Battlepanda: Back to saying "No" to Nuclear


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Back to saying "No" to Nuclear

I briefly flirted with accepting nuclear energy in this guest post for Ezra Klein a while ago:
Like Mark Kleiman, I believe that the spectre of global warming is so serious that, in addition to curbing our energy usage, nuclear power should not be off the table. What's the good of worrying about how to keep the nuclear waste safe for hundreds of thousands of years if, at the rate we're pumping out greenhouse gasses and pollutants, there won't be much of a civilization left in a few thousand years?
I have to admit. Taking a pro-nuclear environmentalist stance made me feel smugly contrary. Too bad there's no merit to this position. John from Dymaxion World set me straight, along with Jared Diamond. So at least I'm in good company.
Wind power is already cheaper than nuclear power (roughly half the price of nuclear) and solar power is only 25-50% more expensive. Now, that's a pretty hefty margin for solar to overcome, but solar power has been coming down steadily in price for decades - something nuclear can't claim. Yes, France is a model for cheap, clean, safe nuclear power. But it's pretty much the only example nuclear advocates can point to - and there's a bunch more examples of how not to run a nuclear industry. The short list would include Japan, US, USSR, UK, and even Canada.

The problems aren't just technical - as with all energy and economic policy problems, they're political. France was able to form a post-1973 consensus that the country's energy needs should be met with nuclear power. No other country has been able to do so. Furthermore, the French are generally more amiable to big-government projects (like nuclear power) than many other countries. I doubt you could build a similar program in Canada, much less the US.

Meanwhile, solar and wind power have posted double-digit growth rates without nearly the kind of subsidies that Nuclear power has gotten. In the next few years the world will actually add more wind capacity than nuclear, with solar still a much smaller but rapidly-growing competitor. So for countries where the sun shines or the wind blows, they have a possible energy source that is quickly going to be cheaper than the alternatives.

Finally, it's worth noting that there's some question as to the state of the world's Uranium reserves. Some reports say we've got less than a century of Uranium left at current usage rates. Obviously, if we dramatically expanded our nuclear power that number would shrink substantially.

It's sad that people keep advocating nuclear power as a solution for climate change - there's surprisingly little to recommend it. It's more expensive, harder to build, slower to build, and even if it wasn't it's still a nasty form of energy that leaves a millenia-long legacy. This doesn't make Jared Diamond any less of a scientist - but he's certainly no energy wonk.
Basically, apart from making one feel pleasantly hard-headed, there is no upside to advocating nuclear energy plants. The downsides, meanwhile, remains quite considerable.