Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Is nuclear power the salvation of the Earth?

Stewart Brand

I heard a presentation last week from Stewart Brand, publisher of the legendary Whole Earth Catalog and who ranks as kind of an ur-hippie because of that. But to my surprise, the main part of his presentation was to hype nuclear power as the the solution to climate problems. I don't buy his argument at all. But it did inspire me to start paying more attention to the latest hype from the nuclear lobby.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which became an online-only publication starting this year, is a great source on the topic. Thomas Cochran in this article argues that Safety and carbon mitigation must be top energy priorities, not advanced nuclear energy projects 02/05/09. He defines the key problems as follows: "proliferation; the risk of another catastrophic nuclear plant accident; spent fuel/high-level waste disposal; and poor economics."

To hear Stewart Brand tell it, none of those are problems worth bothering about. Proliferation? Why, we're dismantling all the nuclear weapons! No proliferation to worry about any more. Waste disposal? Shoot, we've got these super-cool invulnerable storage tanks that will last forever. Poor economics? It's because all these dang environmentalist keep insisting on all these safety regulations and stuff. Chernobyl? Three Mile Island? What kind of superstitious wimps worry about those?

He wasn't quite that crass in expressing it. But close. He's certainly drunk the nuclear lobby's Kool-Aid. And wants the rest of it to drink it, too. His presentation could have been straight from a nuclear company's PR department.

I got the impression that Brand is impressed by the whiz-bang possibilities of the technology. And maybe if it were all being run by cyborgs like those in the Terminator stories, it would be fine. But then, those cyborgs don't really care about the human race surviving. In fact, they are mostly out to wipe out the human race because their master computer Skynet thinks humans are a threat to the planet. And it kind of has a point, but that's another story.

Terminator cyborg

But until Skynet and the cyborgs take over, those whiz-bang nuclear facilities have to be constructed and operated by human beings. And that's part of the problem. Cochran writes:

The most important factor affecting the safety of existing nuclear power plants isn't their design, but the safety culture at the plant. It's difficult to assess whether any of these nuclear plants is safe enough because the probability of a severe accident depends on many technical and human factors that are difficult to measure. Nevertheless, U.S. nuclear plants on the whole are safer today than they were two decades ago primarily because U.S. nuclear plant safety culture has improved. If another catastrophic nuclear accident occurs, it will likely be in one of several countries with demonstrably poor nuclear safety culture. Also, few, if any, of the states that are planning to construct their first nuclear power plant have adequate nuclear regulatory regimes and in several of these countries there is no evidence that a robust safety culture is in store. Thus, Washington and the nuclear industry should concentrate on improving the regulatory regimes and safety culture in these other countries. [my emphasis]
I accept it as an unfortunately fact that there is going to be an increase in the number of nuclear power plants in the developing world. But I don't want to see additional nuclear plants in the United States. And pretending it's going to be the salvation of the planet is fantasy.

And, oh yeah, it's not only failed banks that have their hands out for federal handouts:

The domestic nuclear power industry is confronting two big economic dilemmas. In the United States, new nuclear power plants are uneconomical when compared to other electricity generating technologies and improvements in end-use efficiency; and the unit costs of new nuclear plants are so high that they cannot be privately financed. It appears likely that construction of new plants will remain cost prohibitive until the price of carbon emissions exceeds $50 per ton of carbon dioxide. The nuclear industry, through its congressional boosters, has already received large federal subsidies and loan guarantees to support the construction of a few new nuclear plants. It has received additional subsidies from states and local governments.

Now the industry is returning to Congress for more taxpayer largess, claiming that it is needed to mitigate climate change and provide for jobs under the economic stimulus plan. We should reject this "lemon socialism" approach. The economically efficient way to mitigate climate change is to internalize the cost of carbon emissions through a cap-and-trade program or by carbon tax. We shouldn't subsidize the construction of new nuclear power plants, thereby penalizing alternatives that can provide climate-change mitigation quicker, safer, and cheaper. Subsidizing new nuclear plants is one of the least productive means to create jobs or to stimulate the economy in the next year or two, a key criterion of the stimulus package. [my emphasis]
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