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Monday, October 25, 2010

To nuke, or not to nuke?

Nuclear power’s disadvantages — technical, economic, social acceptability — will probably prevent it from making much difference in solving climate change problems. Energy, both literal and metaphorical, spent on nuclear power is energy not spent working on other parts of the menu of choices for addressing climate change issues.”
— Lee Clarke, “The Nuclear Option,” in Routledge Handbook of Climate Change and Society
In a countries like France and Japan, the lynchpin of efforts to reduce carbon emissions (and imports of fossil fuels) is electricity generated from nuclear power. Overall, Clarke says that fission reactors generate 14% of the world’s electricity, and 20% of that in the US.

In the US, proponents of nuclear power argue that it’s a proven technology, it substitutes directly for the dirtiest of electric sources (coal), and the greenhouse gas emissions are zero. This option is particularly salient for moderate environmentalists (or at least liberal Republicans) who worry about GHGs but consider the nuclear question long since settled.

Of course, opposition to nuclear power in the US dates back more than three decades. I recall rock concerts and traffic jams in a futile effort to block PG&E from building the 2.2 gigawatt plant in the isolated Diablo Canyon — opening in 1985 as one of the last new nuke plants in the US.

Some of the environmental opposition is dispassionate and logical, focusing on the lack of political will (and technical uncertainties) regarding storage of spent nuclear fuel. Other opposition is hysterical, right up there with the anti-vacinnation campaigners who worry about imagined mercury risks (from vaccines that no longer use mercury as an antibacterial).

Similarly, some of the economic arguments are more sound than others. Nuke plants have huge capital budgets, long approval processes, and require complex and expensive technical and security training to operate safely. As with all economic policy arguments, the arguments against (or for) plants are subject to the usual lies and distortions because no one checks who was right 30 years later.

Some try to combine the approaches. Just as death penalty opponents claim (rightly or wrongly) that death penalty litigation is more expensive than 40 years of room and board, some environmentalists say that whether or not the plants are safe, they put too much of a rate burden on ratepayers.

Routledge Handbook of Climate Change and Society (Routledge International Handbooks)In his chapter from the Routledge Handbook of Climate Change and Society, sociologist Lee Clarke is openly skeptical of environmentalists (such as Stewart Brand) who believe the threat of global warming is greater than the threat of nuclear power. While not anti-corporate like some authors in this edited volume, he clearly has the same objections to nuclear power today as did leading environmental groups 20 years ago long before IPCC, Kyoto and “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Still, one doesn’t have to agree with the motivations of people like Prof. Clarke to agree with his conclusions. Even if nuclear power is the right solution, is it a feasible one? Even with a major push, given the restrictions on where plants can be placed American voters and regulators are unlikely to approve more than a modest increase in the number of reactors. Another complication is the need to replace 40+ year old reactors as they come up for decommissioning, perhaps (as in Southern California) building them alongside the old ones.

Meanwhile, US (and IAEA) policy is not going to promote putting up fission reactors across South America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

If politics is the art of the possible, then the reality is that nuclear power (at best) will make a small difference. While those who want to reduce manmade global warming might want to support any proposed nuclear projects, they can’t be counted on to solve the entire problem.

Meanwhile, from a business standpoint, the stagnant industry already concentrated with four manufacturers consolidated to three: GE Hitachi, Westinghouse and Areva NP of France. What business there is will go to incumbents, not new entrants.

And even these companies recognize the long odds: none are placing all their eggs in a nuclear basket. GE has leveraged its turbine skills to remain (for now) the dominant seller of wind turbines in the US market, one of five major players overall, while Hitachi is concentrating on turbines for the Japanese niche market. It also has a solar business, as does Westinghouse (through its partnership with the company formerly known as Akeena) and Areva (which bought the SV firm Ausra in 2009).

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