June 05, 2004

Environmentalists for Nuclear Power

Mark Kleiman attempts the Sisyphean task of convincing the world that nuclear power is part of the answer to how to deal with global warming. He's 100% completely correct:

Mark A. R. Kleiman: Bring back the nukes!: The first time I learned that something widely accepted as a core piece of liberal dogma could be flat-out wrong involved the topic of nuclear power. (That's also when I learned to fear and loathe St. Ralph and all his works, but that's a longer story. If you doubt how dogmatically the anti-nuclear view was held, just remember how Jerry Brown put down Paul Tsongas, who made a cogent environmental case for nuclear power production: "Ladies and gentlemen, you have just seen the world's first radioactive environmentalist.")

Nukes, if run right, are fully competitive with coal, and a hell of a lot cleaner. (Modern coal plants are much cleaner than they used to be, but that's not saying much. In addition to all that greenhousing carbon dioxide, coal makes particles, and particles are BAD. As for all the old coal plants still running -- the ones whose lives the Bush Administration just extended to infinity by changing the New Source Review standards -- fuhgettabadit.) So what's wrong with nukes? Three things:

1. The idiotic regulatory process in the U.S., combined with the decentralized nature of power generation, makes it almost impossible to site a new nuke, and makes nuclear power much more expensive than it needs to be. In France, with a single electic utility (Electricite de France) that has built and runs 58 nuclear plants, the contractors know they're dealing with a repeat customer that knows what it's doing. And it EdF know what it's doing, so the regulators trust it and the plants have excellent up-time and safety records. All U.S. nuclear plants are run by companies that are basically amateurs in the nuclear business. (I haven't looked it up, but if memory serves we have 106 running nuclear power plants operated by something like 40 different utilities.) The regulators knew the power companies had to be watched like hawks to keep them from doing something stupid. The contractors knew (this was back before the utilities gave up on nukes) that a big cost overrun on the current job wouldn't come back to haunt them on the next job for a different company. And since every plant was custom-designed for its site, the engineering costs were enormous. (EdF builds basically the same plant every time. Learning curve, you know.)

2. The Naderites are experts at stirring up terror among the locals.

3. Nuclear waste. This is a problem only if you think that we need to plan waste disposal that will (no, I'm not making this up) survive the end of civilization and be safe for the ignorant primitive nomads who will wander the earth 10,000 years from now...

Posted by DeLong at June 5, 2004 09:17 AM | TrackBack | | Other weblogs commenting on this post

Are you going to end the massive government subsidy that limits insurance liability?

Posted by: Lee A. on June 5, 2004 09:44 AM


This would be more convincing with some actual figures to back up the assertions; to wit, cost estimates comparing a modern coal plant with scrubbers to a nuclear plant, and how much of the cost is due to regulatory factors. Just looking at the unit ops in each and the decommissioning costs of a nuke, my guess would be that nuclear would never be competitive with coal or gas unless new reactor types became available.

Posted by: Tim H. on June 5, 2004 10:11 AM


Maybe if we put solar panels on the glass pyramid of nuke waste, to power the lights and sirens, to frighten away the Morlocks and Eloi. --But maybe science will find a way to defuse the waste. (Or build a better fence around it.) --But maybe science will up the efficiency on solar power sooner. --I know! Fund the Supercolliding Super Conductor, and actually Do the Science!

And stop being defeatist on fusion, it looks like fun...

Continual Conservative Motto: We can do everything we set our minds to! (except what we can't do)!

And: now we’re Happy about the French?

Posted by: Lee A. on June 5, 2004 10:18 AM


I have long thought that other than placement and disposal policy that this is almost a "no brainer"--at least until more efficient and sustainable power generation can be ready.

Placement policy would, by necessity, have to be determined on a national scale. The worry here is that the power generators would attempt to hijaack the process and best practices and sites would not be implemented.

Disposal policy seems to come down to a "national" site, versus "regional" sites versus "nearby to power generator site." I don't claim to know the best solution here, but the psuedo economist/scientist in me intuitively senses that whatever the solution, it must be consistently implemented for best practices. (i.e. if we choose to "truck" the material to one single national site, let's do it and develop systems, safeguards and effective oversight to minimize problems.)

Posted by: fairweatherfan on June 5, 2004 10:21 AM


Mark left out the problem of human error such as what happened at Brown's Ferry near Huntsville, AL in 1975. Technicians plugging leaks with insulating foam and searching for leaks using a candle.

Here's an account of what happened:


I lived in Huntsville at the time and when the threat of a major problem was on the horizon, no one advised the public until afterwards. I can see the need for not creating panic, but as the sheriff of Morgan County said

"I was asked to keep quiet about the incident to avoid any panic."

Here's what the NRC said:

"No official notification was made to the State of Alabama Highway Patrol by the State of Alabama Department of Public Health or by TVA...

"An attempt was made to notify the Lawrence County Sheriff at 4:08 pm, but no answer was received. Only one attempt was made to locate the sheriff."

Mark also failed to mention the issue of increased terrorist threats or the fact that there is a finite amount of uranium in the world.

Posted by: Randy Paul on June 5, 2004 10:22 AM


I feel the same about nuclear power as I do about the death penalty - yes in theory, no in practice. In this world they are too risky, too absolute, too fraught with the catastrophic possibilities of human error or evil to meddle with.

Posted by: Ian on June 5, 2004 10:23 AM


One "100% completely correct" word:


Posted by: Mike on June 5, 2004 10:31 AM


If you include decomissioning, and PV of say a centuries waste storage, nuclear power's market price is still higher than that of coal. More to the point (since I think coals social costs probably exceed those of nuclear) wind power without storage is about the same as that of natural gas. (Wind power mixed with other power sources can constitute 20% to 50%. Where on that spectrum is feasible without storage depends on exactly what the other sources are. Nature of the grid, up to a certain percent wind power requires no more spinning or operating reserves than would be needed in any case.)

If you add storage to bring to let wind provide 100% of electricty then the price per kwh ends up double that of natural gas - still slightly less than costs of nuclear power if decommissioning and pv of the first century of waste storage is included.

As a side note, it should also be remembered that there are a hell of a lot of efficiency improvements that could save electricity (in the sense of providing the same results - warm toes, cold beer) a lot cheaper than increasing supply. But it is a side issue to the nuclear issue, since we need some electricty. So just pointing that wind is cheaper than nuclear. I can think so some other things to add, but rather than make this post endless, I'll see if someone wants to try and rebut this by making six or seven common errors and then reply. If no one bothers to make the common mistakes, then there is not enough interest to bother expanding this post here, and I've saved some typing.

real email happens to be garlpublic then at sign followed by comcost then dot then net.

Posted by: Gar Lipow on June 5, 2004 10:32 AM


Brad's sarcastic worst-case was demagogic enough in itself. The waste-sposal program would also have to be robust enough to survive the near-future events such as Enron-style waste-management speculation, Halliburton influence-peddling, Christian Taliban federal science policy, Phillip Morris public health standards, etc., and unknown unknows of the Soviet-Union collapse type.

