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April 21, 2005

It’s Time to Go Nuclear

Breaking liberal ranks, columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote in last week’s New York Times that Nukes are Green.  He’s right: nuclear power is a green option that it is irresponsible both socially and environmentally for America not to take.

As China and India come charging out of poverty, their newly minted middle classes are doing exactly what we do here in America with our money – buying things like cars, furnaces, and air conditioners which consume energy.  It is a great thing, a wonderful thing, that we’ve gone in two generations from having our mothers remind us of “the starving children in China” when we didn’t finish our peas to worrying that, if we don’t work hard enough, the Chinese will eat our lunch.  But there is no questioning the fact that “they” are consuming “our” energy.

Over the past forty years the price of oil has gone up and down with the vagaries of international politics.  Inflation-adjusted, it has actually gone down once you smooth out the graphs. The latest increase in energy prices is not a spike but a reflection of permanently greater demand relative to supply.  And, the more of the world that escapes poverty, the greater the demand is going to get,

It is an annoyance to those of us who can afford to blog to pay more at the gas pump.  It is a looming disaster in the parts of the developing world that are not developing at the same pace as India and China.  Mary and I were recently in the central Philippines where a generation of painful economic progress is in danger of being completely wiped out by the recent doubling of oil prices.  Here at home, the real burden of higher fuel prices falls disproportionately on those who can least afford to pay.

Yes, we can conserve better.  In fact we are, largely thanks to microelectronics.  We can all drive hybrid cars and perhaps we will.  Wind and solar have their place.  In fact, they would have more “place” if it were not for NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard), the same force that stymies a new generation of nuclear power plants in the United States.  But demand for energy is going to keep growing no matter what we do in the US.  One of the corollaries of globalization is that we are NOT the world.

Fortunately, the rest of the world is not indulging its political correctness to the same extent that the US is.  France, not a country I usually want to emulate, generates a huge proportion of its power from a set of one-design nuclear plants with an excellent safety record.  China is nuclear in a big way.  (Certainly there are countries which we wish didn’t have nuclear power plants; but they haven’t stopped building them just because we don’t.) Our nukes, now all aging and obsolete, are a series of one-off designs because of a permitting process that forced engineers to negotiate design one plant at a time with the local opposition.  We are not building new nukes and the old ones will eventually have to be decommissioned.

Clearly we would like to get to a “hydrogen economy” for at least environmental reasons.  But fuel cells need to be charged electrically; they are a storage device for energy, not a source; really just more efficient batteries.  So the hydrogen economy is an electricity economy.  We could – and we are – generating more electricity from coal more cleanly than we used to.  But nuclear power is the only available option if the next generation pulls its cars into a service station to charge up rather than fill up.

There are two problems with nuclear power: safety and waste.  Of course, the same problems exist with fossil power as well.  Many people still die every year from the air pollution generated by burning fossil fuels.  Coal mining is safer than it was but still a hazardous occupation.  Foundering oil tankers aren’t a good thing, either.  Although some of the science of greenhouse gasses and global warming is suspect, it’s a dangerous experiment to keep changing the mix of the atmosphere.

It’s important to look at the risks of the alternatives so that we don’t set an impossibly high safety bar to the use of nuclear power.  One of the most effective tools of Luddites has been to insist on absolute safety.  Once that standard is established, nothing is possible.

Three Mile Island scared us for a while although evidence is pretty good that there were no casualties (except US nuclear power itself).  Chernobyl was clearly a disaster whose dimensions we’re still not sure of.  Bad design compounded by politicized and corrupt management is a dangerous thing, no doubt about it. As the Iron Curtain lifted, we found that much of Eastern Europe is an environmental disaster which still waits to be cleaned up.  I believe that we can design, build and operate nuclear power plants with less death and injury per kilowatt generated than the use of oil, coal, or natural gas.  That’s the criteria we have to use.

We do have to face up to the waste problem.  Right now most waste from US nukes is stored onsite  because we haven’t followed through on building a repository in Nevada.  Obviously, this onsite storage is a bad idea.  It is not long term containment.  It leave us with lots of locations where terrorists might try to obtain nuclear material.  The site in Nevada is REASONABLY safe (absolute standards aren’t appropriate; consider the alternatives).  Disposing safely of nuclear wastes is the US is a political, not an engineering, problem.

As long as I can remember, people have been saying that the US can’t go on being the world’s largest energy consumer.  Well, they’re right, not because we’re cutting back but because emerging giant economies in countries with huge populations are starting to consume their share.  It’s time for us to stop indulging a politically correct but scientifically absurd opposition to nuclear power.  It’s time for us to be socially and environmentally responsible by generating our fair share of clean energy.

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