There is a new discussion about nuclear energy, prompted by well-founded concerns about carbon emissions and fueled by a pro-nuclear documentary called “Pandora’s Promise.” Add a statement by James E. Hansen — who famously sounded the alarm on climate change — and, of course, industry propaganda, and presto: We Love Nukes.
Before we all become pro-nuclear greens, however, you’ve got to ask three questions: Is nuclear power safe and clean? Is it economical? And are there better alternatives?
No, no and yes. So let’s not swap the pending environmental disaster of climate change for another that may be equally risky.
Despite all-out efforts and international cooperation, Fukushima, which scared Germany right out of the nuclear power business, still isn’t under control. Proponents of nuclear power promise new and safer technology, but these discussions are filled with “coulds”; no such plants exist. Nor would they reduce the risks of proliferation. (Oh, that little thing.)
Nor would they do much to mitigate the all-too-infrequently discussed dangers of uranium mining, which uses vast amounts of water in the West — an area that can ill afford it — and is barely regulated or even studied. Thousands of uranium mines have been abandoned, and no one seems to know how many remain to be cleaned up. The cost of that cleanup, of course, will be borne by taxpayers, not industry.
Then there’s disposal of spent fuel, which is not contained at the same safety level as active fuel, itself a scary thought. Decades into the nuclear age there remains, incredibly, no real plan for this; a patchwork scheme by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which appears to be even more industry-friendly than most federal agencies, was rejected by an appeals court last year, and the Obama administration is standing by its campaign promise (shocking, I know) to abandon the nuclear repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
The economic viability of nuclear power is no more encouraging. Plants continue to close and generation rates continue to drop. Operators may indeed continue to make money on reactors, but that’s only because federal subsidies are enormous. Insurance costs are limited. Loans are guaranteed (the Solyndra loan guarantee was half a billion dollars; in contrast, loan guarantees for new nuclear plants may run $8 billion); cost recovery and return on investment are also assured for decades, and some operators are able to collect costs from ratepayers (and pay dividends to shareholders) years before plants come online — even if they never come online.
So they’re economical as long as you’re the owner, because historically, subsidies for nuclear power have been more than double the expense of power generation itself. While estimates of the costs of power generation vary wildly — allowing both proponents and detractors of any given power technology to make their cases — few of them take externalities (costs to the environment or to public health, for example) into account. And nuclear power’s externalities could exceed those for any other form of power generation except coal.
That’s why we’re reducing coal usage — if we had a strong climate policy it would be gone in a couple of deades, and nuclear should be right behind it. It’s likely that no new nuclear plants will be built before true renewables are able to take the place of scary, highly damaging energy sources.
Which brings us full circle: the new proponents of nuclear power say that since nuclear power is arguably preferable to coal, maybe we should subsidize the building of new plants.
If those were the only options, maybe that argument would be a sound one. But they’re not. Energy efficiency (remember that?), natural gas (imperfect, yes, but improvable) and wind are all cheaper. Even solar is already less expensive than nuclear power in good locations.
Some studies show that renewables can generate 80 percent of our electricity in 2050, using current technologies, while reducing carbon emissions from the electric sector by 80 percent. Climate change fears should be driving not old and disproven technologies but renewable ones, which are more practical. These technologies remain relatively small — non-hydro renewables were around 5 percent of the total last year — but they’re growing so fast (wind and solar use have quadrupled in the last five years) that just this week the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission predicted that solar power could soon begin to double every two years.
Utilities are afraid that solar power will be to the electrical grid what PCs were to mainframes, or e-mail to the Postal Service: a technology that will simply kill its predecessors. Coal and nuclear power are both doomed, and the profit-making power grid with it. That’s all to our benefit.