Posted by: Zizka on June 5, 2004 10:33 AM


>...my guess would be that nuclear would never be competitive with coal or gas unless new reactor types became available.

I'm no economist, but surely the environmental externalites of of coal and gas in terms of the certainty of climate change are caculable in orders-of-magnitude terms.

Do these costs affect the competitive position of coal and gas?

Posted by: Davis X. Machina on June 5, 2004 10:41 AM


One more "100% completely correct" word:


"The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) was established by the Solar Energy Research Development and Demonstration Act of 1974....


There's no shortage of renewable energy resources. North Dakota has enough wind to supply 35% of the total U.S. electricity demand. The sunlight falling on the United States in one day contains more than twice the energy we consume in an entire year. Fast-growing plants and other self-renewing resources awaiting the right technologies for harvesting. Continued research will ensure that these technologies are efficient, reliable and affordable.


In 2000, America imported more than half its oil at a cost of $109 billion, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). New energy technologies based on indigenous, self-renewing resources will help keep these dollars at home to strengthen the economy and create new jobs. A 2001 World Wildlife Fund study estimates that energy efficiency policies and renewable energy resource development could result in 1.3 million new jobs by 2020.


The EIA estimates that in 2000, 81% of all U.S. greenhouse gases were carbon dioxide emissions from energy-related sources. Clean energy sources such as sunlight and wind can be harnessed to produce electricity, process heat, fuel and valuable chemicals with little, if any, pollution. Sunlight also can be harnessed for tasks such as cleaning up contaminated soil and groundwater...


Posted by: Mike on June 5, 2004 10:46 AM


So nuclear power isn't just one of the most complicated and expensive ways to boil water ever devised?

Posted by: Pat on June 5, 2004 10:48 AM


There are technologies available now to make coal-fired power plants clean, even to CO2. They just cost money. If someone has apples-to-apples cost estimates that say nuclear is cheaper than gas, oil, or coal, then they should present them. That's what it is going to take to convince the utilities.

Posted by: Tim H. on June 5, 2004 11:05 AM


There's another reason to rely more heavily on nuclear power for electricity: hydrogen production. If one ever hopes to implement fuel cells as the power plant of choice for transportation, there must be a new and massive source of hydrogen. Conversion of natural gas - the present source of hydrogen - won't cut it because natural gas will be too much in demand for home heating and industrial purposes (e.g., fertilizer).

Renewables can't come close in energy content. Only nuclear plants converting water to hydrogen in the middle of the night when electricity demand is low offers a large enough source of energy to produce the amounts of hydrogen that will be needed. Also, hydrogen demand will rise significantly in years to come because petroleum supplies to refineries are increasingly "sour". Hydrogen is needed in increasing quantities to refine these "sour" crudes into the environmentally clean fuels required to meet clean air standards.

Posted by: Lawrence on June 5, 2004 11:10 AM


The "100% completely correct" (no bunkum) bottom line here:

Corporate Welfare.

"Price-Anderson Act

The consequences of an attack or an accident at a nuclear power plant are so staggering that insurance companies won't fully insure them. Unfortunately, Congress isn't so cautious. It passed a law in 1957, the Price-Anderson Act, that established a taxpayer-backed insurance scheme for nuclear power. This law limits the amount of insurance nuclear power plant owners must carry and caps their liability in the event of a catastrophic accident or attack at dollar amounts that fall far, far short of the actual financial consequences that could be incurred. Even nuclear power executives acknowledge that their industry is financially dependent on Price-Anderson to shield nuclear power from free market forces...."


Posted by: Mike on June 5, 2004 11:15 AM


Nuclear requires BIG government (the french example of single agency), and high degree of security (which perhaps can no longer be consdiered attainable). Lovelock's call last week for nuclear power because of environmental damage leaves out the trend it would set towards technocratic centralized government. Doing good by going to central authority leads to too many abuses - like, who owns it?

Posted by: Douglass Carmichael on June 5, 2004 11:17 AM


Anybody here for giant orbital solar arrays, using microwave transmission to turn Death Valley and the Sahara Desert into gigantic hydrogen manufacturing plants? I like that idea a lot more than I like the idea of nuclear reactors.

Posted by: Thane Walkup on June 5, 2004 11:27 AM


Bullshyte! Bullshyte!! Bullshyte!!!

Take a look at Hanford. Plutonium waste leaching towards the Columbia River, *any month now* into 1,000,000's of people's drinking water, where it *cannot be removed* by BMP's. The best the NRC's been able to "come up with" is glassification of nuclear waste, which means boiling off all the volatile radioactivity to irradiate downwinders, then melting the remainder into glass, which in itself is not particularly stable, since we know glass leaches out from studies of lead crystal.

Besides, ha,ha,ha,ha, fuel rod decommissioning, storage, separation, glassification and disposal process uses *more energy than the uranium fuel produces*, which puts the lie to the "nuke is cheap as coal" crap. Besides, the remaining huge bulk of "low level radioactive waste" is being *recycled* into our salvaged metal cycle, and re-smelted for steel! Your own washing machine and dryer may very well already glow in the dark.

20,000 *years* of secure installation operations?
Off-budget. Moving the tons of spent fuel rods around the world to disposal? Off-budget. 1000's of miners, nuclear workers and downwinders dying early gruesome leukemic deaths. Off-budget. Spent uranium dust scattered across Middle East teratogenically for the next 20,000 years?
Off-budget. Deliberate accounting fraud that makes Enron looks like a picnic at Wachovia.

Nuclear is a fraud perpetrated on a dumbfounded public behind a NRC "secret" screen, the waste-side entirely off-budget when it comes to cost-versus-benefit, and the health-side confabulated.


Global warming is metastable bifurcating chaos. We may already be past the point of stopping or even slowing it. Trillions of tons of methane ice are melting in the Arctic, four times more potent as a global warmer than CO2. The great deep ocean currents may be altering, bringing on a new Ice Age in a matter of years for part of the world, with desertification for the rest.

You might as well say universal application of pesticides is the solution to feeding the world, or that we should all live in feedlots to save the energy of commuting and food transportation.
Maybe someone will invent a shyte stabilizer and re-flavorer, so we can all eat our own shyte.
Hey! Global warming *and* food crisis solved!!

Keep your eyes open. Make Cheney convince you Halliburton has a solution to global warming.
Show me the full accounting, Dick. Not those,... the ones you keep hidden in the vaults at NRC.

Posted by: aaron haffen on June 5, 2004 11:28 AM


If we - being the world and especially the US - are completely unwilling to dramatically reduce the energy-intensity of our civilization, we will have to go nuclear. There is no way that solar, wind and the rest will do the job for this way of life. The hydrogen technophiles are living in a dream world.

