What Are They Thinking?

The Post on US Senate climate bill negotiations:

Environmental activists warn that the 1,400-page House version of the bill already includes so many giveaways to corporate America that more horse-trading in the Senate could lead them to oppose the final version. … If Obama needs more Republicans, he may have to authorize Reid to give in for more funding for the construction of the nation’s first new nuclear power plants in a generation. The environmental lobby has rigorously opposed any new nuclear plants, but several GOP senators, including  Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and  John McCain (Ariz.), have made their case that nuclear power is the best for cleaning the skies of carbon emissions.

Sure nuclear energy can’t by itself solve global warming – there probably just isn’t enough nuclear fuel out there for that.  But on the margin it should sure help.  The physics showing that nuke plants do emit power but don’t emit carbon is really pretty solid, after all.   So activists telling us we are all going to die die die if we don’t immediately cut way back on carbon emissions might oppose the bill to limit carbon emissions because it might include permission to build nuke plants, that would further reduce carbon emissions?  What gives?  They aren’t nuke physics denialists are they?

Here is how Greenpeace (one founder is now pro-nuke) explains their opposition:

Building enough nuclear power stations to make a meaningful reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would cost trillions of dollars, create tens of thousands of tons of lethal high-level radioactive waste, contribute to further proliferation of nuclear weapons materials, and result in a Chernobyl-scale accident once every decade. Perhaps most significantly, it will  squander the resources necessary to implement meaningful climate change solutions.

So they think they know cheaper ways to cut carbon?  The whole idea of a carbon tax, or cap and trade, is to give people the incentives to figure out for themselves what is actually the cheapest way to cut.  Why not let nuke plants be an option?

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  • Alex Wilson

    Nuclear power has become a religious issue for the older greens: they grew up in the day when nuclear power was the greatest perceived threat to the environment and developed highly entrenched anti-nuke positions. They have so much emotionally and reputationally invested in their opposition that they’re not prepared to behave rationally and re-think in the face of a greater threat (although some, more plausibly, argue that the increased danger of nuclear weapons profiliferation in a world with many more nuke power stations poses a comparable existential threat to climate change).

  • JasGarnier

    Alas nuclear power is a religious issue for nearly everyone, as you can easily see just by asking legitimate, pertinent questions regarding costs, delays, outages, decommissioning, waste, nuclear proliferation etc. The standard hand-waves of which basically amount to:
    1) We have a new generation of super-duper designs that should eliminate costs to an tiny fraction of these old designs.
    2) The waste is so tiny you can keep it in a jam jar.
    3) There isn’t a better alternative.
    4) Look at France.

    And you can tell you are becoming a nuclear zealot when you automatically disparage any other viable alternative by using as many false arguments and poor accounts that you can muster with about one minute of googling the asinine dross from other nuclear zealots.

    Now while there are good, new designs the first few of these are running into the usual teething troubles and cost overruns. There are ways to practically eliminate the waste, ie use it in other reactors, but that is seemingly not on anyones agenda (except perhaps in India). Proliferation isn’t even discussed – as if it might magically be no problem letting despots having lots of radioactive chemicals in handy form. As for France, they aren’t giving away the real costs or even admitting the real difficulties yet. That new Finnish reactor is killing EDF though because they are building it on a fixed-cost basis.

    We have to be careful running with the nuclear propaganda machine; they are infamous for their boundless optimism and dirt poor accounting. For them, global warming is merely a handy green-washer. There has to be a grown-up debate, not a squabble between religious factions.

    • “Looking at France” takes the outside view which I find attractive.

      I fully expect government to fiddle the figures in favour of prefered policy options. The British government used to subsidise the National Coal Board because the National Union of Mineworkers was a powerful political constituency. Since electricity generation was also a nationalised industry the British government had the Central Electricity Generating Board over-pay for British coal. Thus part of the subsidy to the National Coal Board was off the books, hidden in higher electricity prices. I assume that the French government fiddles the figures on the cost of nuclear electricity as much as it can, but I cannot see that they have much wiggle room.

      If French electricity was on 10% nuclear I would guess that costs were twice what was admitted to, with the losses diluted to the point that they could be hidden by spreading them over the whole of electricity generation. However French electricity is more like 80% nuclear. Hiding large costs with cross subsidies isn’t going to work, there is not enough non-nuclear generation for dilution.

