Thursday, November 27, 2008

"The Ishtar of Power Generation"

I am not a proponent of nuclear power. I say that as a lifelong environmentalist and a reporter who covered nuclear waste sites and the Yucca Mountain controversy.

I also say that as someone who recognizes that in the short term, the dangers and environmental destructiveness of nuclear power and its waste are less of a concern than the immediate looming catastrophe of not lowering carbon emissions.

It's easy to think of nuclear power as something that is more quickly available than renewable power sources such as solar, wind, geothermal or genuine biomass (that which produces rather than uses energy.) While we're ramping up production to make renewables widely available, we can build more nuclear plants to replace coal-burning plants.

If only that were true. Unfortunately, new nuclear power plants are much further away from reality that even the most pessimistic projections on solar- and wind-generation.

And the reason has nothing to do with safety or the environment.

(More after the jump.)

It has to do with money.

No nuclear power plants have been ordered in this country for three decades. Once touted as "too cheap to meter," nuclear power simply became "too costly to matter," as the Economist put it back in May 2001.


Nuclear power still has so many problems that unless the federal government shovels tens of billions of dollars more in subsidies to the industry, and then shoves it down the throat of U.S. utilities and the public with mandates, it is unlikely to see a significant renaissance in this country. Nor is nuclear power likely to make up even 10 percent of the solution to the climate problem globally.

Why? In a word, cost. Many other technologies can deliver more low-carbon power at far less cost. As a 2003 MIT study, "The Future of Nuclear Energy," concluded: "The prospects for nuclear energy as an option are limited" by many "unresolved problems," of which "high relative cost" is only one. Others include environment, safety and health issues, nuclear proliferation concerns, and the challenge of long-term waste management.

Since new nuclear power now costs more than double what the MIT report assumed -- three times what the Economist called "too costly to matter" -- let me focus solely on the unresolved problem of cost. While safety, proliferation and waste issues get most of the publicity, nuclear plants have become so expensive that cost overwhelms the other problems.

Energy and utility corporation executives are galactically stupid about most things, but they do rise to the level of minimum sentience on the question of profits. If they don't think they can make a profit on it, they're not going to do it.

The danger is that the nuclear industry will get in line behind the banks and auto companies to demand 11-figure subsidies from the federal government. But this time, the players developing renewable energy - solar, wind, geothermal and biomass - are no longer back-yard cranks trying to get off the grid. They're major investors, state governments, even energy giants like BP. They're not going to let nukes suck up federal subsidies without a fight.

When it comes to nuclear energy being a quick, painless solution to global warming, remember what your mother told you about things that sound too good to be true.

Read the whole thing.

Cross-posted at They Gave Us A Republic ....