But don't forget:

One day in a nuclear age
They may understand our rage
They build machines that they can't control
And bury the waste in a great big hole
Power was to become cheap and clean
Grimy faces were never seen
But deadly for twelve thousand years is carbon-14

Posted by: General Glut on June 5, 2004 11:35 AM


>Renewables can't come close in energy content. Only nuclear plants converting water to hydrogen in the middle of the night when electricity demand is low offers a large enough source of energy to produce the amounts of hydrogen that will be needed. Also, hydrogen demand will rise significantly in years to come because petroleum supplies to refineries are increasingly "sour". Hydrogen is needed in increasing quantities to refine these "sour" crudes into the environmentally clean fuels required to meet clean air standards.

Cool - two errors at once. (Well three, but there is not time or world enough to rebut the one on fertilizer.)

1) Hydrogen for energy transmission and storage mechanism. Demand for hydrogen for chemical rather properties rather than energy storage and transmission properties is and will remain low. Energy can be transmitted more cheaply over wires than in hydrogen pipelines. Net of generationa and recovery, batteries are cheaper ways to move

2)potential for enough - again focusing on the U.S. The great plains alone as some people have noted could provide a multiple of total U.S. energy (not just electricty demands.) So could offshore wind sources.

If you are talking about solar (which is still more expensive than nuclear - though not if you count all social costs) technical solar potential with commercially available products dwarfs solar. U.S. rooftops, and south facing walls for example. Also the best light for solar cells is not the same frequency that is ideal for photosynthesis. So if for some reaons buildings were ruled out as PV generators you could build huge greenhouses roofed selective tranmitting optical fibers - the light for photosynthesis would be seperated from the wavelenghs for PV. So you could generate electricity and increase food production on the same land.

Not economically feasible (which is why I emphasize wind) but certainly no limit in turns of "not enough energy". If we did want to go the hydrogen path - massive electricty generation producing massive amounts of hydrogen, wind could provide many multiples of current U.S. electricty generation at much lower prices than nuclear. And if you are planning to do hydrogen as storage method in any case, then then intermittent nature of wind becomes irrelevent. So it then it is massively less expensive than nuclear.

And price is important for a number of reasons. One is that for greenhouse reasons, we need to essentially phase out fossil fuels over the next 30-36 years. (This probably an optimistically overly long time frame.) Given that every dollar spent on this will have to fought for, buying the most reduction per buck is essential. That is why efficiency is the first priority, and renewables the second. Any money wasted on new nuclear plants will slow down the phaseout of fossil fuels.

Posted by: Gar Lipow on June 5, 2004 11:45 AM


(Far be it from me to disturb the generalized "fugue state" around here or anything like that. But while we're on the subject of "dream worlds", General Glut, don't forget this rhythmic ditty :)

Row, row row your boat
Gently down the stream
Merrily merrily merrily merrily
Life is but a dream...

Posted by: Mike on June 5, 2004 11:48 AM


Due to global warming, environmental degradation, not to mention mideast instability, society must move away from burning carbon. Coal from the time it's raped from the ground till it's burnt in power plants and its fumes spread to the four winds, is an environmental disaster. Oil has fostered some of the world's worst political and social nightmares and now we're running out of it which will only foster more unrest. Although cleaner, natural gas is a major source of carbon dioxide and the methane component of the unburnt gas is itself a greenhouse effect contributor much greater than even carbon dioxide, not to mention that natural gas supplies are becoming tight. The only chemical reaction that can be used to produce large quantities of energy without pollution is hydrogen. But where will it come from since it's not found in its free form naturally on earth? The oil and gas industry wants us to strip it from hydrocarbons, but that process is itself energy intensive and hence inefficient. And what of the damage caused by drilling and mining and where will we put all the billions of tons of carbon left over? The only way to environmentally safely produce hydrogen is through electrolysis of sea water using power generated by some alternative nonpolluting energy source and the only large scale one that makes sense is nuclear. Yes, nuclear waste is a problem, but that problem will be moot if the society is destroyed long before by the toxic waste and greenhouse gases of carbon burning.

Posted by: fastback on June 5, 2004 12:25 PM


I am a complete stranger to global matters concerning production and consumption of energy. I am curious:

With present technology mix, what things would happen if the world average per capita energy consumption were to become the same as what it is in US now?

If this world average is not possible, then what is the limiting factor and what are the limit quantities to growth of world average of per capita energy consumption?

Posted by: Bulent on June 5, 2004 12:28 PM


I think I'll sit this one out, and maybe the American left as a whole should do the same for awhile. My thought is that support for nuclear has always come from the right; OK, let THEM find a red-state site to store the waste, long-term, since all those wide-open spaces seem to be in red states. Until then, we've got nothing to discuss.

Posted by: RT on June 5, 2004 12:42 PM


Unfortunately, I have to concur with Tim.

1>> Your point about the efficiencies of managing all plants from a central organization are well taken. However, do we really know that the French plants are all safe? We thought Japan's program was well managed, however several years ago even they had a big scandal. Would you really want Bush & Cheny Inc. handling something as dangerous as nuclear power?... sorry but that scares the hell outa me.

2>> The locals don't need Naderites to scare them, they do a very good job on their own. If you don't believe me, just go into your community and try building a prisoner half-way house; mental health facility, homeless shelter, even a non-nulcear power plant. ( I could go on, but I think you get my point). It is all about property values.

Is opposition to nuclear energy, really a liberal agenda? Is seems to me, conservatives are happy to support it in theory.... just as long as it is built in someone else's back yard. Let's try building a plant in Orange County , Ca and see what happens!

#3>> Nuclear Waste. We don't even have to worry about what happens to people 10,000 years from now. This stuff is so toxic, it will kill people today, tommorrow, a week from now, a month from now, a year from now, 10 years from now. Can we safely store it for our own liftetime and at what cost? Never mind the end of civilization, do we have the technology to secure this stuff for our own generation, our children's generation, and our grandchildren's generation? And .... are we wiling to pay that cost? And to saddle future generations with this burden as well? Remember once we create the waste, there are no options, they will have to pay for it, effectively forever.

4>> Security cost. In the competitive analysis versus coal plants, are these factored into the equation? My understanding is the federal government assumes the bulk of these costs, which would give the impression that nuclear power is cheaper than it really is. I guess terrrorist could hijack a coal fired plant, but I don't think it would have quite the same effect as say... Three Mile Island.

Speaking of federal subsidies, isn't the nuclear industry off the hook should there be a disaster? I believe congress passed a law, offering to pay any and all costs and exempting the industry from lawsuits if something goes wrong. Do other power producers receive this level of consideration as well?

I am not terribly opposed to nuclear energy but I think these are important considerations that must be addressed. Maybe the threat of carbon dioxide is so greate, this is our only alternative. By the way, whatever happened to "Cold Fusion"?