      What about off-balance sheet borrowing? That works for hiding the cost of pension promises, but only because they are promises. France’s nuclear power plants are incurring costs now. Borrowing to hide large costs doesn’t work in long term because the borrowings mount up. France has been nuclear for decades. The long term has arrived. They haven’t been hiding costs this way.

      More ambitious dishonesty would raid the health budget or the education budget for money to hide the excessive cost of nuclear power, but electricity generation is a huge part of the economy. The fraud would show up with run-down schools or decrepit hospitals. If a government really saddled its country with double-cost electricity generation it would inevitably announce itself in the economic damage it caused no matter how cleverly the government lied in its official accounts.

      Similarly I wouldn’t trust the official figures on industrial accidents. Are French nuclear power plants run safely? Maybe, maybe not. Have they have a Chernobyl sized accident? No. Radiation is easy to detect. There are limits on what even governments can hide.

      “Look at France” names a forceful argument that does not ask us to trust.

      • Douglas Knight

        Also, France exports electricity. This is evidence that it’s cost-effective, but it’s also a good reason for its neighbors not to worry about whether it really is for France or could be from them, but just to encourage France to expand its capacity.

  • Gordon Wrigley

    more funding for the construction of the nation’s first new nuclear power plants in a generation

    Why not let nuke plants be an option?

    There is a big difference between letting nuke plants be an option and the having the Govt pay to build them.

  • Shae

    I’m not dumb enough to think that anecdotes equal evidence, but I’ll pass mine along anyway if only to add to what Alex said.

    My dad worked at Union Carbide in Paducah KY in the 60’s or 70’s. Their record of explosions and safety violations and illness cover-ups was through the roof. I won’t bore with examples, but it’s all out there on the web to find. My dad got kidney cancer and a settlement from them, and died five years after diagnosis.

    One could certainly say that this is a policy problem rather than an inherent danger of nuclear power plants; if they hadn’t broken rules and if they had provided safety gear and they had done this and that then this may not have happened. But the public may not have faith that getting big corporations to do the right thing is something we can count on.

    • I thought they produced chemicals rather than energy. As far as I know there have not been any deaths attributed to nuclear power plants in the U.S.

      • Shae

        They enriched uranium for use in domestic and foreign commercial power reactors.

  • “there probably just isn’t enough nuclear fuel out there for that”

    Probably there is

  • Unnamed

    It looks like the dispute over the climate bill involves whether the government should give more subsidies for nuclear power, rather than whether to allow the construction of new plants. If that’s the case, then your suggestion to let nuclear plants compete to be the cheapest power source doesn’t really fit the dispute.

    What about Greenpeace’s argument that nuclear power is too expensive? That works as an argument against subsidies for nuclear power, especially since nuclear power is competing with other energy technologies for government funding. If someone came along with a proposal for an unsubsidized, privately funded nuclear plant then it wouldn’t be a good argument against that proposal. But I believe that nuclear power generation has generally been heavily subsidized (correct me if I’m wrong), so in practice this could also work as an argument against nuclear power (since nuclear power carries a big expected subsidy).

  • James Daniel Miller

    The U.S. government limits the liability of nuclear power plants. It’s not clear if any more nuclear power plants would be built without this subsidy. And indeed if this subsidy were suddenly taken away many plants would probably shut down.

  • rk

    The radical environmentalist solution is to reduce the population of humans on the Earth to far below what it currently is. The psychology behind their position is at the core a religious philosophy or the original sin of mankind and the evil (especially of white males) committed against the Earth. What a bunch of crap. Pope Al Gore is the leader of the whole group.

    What we need to do is research how to live at an even higher standard of living for all humans using better technology, more efficient machines, and alternate energy supplies. We should be able to build build 200 MPG cars that do zero to sixty in 5 seconds. But that would be ‘fun’ which is not the correct way to atone for ‘sin’.

  • Thanks for this thoughtful article.

    Actually, there is enough nuclear fuel. If all the world’s electricity came from nuclear energy (an unnecessary and undesirable condition) there’s enough nuclear fuel to last over 1000 years, even if electricity consumption triples. Please look at this for the numbers with references.

