In today's Salon, Joseph Romm writes that John McCain, among others, is trying to bring back nuclear power as an essential part of any program to fight global warming and the oil crisis.
[G]rowing concern over greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel plants has created a surge of new interest in nuclear. Wired magazine just proclaimed "Go nuclear" on its cover. Environmentalists like Stewart Brand and James Lovelock have begun embracing nukes as a core climate solution. And GOP presidential nominee John McCain, who has called for building hundreds of new nuclear plants in this country, recently announced he won't bother showing up to vote on his friend Joe Lieberman's climate bill because of insufficient subsides (read "pork") for nuclear power.
Whoa. Wait a minute. Didn't we pretty much kill the nuclear power industry because it was so goddamn dangerous? What's up? Has something changed? Well, no, actually. Except that while it's just as deadly as it always was, now it's incredibly expensive as well.
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. [Yeah, no shit.]
[N]ew nuclear power now costs more than double what the MIT report assumed -- three times what the Economist called "too costly to matter".... While safety, proliferation and waste issues get most of the publicity, nuclear plants have become so expensive that cost overwhelms the other problems.
Frankly, I don't care why nuclear power is dead as long as it is. But it sounds as if we've suddenly got a coterie of people who really ought to know better (well, maybe not McCain) pimping for an energy source that could end life on the planet as we know it if a corporation building a nuclear power plant, you know, took a few little shortcuts in the building process, which they have been known to do from time to time.
The arguments made by this latest batch of nuclear power defenders, though, are bordering on the ridiculous as they advocate more (!!!) govt subsidiees for the industry.
Consider this recent interview between Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria and Patrick Moore, one of the co-founders of Greenpeace [Greenpeace, for gawd's sake], who is now a strong advocate for nuclear power. Zakaria asks, "A number of analyses say that nuclear power isn't cost competitive, and that without government subsidies, there's no real market for it." Moore replies:
That's simply not true. Where the massive government subsidies are is in wind and solar ... I know that the cost of production of electricity among the 104 nuclear plants operating in the United States is 1.68 cents per kilowatt-hour. That's not including the capital costs, but the cost of production of electricity from nuclear is very low, and competitive with dirty coal. Gas costs three times as much as nuclear, at least. Wind costs five times as much, and solar costs 10 times as much.
In short: That's absurd. Nuclear power, a mature industry providing 20 percent of U.S. power, has received some $100 billion in U.S. subsidies -- more than three times the subsidies of wind and solar, even though they are both emerging industries. And how can one possibly ignore the capital costs of arguably the most capital-intensive form of energy? Moore's statement is like saying "My house is incredibly cheap to live in, if I don't include the mortgage."
Back in the day, Greenpeace was a fervent opponent of nuclear power, one of the main environmental groups responsible for making people rethink the whole nuclear power option thing. Now they're fighting for nuclear and telling outrageous lies about how much wind and solar are getting from the govt? What, has Greenpeace been infiltrated by a cell of Rove's Rangers?
Romm may be right that the cost is so prohibitive that nuclear power will remain forbidden fruit but the fact that there is even a movement in its favor - a movement staffed at least in part by one-time environmental groups - is so depressing I can barely stand it. It says that the Bush Years of tunnel-vision, greed, and Looking Out for #1 have infected us as a culture far more deeply than I had hoped.
Nuclear power isn't worth a serious discussion. That there are people trying to start one as if it were a legitimate alternative to oil is scary.