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For Clean Energy, No Nuclear Option

Clint Wilder's picture

Should nuclear power be revived? That's been one of the dicier debates in the clean- energy community for the past year or so. On its face, the notion that a technology producing radioactive waste could ever be considered "clean" sounds ludicrous. But global warming's threat to the future of the planet has cast the debate in a new light. If new and much safer nuclear generators could replace coal plants for a significant portion of the world's electricity supply, the logic goes, the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions and other overall environmental benefits would be a net positive. Nuclear generation technology improvements such as the pebble-bed reactor have drastically reduced the risk of Chernobyl-type accidents, say advocates, whereas the risks from climate change, if we continue burning fossil fuels at currently growing rates, are real and almost inevitable. It's a tricky question that's created rifts among some prominent environmentalists. New nuclear power advocates like Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand and Global Business Network chairman and co-founder Peter Schwartz are in the minority to be sure, with the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and more than 300 other state and regional environmental groups reaffirming their opposition to nukes. Nuclear power raises a host of serious concerns, only some of which are addressed by safer "next generation" reactor technology. The transportation and storage of radioactive waste, the possibility of a terrorist strike on a reactor, and the risk of nuclear materials finding their way to hostile groups or governments are all risks with potentially disastrous consequences. But to me, the biggest argument against nuclear energy doesn't need any apocalyptic doomsday scenarios. It's found in the bottom line: multi-billion dollar nuclear plants are simply not cost-effective compared to other energy sources. One of the tired traditional arguments against solar, wind, and other clean technologies goes something like this: "The technologies sound great, but they're just too expensive. They require public-sector subsidies to get them started, and government buy-downs or production tax credits to keep them going. At some point, energy generation technology has to stand on its own two feet and be able to compete on price in the marketplace. Renewables just won't be commercially viable on a large scale without perpetual government support." Every one of those points can be raised against nuclear, and then some - like the potential costs of government guarantees to pay the expenses of a reactor accident above $10.9 billion, a current law that the energy bill just passed by the Senate would extend for the next two decades. Nuclear power is an industry that wouldn't have begun at all without massive government support, and it will take massive subsidies again to revive it. And the price tag is significant: Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman (and nuke supporter) Nils Diaz recently said a plant would cost "no more than $1.5 billion" in an industry best- case scenario: a streamlined approval process and the federal government agreeing to pick up the tab for regulatory delays. The reality is that the cost likely will be much more than that. "To understand nuclear power's prospects," Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute wrote recently, "just follow the money. Private investors have flatly rejected nuclear power but enthusiastically bought its main supply-side competitors - decentralized cogeneration and renewables." Lovins noted that those two sources produced nearly as much power worldwide (92%) as nuclear reactors by the end of last year. What if a few of the billions that Congress wants to spend to jump-start the moribund U.S. nuclear power industry (the last filled order for a new plant was issued in 1973) were redirected to clean energy technologies? It would be a much more productive investment in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, creating jobs, and catalyzing the kind of technology innovation that politicians are always claiming is what America is all about. Isn't that preferable to reviving a never-very-successful industry, producing power that's neither cheap, clean, nor renewable, whose time has come and gone? In a recent interview with Newsweek, noted green architect William McDonough was asked to weigh in on the nuclear power debate. "I love nuclear energy," he said. "I just want to make sure it stays where God put it -- 93 million miles away, in the sun." I have to agree. In energy, let's say no to the nuclear option. Wilder is Clean Edge's contributing editor. E-mail him at wilder[at]cleanedge[dot]com.