Posted by: Allen J on June 5, 2004 12:46 PM


Dear fastback:

"...The only way to environmentally safely produce hydrogen is through electrolysis of sea water using power generated by some alternative nonpolluting energy source and the only large scale one that makes sense is nuclear..."

Some folks at Texas A&M crunched (some of) the numbers for you a long time ago:

"...Gasoline (87 octane) costs $5.25/MMBTU (60 ¢/gallon fob New York), and about $10/MMBTU ($1.15 per gallon) with taxes and distribution costs at the pump. In the future, solar cell costs will fall as production rises, and hydrogen production costs from this source will correspondingly fall. If solar cells eventually cost $800 per peak kW and have a 20 year life, the annual constant dollar cost of the panel at 2.5% annual inflation rate and 8% interest rate is $67.85. Based on 1,800 kWh per year, this gives $3.7 ¢/kWh in constant dollars over the 20-year panel lifetime. Allowing for operation and maintenance, profit, and taxes might result in a total cost of 4.5 ¢/kWh, and a hydrogen cost of less than $20/MMBTU. Allowing for the high efficiency of hydrogen end-use, and allowing for the hidden environmental costs of fossil fuels, especially coal, this cost is likely to be competitive in tomorrow's economy, sometime in the next century...."

(From The Center for Electrochemical Systems and Hydrogen Research "Economics of Non-conventional Hydrogen Production"


Also a long time ago, using their numbers, I calculated a "break-even" (GASOLINE = $20/MBTU) point vis a vis the price of gasoline (at the pump) of $1.71-- if I remember right.

"Only", for some reason, their link doesn't work anymore. Does that "make sense" to you?

Posted by: Mike on June 5, 2004 12:57 PM


I think for waste storage, we should collect a list of feasible sites from everywhere in the country, including Nevada, other southwestern states, etc, and then we should promise to give each state annual, inflation-adjusted compensation, and ask each state to submit a "bid" for how much annual compensation they'd require to be willing to accept the site. We'd then take the lowest overall cost (annual compensation, site construction given local geography, transportation from nuclear planst all over the world, etc). If they want no nuclear waste storage ever, they can just put in a bid of $500 trillion a year or whatever. If all of the bids are ridiculous, then we'll look elsewhere for storage or else look to non-nuclear alternatives.

In SimCity 2000, I think the best general solution to getting power is to construct rivers running down hills (and construct hills, if you're in a very flat region) and put hydroelectric dams on the artificial rivers. Not sure how well that'd work in real life, though.

As before, I must reiterate my support for the repeal of the 2nd law of thermodynamics and the development of brownian ratchet generators.

Posted by: Julian Elson on June 5, 2004 01:13 PM


I have no quarrel with solar, but I don't know if there's enough solar capacity to produce all the hydrogen a carbonless society would need. As I said in the post we need "some alternative nonpolluting energy source." If solar can do it great, but I doubt it can. What we need is a balance of solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, and nuclear (preferrably some sort of "clean" fusion whether hot or cold). I only advocate the fission nuclear option because it's currently the most practical source for large scale electricity production and hence hydrogen production.

Posted by: fastback on June 5, 2004 01:25 PM


“Are you going to end the massive government subsidy that limits insurance liability?”

I assume you mean “Price-Anderson Act” which limits the liability of nuclear power plant operators. Since the operators are held to a standard of “strict liability,” they have absolutely no defense in the event of an accident. Under strict liability, plaintiffs do not have to show negligence of any kind. Who would insure a power plant without a cap on the liability? If you want to get rid of Price-Anderson, you will have to cope with the problem of strict liability.

Posted by: A. Zarkov on June 5, 2004 01:33 PM


We live in a physical and material world. All our energy production will have some effect on the environment. Managing that effect will determine civilization's future. I mentioned hydrogen above, but is even hydrogen a panacea? What will be the effect of pouring millions of tons of water vapor (itself a greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere over Los Angeles or heaven forfend some southeastern humidity sink like New Orleans or Atlanta? What will be the effect of large scale pumping and electrolysis of sea water and presumably an increase in rainfall have on the environment? I don't know, but I do know that burning carbon is certainly a dead end both in environmental terms and in supply terms. Given the problems and costs and possible dubious environmental friendliness of fuel cells, purely electric vehicles charged by cleanly produced electricity may be the answer. But what about those lead-acid batteries... I have a headache now.

Posted by: fastback on June 5, 2004 01:43 PM


"If solar cells eventually cost $800 per peak kW ...might result in a total cost of 4.5 ¢/kWh."

And pigs too MIGHT fly when SV hits 4.5 cents/kWh.

Posted by: Lawrence on June 5, 2004 01:46 PM


Well fastback, I do have a quarrel with proponents of the nuclear "alternative". Several in fact.

(It's nothing personal, you understand, but you DID write,

"The only way to environmentally safely produce hydrogen is through electrolysis of sea water using power generated by some alternative nonpolluting energy source and the only large scale one that makes sense is nuclear. Yes, nuclear waste is a problem, but that problem will be moot if the society is destroyed long before by the toxic waste and greenhouse gases of carbon burning."

Posted by: fastback on June 5, 2004 12:25 PM )

The thing is: I it isn't evident to me that you paid much attention to:


Posted by: Mike on June 5, 2004 10:31 AM

"...Unnecessary...The sunlight falling on the United States in one day contains more than twice the energy we consume in an entire year..."

Posted by: Mike on June 5, 2004 10:46 AM

"...Corporate Welfare...'Even nuclear power executives acknowledge that their industry is financially dependent on Price-Anderson to shield nuclear power from free market forces.'..."

Posted by: Mike on June 5, 2004 11:15 AM

(All above)

By the way though:

"...'In the future, SOLAR CELL costs will fall as production rises, and hydrogen production costs from this source will correspondingly fall. If solar cells eventually cost $800 per peak kW and have a 20 year life, the annual constant dollar cost of the panel at 2.5% annual inflation rate and 8% interest rate is $67.85. Based on 1,800 kWh per year, this gives $3.7 ¢/kWh in constant dollars over the 20-year panel lifetime. Allowing for operation and maintenance, profit, and taxes might result in a total cost of 4.5 ¢/kWh, and a hydrogen cost of less than $20/MMBTU.'..."

Posted by: Mike on June 5, 2004 12:57 PM

Did you take the trouble to check my math like I DID ask you to? It's been a while. I might have misremembered by a penny or two....

Posted by: Mike on June 5, 2004 01:57 PM


What is the nonesense about nuclear beiing the only alternative?

In terms of cost - wind can now be produced for 3 - 3.5 cents a Kwh.


Now in terms of capability.

