the nuclear industry, we didn’t make this claim.

Belette doesn’t mention the vulnerability to terrorism – that’s a significant problem. On the other hand, we already (hopefully) have more nuclear plants than can be blown up by terrorists, so adding more might not make a difference. On the third hand, if terrorists develop effective techniques for attacking nukes and our only available response is to shut down all the nuclear plants, then we don’t want to be any more dependent on nukes than we are currently.

So – show me a way to solve the economics issue and some type of fudge regarding terrorism, and I won’t stand in the way of nukes (even if I’m not totally enthusiastic).

P.S. The comments to Belette's post are worth reading

P.P.S. Being politically correct and all that, I researched whether the term "off the reservation" is offensive to Native Americans. I did find one Native American activist on the Web who said it was, while no one else seemed to care. The term seems to me to indicate a laudable inclination to break stupid rules, so I'll use it unless it seems clearly inappropriate.

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