Here are the Kilowatt hours per year potential from the top 20 states in terms of Billion KWhs per year:

1. North Dakota 1,210
2. Texas 1,190
3. Kansas 1,070
4. South Dakota 1,030
5. Montana 1,020
6. Nebraska 868
7. Wyoming 747
8. Oklahoma 725
9. Minnesota 657
10. Iowa 551
11. Colorado 481
12. New Mexico 435
13. Idaho 73
14. Michigan 65
15. New York 62
16. Illinois 61
17. California 59
18. Wisconsin 58
19. Maine 56
20. Missouri 52

You will note that this adds up to nine times U.S. current electrical production. You will also note that these capacities are based upon a 1991 study. More recent analysis shows class U.S. wind potential and above is about 40% more than this.

Posted by: Gar Lipow on June 5, 2004 02:00 PM


Mike wrote, "The consequences of an attack or an accident at a nuclear power plant are so staggering that insurance companies won't fully insure them."

If I recall correctly, there was an article many years ago in _Scientific American_ about the effects of a terrorist attack on a nuclear power plant:

If a nuclear plant was itself blown up with a nuclear bomb, the effects of fallout dispersal would make a large fraction of the US uninhabitable. (IIRC)

Posted by: liberal on June 5, 2004 02:12 PM


(Oink 70 Watts) solar modules has dropped from around $27/Wp in 1982 to around $4/Wp today. Prices higher and lower than this are usually dependent upon the size of the order. To find out more about current solar module prices across all power bands at the Retail level, please click here..."


Posted by: Mike on June 5, 2004 02:14 PM


Given the claim, Mike, that two year's worth of power falls as sunlight on the US each day, one can extrapolate that to provide one day's worth of energy to the US would require (assuming 100% sunlight penetration and solar cell efficiency) that almost 5000 square miles of the US be covered with solar cells. I'm not sure how practical that would be. That said if solar cells do fall in price, ever homeowner in America should be encouraged through tax incentives to incorporate solar panels into his home to provide at least a portion of his own electricity consumption. Now THAT would really make a difference. I believe in solar's ability to supplement but not to replace all other energy sources.

Posted by: fastback on June 5, 2004 02:22 PM


We only need enough HYDROGEN to fuel (some of) our transportation needs fastback, NOT enough to supply ALL of our energy requirements.

Posted by: Mike on June 5, 2004 02:29 PM


Our society gets a failing grade on every task that's essential for safe nuclear power. We have shown no ability to protect our own health, maintain safe technical standards, regulate distribution companies to prevent corruption, deal responsibly with nuclear waste, or protect against terrorist attacks.

Where I live we're still paying for the nuclear rip-off of the mid-70s (WPPS). Call me old fashioned, but I would like to see some performance and standards in place before going down this road again.

Posted by: serial catowner on June 5, 2004 02:56 PM


This discussion is interesting. It had never occurred to me that matters of energy production and consumption has gotton to the point of becoming such a ... multi-faceted issue... and such a key issue...

how bout segmenting the sector/market? I mean... different approaches / combinations of energy saving and source diversification might work better for different sectors ... like Combination A could be best for farming sector while Combination B could be best for residential sector and Combination C for urban transport sector... I mean why try to solve the energy problems of farming sector using the same approaches as used /proposed for air transport sector?

I raise an issue I rasied before: US needs to go for 16 years of mandatory education -- every body becoming an arts and science graduate before starting work or further studies.

Posted by: Bulent on June 5, 2004 03:03 PM


"I remember my Naderite friends in the early seventies announcing as if it were scientific fact that the risk of a meltdown from a nuclear power plant was on the order of one per hundred reactor-years. Four thousand or so reactor-years later, without a single signficant accident (no, what those idiots did at Chernobyl isn't relevant to the discussion) that estimate is looking pretty silly."

Can someone please explain what the idiocy was that led to Chernobyl?

Posted by: Name on June 5, 2004 03:15 PM


People moving out out the Great Plains states in droves. All that windpower potential. Hmm...

I wonder if buffalo mind windmills...

Posted by: Tom Marney on June 5, 2004 03:37 PM


"People moving out out the Great Plains states in droves..."

That so, Tom?

Any of 'em farmers?

You ever heard of biodiesel?


Posted by: Mike on June 5, 2004 03:44 PM


"Who would insure a power plant without a cap on the liability?"

Nobody, until the damn things are demonstrably safe enough.

Posted by: Doctor G on June 5, 2004 04:11 PM


"Any of 'em farmers?"

From what I've read, yes, but I'm no expert on either demographic trends in the Great Plains states or alternative energy policies. However, I do like the idea of solving two or more problems simultaneously.

Thanks for the link. I'll check it out later on.

Posted by: Tom Marney on June 5, 2004 04:14 PM


Everyone keeps assuming we need massive hydrogen. But we don't. The utility industry which favors massive nukes wants 50 billion in grid improvement. Put some of that into high voltage lines to push power from the coasts and great plains and you can get wind electricty to every consumer. (Not that some of the big electicity consumers like computer chips and aluminum might not want to move to where the power is.) So you don't need hydrogen for transport. Wind generators is spite of some groaning by rich people who hate looking at things are good neighbors. You won't have massive number of people moving because of them - certainly not compared to putting in nukes.

OK, what about storage. Aw I said plain old lead acid batteries. Or maybe some of the fancy flow batteries which are lighter on the environment. But in either case the enviornmental cost is acceptable. These days lead acid batteries can be completely recycled when worn out. So no hydrogen needed for electricty. What about low temperature heating - building, water and some process heat? Well a lot that could be done via passive solar. With some energy efficiency to reduce total demand we could end up with demand for that purpose of about ten percent of present.

What about transport. Well a lot of urban tranport could be done by electric train. (We need ot build a whole lot of ultra-light rail - people mover type.)

What about cars? You could build ultra-light hybrids running on biodiesel that would get around 100 miles to the gallon. In terms of freight we could switch a lot of truck ton-miles to train, muliplying efficiency by five or ten times. (Look at energy intensity comparisons of trucking and train freight transport. ) So between switching passenger and freight miles to rail, and more efficient trucks and car you damn well could use biodiesel for the remaining the fewer more efficient trucks and cars. So right now, without waiting for breakthroughs in PV, you could replace fossil fuels with efficiency, wind and biofuels. (Note that diesel engines can also run on biogas - which can be produced from a wider variety of crops that biodiesel oil.)

However in terms of PV land area. The only problem with PVS is expense. You have way more than 5,000 square miles of rooftops and south walls in the U.S. You have more tha 5,000 square miles of road ways. And as I said you can even use optically selective fiber, to create greenhouse where different parts of the spectrum are used to raise crops and produce electricity. So if PV gets cheap enough there is no problem with land area.

BTW the person who gave the $4.00 a watt figure for PV was being unintentionally misleading. That is a cost for cells only, which is about half the cost of generating PV electricity. An installed system is still about $8 - $10 per watt - competitive in niche markets, but not for most uses. There are ways to change that. But in the meantime, wind (though an order of magnitude lower in available than solar) still has sufficient capacity for all needs for the immediate future, and is cheaper than nuclear.

Posted by: Gar Lipow on June 5, 2004 04:26 PM


So why is it that we feel justified demanding 100% safety from nuclear power, yet we're perfectly happy putting up with coal power plants that release 2x the nuclear waste, and with *no* provision for safe disposal? (That's not even considering the green house gases, and the acid rain, and the non-radioactive soot, and the...)

Posted by: Jack Lecou on June 5, 2004 04:43 PM


Regarding solar- according to my calculations, current US energy consumption would require about 17,683 square miles of panels at 40% efficiency (70,733 square miles at 10% efficiency). I dunno about wind.

Posted by: Jack Lecou on June 5, 2004 04:58 PM


Can someone please explain what the idiocy was that led to Chernobyl?

The Chernobyl reactor had no containment vessel. The operators had disconnected the safety systems before the accident. The Russians seem to have a history of negligence with regard to nuclear safety. They had a major nuclear disaster in the southern Ural mountain area sometime during the winter of 1959-1960. The Soviet government did its best to keep this incident secret, but Zhores Medvedev published account in his book “Nuclear Disaster in the Urals.” He is also author of a book on Chernobyl. The Russian submarine fleet has had ten reactor accidents. The worst happened in 1960 when the Project 627 November Class K-8 submarine reactor suffered a loss-of-coolant accident, which caused the crew to receive high doses of radiation. Another K-8 sank in the Bay of Biscaya in 1970, but a fire, not a reactor accident, caused this.

Posted by: A. Zarkov on June 5, 2004 05:02 PM


Kleiman comes nearest the mark when he says that "All U.S. nuclear plants are run by companies that are basically amateurs in the nuclear business." The deficit that must be made up if nuclear generating plants are to be built and operated safely and economically is not a deficit of skill or of capital; it is a deficit of seriousness, and it is not only on the part of the utilities, but on the part of the financial markets, the political institutions, and society as a whole.

Posted by: Frank Wilhoit on June 5, 2004 05:07 PM


"...it is a deficit of seriousness..."

Exactly what does this mean?

Posted by: Bulent on June 5, 2004 05:34 PM


One thing that occurs to me when nuclear advocates say that Chernobyl could never happen here is this: what were the structural superiorities the US had over the USSR? As I recall, those were generally summarized as free markets and democracy. Both of which, according to nuclear advocates, must be done away with in order to bring us the blessings of nuclear power. Hmm....

On a separate note, it occurs to me that a liberal advocating for nukes is in a similar position to one advocating for racial profiling of potential terrorists. They both acrue great credit for hard-nosed realism, the assumption being that liberals generally oppose these things out of some woolly-headed idealism. Funny thing, of course, is that studies show overwhelmingly that racial profiling is an INeffective policing technique. Similarly, the problems with nukes are real, and mocking Ralph Nader doesn't make those problems disappear.

Posted by: JRoth on June 5, 2004 05:41 PM


Another fantasy power solution of mine: find the genetic stuff in fruits that makes them produce ethene (for fruit ripening). Crank that process up a lot and put it in some kind of reasonably abundant, hardy plant. Grow that plant in greenhouses that would have filters than would pump the ethene out and store it as natural gas. I think that ethene's fairly flamable :^).

Posted by: Julian Elson on June 5, 2004 06:25 PM


JRoth- It sounds to me like the Chernobyl problem was not central planning per se, but rather a crappy economy that meant they had to choose between having toilet paper or having a containment vessel. (And no one said anything about getting rid of democracy.)

If the fact is that racial profiling doesn't work, than a true hard-headed realist won't do it. Being a hard-headed realist means never having to say you're sorry ;).

So, what _facts_ do you have that suggest well-managed nuclear power is a bad idea?

Posted by: Jack Lecou on June 5, 2004 07:13 PM


I was taking figures others quoted. Yes accoring to the DOE 10,000 square miles could supply all the U.S. electricty requirements at 10% efficiency. Still well within the square milage of


Wind of course is very non-intensive per mile. Because there is a lot of activity that is compatible with wind energy. For example wind farms mix fine with actual crops. Cover a wheat or corn farm with wind generators space for optimum wind access. Add roads and power lines, and other support facilities. You have still used up only about 15% of that land. The other 85% can still grow crops. This also works find for many types of parks and recreation, and even wilderness that does not contain highly endangers birds, bats or bugs. I believe wind requires less square miles than solar because it is tapping a more concentrated energy.

Incidentally I think you will find that coal mining and drilling require far more land per watt generated than either wind or solar.

You are still wriggling because wind is cheaper than nuclear and more environmentally friendly than either nuclear or coal. If the alternatvie is nuclear there is no excuse for not using wind. Solar, though more expensive than wind, is also far less environmentally harmful than either nuclear or any fossil fuel.

But it is really stupid to talk about getting all our energy from either wind generators or PV. They are suited for production of electicity. Solar panels can convert sunlight to heat with 80% - 95% efficiency - much more sensible for space and water heating and cooling than PV or wind generators. Fuel use can be minimized, and to the extent it is unavoidable supplied by biomass.

But either way there are not technical obstacles to producing all energy renewably. If conservation is used as the main source, biomass as the second, and wind as the third there are no economic barriers compared to nuclear power.

Posted by: Gar Lipow on June 5, 2004 07:22 PM


If there is no safe dose of radiation and if we should take radiation that might be released in the indefinite future...

... we must use of all that dangerous radioactive material as soon as poossible. In the absense of fission, each uranium atom will emit 50 MeV of radiation. The fission products will emit half that.

Posted by: Joseph Hertzlinger on June 5, 2004 08:05 PM


Mark asserts: "EdF builds basically the same plant every time. Learning curve, you know."

Which would kinda be true except for the monumental failure, the next generation, the 50 billion franc moneyhole the SuperPhenix.

Posted by: Jackmormon on June 5, 2004 08:16 PM


Zero Point Energy is the solution!


Ok, maybe not. But its still pretty cool.

Posted by: Bolo on June 5, 2004 09:09 PM


Here's a better link:


Posted by: Bolo on June 5, 2004 09:14 PM


(1) I do not know the basis for Mr. Kleiman’s claim that “All U.S. nuclear plants are run by companies that are basically amateurs in the nuclear business” but I do know that he is quite mistaken. The operating commercial reactors in the U.S. have now been operating for many years and have demonstrated improved records with respect to safety, availability, and cost.

(2) Comrade Zarkov has summarized the idiocy that led to Chernobyl. It should also be noted that the U.S. reactor design (i.e., not just the safety systems and containment) is fundamentally different.

(3) As for most of the other comments in this discussion, I could not help but notice a little too much enthusiasm for potential energy in lieu of the real thing.

Posted by: geaurilla on June 5, 2004 09:23 PM


Any plant that is not yet built is "potential energy". The real thing is currently being provided mostly by coal, oil and natural gas. If we are to replace them it will only be by means not providing the majority of our energy now. All right, so since the situtation is urgent we should look at source currently providing energy without emitting greehouse gases. These are hydroelectric, wind, nuclear power, geothermal, various forms of direct solar electricty (mainly PV and thermal towers), and varied others - including wave and tidal power. OK so of these which is the least expensive both per

Megawatt of capacity, and per KWh? Wind - that is not some future thing; wind provides power cheaply now. What about nuclear? Well if you count costs accrued but not yet paid - decommissioning and waste disposal it is a lot more expensive. We are going to spend billions buying new power over the next few decades. Whatever budget we finally come up with can buy more wind energy than nuclear energy for the same number of dollars. What justification is there for buying more expensive nukes rather than less expensive wind plants?

Posted by: Gar Lipow on June 5, 2004 10:06 PM


Why not look at special circumstances a bit? What about solar-hydrogen combinations in the deserts of Nevada? (Or, African Sahara?) Can water supply be somehow fixed once energy is there?

Why not run an experiment of underground city in the deserts of Nevada running on solar-hydrogen combinations? Would that project not be more sensible than a project for a Moon base? Or maybe it could be considered an Earth-based experimental / development phase of a Moon Base Project, getting into picture the scientific and technological capabilities of NASA?

Look; suppose we just came to Earth from another planet and we're having this side-effect problem with energy. Would that not be NASA's calling at least in part?

NASA's peculiar logic and way of looking at things could indeed bring forth new insights, new concepts, new avenues of progress.

Earth too, after all, is a planet now?

I mean we ARE in space already!

Get to work, NASA!

Wind-hydrogen combinations; would they not be ideal for farming sector?

Posted by: Bulent on June 6, 2004 01:28 AM


I mean we are having problems with our own atmosphere here on earth, and NASA's being asked not to work on that problem, but to work on building an atmosphere on Mars from scratch (they had a special term for it I forgot )-- so that the neoconservative types can do it to Mars too, just in time after they are done with Earth!

What's the logic in charging NATO as such? Mars is "out there" but this is Earth! But if you look at it from Mars, it is Earth that is out there and this is Mars.

So, Earth is out there just as well as Mars, except that nobody lives on Mars and the Earth's pronblem is more urgent than that of Mars.

If NASA can help at all with the energy and environment situation, it should, by all means.

Or maybe NAPA should be established -- National Agency for Planetary Affairs?

Posted by: Bulent on June 6, 2004 01:42 AM


Gar Lipow,

I agree with what you wrote earlier about wind power--that it is particularly suited to car recharging since the intermittent nature wouldn't work against it so much. It would also help if residential customers were notified of (via the internet) and charged real time market prices for electricity so that intelligent chargers would charge faster when the wind blows. The way it is currently, I have no incentive to shift usage from peak to off-peak, and the daytime usage is subsidized by evening. This makes electricity more expensive overall and should be the first thing looked at if we wish to make intelligent choices about investment in electric power.

But wind for current usage patterns? It seems to me that wind blows at the wrong time for a place like the US where peak usage is driven by air condiitoning. Wind seems to kick up when it is cool and cloudy and often when the sun sets. It might be good for certain areas, but I can't imagine utilities getting too excited about extra power at these odd times when their constant worry is sufficient power during hot hazy days when the air always seems (to me) to be dead. At least solar power has this element going for it. Direct sunlight is the very thing which air conditioners fight against to begin with. So even if the level cost of solar power is currently on the order of 5x too expensive it might be half that when you consider its role in peak shaving.

Posted by: snsterling on June 6, 2004 07:37 AM


The argument for nuclear power seems to be that, as we have no ability to regulate our use of energy, we must adopt a technology that will provide an 'unlimited' supply. This will be safe, they tell us, because we will suddenly develop the ability to regulate ourselves that we can't find right now.

Building new nukes will take as long as building solar and wind installations, so stay firmly focused on 'unlimited supply' and 'too cheap to meter'. If you were a financial victim of the previous nuclear boondoggles, please wear a dunce cap labelled 'Naderite'. You should have known better.

Nuclear power, of course, is no more usable in automobiles or home furnaces than wind or solar, and in fact cannot be produced in distributed units owned by the homeowner. This makes it perfect for Enron-style scammers, and no improvement at all for the end-user.

In short, the idea has all the appeal of George Bush promising to use his financial acumen to balance the budget. It's a bad idea that only gets worse when you read the fine print.

Posted by: serial catowner on June 6, 2004 11:25 AM


Considering that point 1 is both internally inconsistent and wrong, 100% correct is a bit generours.

Oh, and if you are having a hard time seeing the inconsistency, let me help:

The idiotic regulatory process in the U.S.,...The regulators knew the power companies had to be watched like hawks to keep them from doing something stupid.

Yep those super smart government (we all know the government never does anything stupid) regulators new the utilities were run by idiots, so they concocted an idiotic regulatory structure. Brilliant!!!

Yep, the guy I go to for information on energy policy and regulations is a guy with a sociology degree and specializes in drug policy. Puh-lease.

Posted by: Steve on June 6, 2004 12:36 PM


I would agree that pure wind for electricty does not make sense any more than pure anthing. But in terms of "current usage" 100% wind makes as much sense as 100% nuclear. And 100% nuclear is what is being advocated. Nuclear power plants are pretty much on or off. (Well you can use the water to they boil to produce less electricity if you wish, but you really can't throttle down the heat they use on a minute by minute basis). So you can't really match a 100 percent nuclear electricty to demand without either a lot of waste or some sort of storage.

Ok what about matching wind to demand? With about ten hours worth of storage you can match peak production and peak demand (which are not btw always mismatched). Especially if you are doing all wind you will quite a grid to get from where it is produced to where it is used. (This is also true of nuclear. New nukes if built at all will be built in lightly populated areas, or at least areas filled with poor people with no political pwoer.) I'm not really advocating 100% wind. 100% wind is simply a stupid policy that makes more sense than an even stupider policy 100% nuclear.

The real solution: more efficiency a lot of it. Biomass, solar for low and medium temperature heat,and yes still some wind (about 40% of our electricity - which will not require storage). Plus a little hydro, a little geothermal, and other minor sources.

Why not PV? As you say it does match demand somewhat better than wind (in summer - not so much in winter.) Well when it gets cheaper sure. But PV is still $8.00 to $10.00 bucks a watt. As it comes down in price it can handle more. Until the prices comes down it remains a niche product. Wind with storage is still cheaper than PV without.

If it was PV or coal, I'd certainly say PV - because of social costs. But so long as other renewable alternative remain , I'll prefer them to massive PV.

The main point is that we don't have to do desperate stuff like keep using fossil fuels or switch to an all nuclear alternative. There are a lot renewable technolgies out there that work now, many of which are as cheap as fossil fuels and a lot more of which are cheaper than nukes.

None of which changes the fact 100% wind is a lot cheaper than 100% nuclear. Which is a critical refutation this nuke revival argument. But yes, there are mixes out there that are a lot cheaper in turn than pure wind.

Posted by: Gar Lipow on June 6, 2004 02:23 PM


I'm a green meanie, but I'm in the pro-nuclear power camp. I'm not very enthusiastic about it, though— primarily because I am pessimistic about the possibility of the regulatory environment ever imrpoving, or of the industry ever getting a clue.

Quick digression. When I was a lowly 1st class midshipman at the California Maritime Academy, I did a class project on the environmental issues related to nuclear power for a piddly little two-unit required course in Environmental Concerns for Engineers.

There was a paper and a presentation due at the end of the trimester. I did a lot of work on that project, because the research for it was a real eye-opener. I learned an awful lot about how my ignorant support for nuclear power was misplaced, but also about how the popular fear of nuclear power was also misplaced. It was a fascinating subject and I put a lot more effort into it than practically any of my other projects.

I remember the case I presented in class was *exactly* the case that Kleiman is repeating in the part Brad excerpts (though I had gone into greater depth regarding how the U.S. Navy and Japan use nuclear power). I was very harsh on the NRC and the structure of the nuclear power industry in the U.S.

When I came to class to give the speech, I was surprised to find the dean was present in the audience. I didn't think about it. I should have. Nobody told me while I was doing the research that our dean had been a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in a previous job.

I got a barely passing grade on the paper, and the presentation was scored zero points. It tore my heart out. I remember the professor was unusually sympathetic in breaking the news to me about my poor marks. He explained the low grade by telling me that my presentation was riddled with "inaccuracies"— inaccuracies that he would not identify.

I should have interviewed the dean, he said.

I think I'm glad I didn't. The lesson I learned here was more valuable. I still think nuclear power is a good idea, but I simply don't trust American industry to do it safely, cheaply and efficiently. (I also learned to hold a seething purple contempt for academia in the process, but that's not important here.)

Then again, it's also the case that I worked for Enron for a year between May of 2000 and May of 2001. I probably have an exaggeratedly low opinion of the American energy industry.

Posted by: s9 on June 6, 2004 05:02 PM


To clarify my comments, in response to some others:

No, informed hard-headed realists don't support racial profiling; but a liberal who does so gets treated like one. It's a false perception, and one that I find highly analogous to that of the "pro-nuke environmentalist."

RE: Chernobyl, I wasn't trying to argue with the specific flaws laid out by whoever (sorry, too many posts to check). My point was that Chernobyl has, in my perception, always been dismissed (by nuke advocates) as having been structurally flawed. Or, rather, the product of a flawed society. But those societal flaws (central planning - like Kleiman likes to see in France - and autocracy - not allowing ignorant, Nader-addled locals to have a say) are, apparently, prerequisites for effective nukes (note that the USN has a sterling nuclear record - if only the entire US ran like the military!).

Regarding the more technical aspects of the debate, it should be obvious that the best source of power is increased efficiency. Didn't Btu per unit of economic output in the US fall from the late 70s through the late 80s? Sure, a lot of that was in realitively cheap one-time only gains (like double-glazed windows), but it's absurd to claim that, in an economy dominated by Moore's Law, we have hit any kind of meaningful barrier to ever-greater energy efficiency. It is laughably simple to design comfortable houses that require virtually no powered heating or cooling, but the market for these is close to zero. Why? Because people would rather hear that nukes, or wind, or hydrogen will solve their problems, without them having to even notice.

Beyond that, my fundamental problem with nukes is not the first-hand safety issue (although it's comical to dismiss this - find me an industry with a 100.00% safety record, or another technology with more catastrophic potential), but rather the waste. Wasn't a big part of the original environmental movement a reaction against pollution and the dropping of permanent crap (DDT) into the environment, as if it were someone else's problem? Is this no longer an issue? Is it now OK to knowingly produce staggeringly dangerous toxins that we cannot reliably contain? I didn't get the memo.

Look, we can't burn a chunk of coal without destroying the atmosphere as we know it. How does it make sense to do something we know to be much more dangerous as a solution? Nukes as a solution to global warming is as rational as a gun to solve a roach infestation. Or burning a village to save it.

Posted by: JRoth on June 7, 2004 08:45 AM


Gar Lipow- I can only speak for myself, but I have never advocated 100% nuclear. Wind would be (is) fantastic. We should have as much as possible. My point is only that as long as there exist operating coal plants, opposing nuclear power on an environmental basis is ludicrous. (BTW, I'm no nukee, but I believe it is possible to moderate nuclear output somewhat, there are apparently even "pebble bed modular reactors" specifically designed for peaking power.)

JRoth- I still think you're missing a not so subtle distinction here. It is entirely possible to have a highly regulated and subsidised nuclear power industry and still distribute corn flakes and everything else via the free market. Specifically, the societal flaws that apparently produced chernobyl (inefficent centrally planned economy, insular decision making) are definitely *not* a prerequisite. The way around the Nader-addled locals is simply to make them (or their elected representatives) see reason.

Regarding efficiency improvements: I read a paper once which pointed out a gap between engineering reality and consumer perception on the subject. The idea is basically that, from an engineering point of view, we already have the capability to increase efficiency quite dramatically. Furthermore, the technology to make that happen (more efficient, longer lasting light bulbs, etc.) would actually *save* consumers money, at least over the medium to long run. In theory, people should be rushing to buy this stuff. It turns out the problem is mostly in the minds of consumers. Maybe they don't really believe the light bulb will last as long as promised, or don't like the color, or think that the fancier appliances won't keep their food as cold or their clothes as clean, the list goes on.

Anyway, you're right that efficiency is the cleanest power of all. And I'm sure we could overcome the above little obstacle and increase efficiency dramatically. But we'll still need a hell of a lot of energy. Better that comes from wind and nukes than coal and oil.

"Is it now OK to knowingly produce staggeringly dangerous toxins that we cannot reliably contain?"

No. And that's just the point. Watt for watt, coal produces about twice the NUCLEAR WASTE that nuclear power plants do. You can get more energy from a pound of coal by refining it and putting it in a fission reactor than from burning it! None of that waste is contained at all, it goes up stacks or gets pushed into ash piles. The radiation exposure is on the order of 100 times greater than that produced by nuclear plants (which are not known to affect background radiation appreciably at all, even with the bad management).

If all we did with the spent reactor fuel was bulldoze it into a pile outside Detroit and throw a couple of tarps over it to keep the rain off, we would *still* be safer replacing coal with nuclear. (Yes, there is a risk of catastrophic failure, but it basically requires catastrophic incompetence. We really ought to be able to work around that - the French and Japanese do.)

And the waste from nuclear reactors *can* be contained. It takes a paranoid to think that encasing it in glass and burying it in a mountain won't be safe enough. That notion can't possibly pass any kind of rational cost benefit test.

Wind, solar and bicycle power are all cleaner, but in a pinch it is good to know that nuclear is pretty damn clean too.

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