    It is true that the cost of nuclear plants will be high. The fact is, all the alternatives are at least expensive. The world burns fossil fuels because they have the lowest direct cost so if everyone converts away from fossil fuels then energy costs will necessarily rise. However, the externalized costs –costs paid by victims instead of consumers– make fossil fuels actually more expensive (examples).

    The suggestion made here is that nuclear should be pursued if it can compete without subsidies. That’s perfectly reasonable as long as the alternatives aren’t subsidized either. But nuclear opponents demand that even more subsidies be piled onto renewable-energy installations. For more on this topic, please read Bafflegab: Energy Subsidies.

    The truth is that minimizing the harmful effects of global warming will require all the renewable energy we can manage, all the nuclear plants we can build, and more conservation than anyone wants.

    • Mike

      This situation doesn’t look so clear to me. Looking at the page you cite, it looks like known technology and known reserves translate to a bit over 8 years of nuclear energy, if used to power the world at present energy consumption.

      Multiply by ten to take advantage of projected reserves. In my opinion one should take an assessment of projected reserves with skepticism, unless one knows the projection was made without bias.

      Only by developing technology to extract more energy (“advanced uranium fuel cycle” etc) do you get your number.

      • Mike, thanks for replying. You’re exactly right, that the numbers in the paper anticipate advanced fuel cycles. The numbers are labeled that way. The present practice of discarding fuel when a small fraction of its energy is consumed is not reasonable.

        In a different reply you brought up the issue of proliferation. This is an important subject, not to be treated lightly. At the end of the debate, the one salient fact left is that neither nuclear plants nor recycling of fuel is necessary for making atomic bombs. If there were no nuclear plants anywhere the danger of proliferation would be the same.

    • alwpeters


      Out of curiosity, are you paid to publish arguments like this when someone blogs on nuclear? The last sentence sounds awfully PR-ish, and indeed, you’ve used it before.

      • Thanks for asking. No, I’ve never been paid to promote nuclear energy. I’d like to say I’m an environmentalist in the mold of James Lovelock, but I’m not that conceited. Anyway, I distinguish between scientific environmentalists, who are seeking real answers to real problems, and political environmentalists, who have joined a cause and are determined to win no matter what the facts show.

        I have used the sentence to which you refer because it sums up the situation as plainly as anything I can say. Here’s another remark I’ve made multiple times:

        “Consider what nuclear gets us:

        “(1) An electricity source that doesn’t depend on wind or sunlight or the limited amount of energy storage available, and emits virtually no greenhouse gases. It could reduce CO2 emissions by 40%.

        “(2) An energy-efficient way to produce hydrogen, which could be used directly in automobiles and trucks or added to biofuels to make their production higher by a factor of three. Presently, transportation accounts for about 33% of CO2 emissions; all of that could be eliminated through conservation, electrification, and alternate fuels.

        “(3) A huge reduction in air pollution, lowered trade deficits, and freedom from Middle-East involvements.”

  • Floccina

    Fortunately we the USA do not need to allow or certainly subsidize nuclear power plant construction because Canada is more open to construction of Candu nuclear power plants and anti-foreign bias aside if nuclear becomes and economical way to go (my understanding is NG is still cheaper) we can buy electricity from Canada.

    Interest continues to be expressed in new CANDU construction around the world, and CANDU technology is typically involved in open bidding processes alongside LWR technology.
    CANDU reactors have been proposed as the main vehicle for planned supply replacement and growth in Ontario, Canada, a province that currently generates over 50% of its electricity from CANDU reactors, with Canadian government help with financing.[17] Interest has also been expressed in Western Canada, where CANDU reactors are being considered as heat and electricity sources for the energy-intensive oil sands extraction process, which currently uses natural gas. Energy Alberta Corporation, headquartered in Calgary, announced August 272007 that they had filed application for a license to build a new nuclear plant at Lac Cardinal (30 km west of the town of Peace River, Alberta). The application would see an initial twin AECL ACR-1000 plant go online in 2017, producing 2.2 gigawatt (electric).[18][19][20]

  • Mike

    I think the opposition to nuclear energy is based on a fear that it gives a false sense of solving a problem that it really only delays. I here assume there is insufficient nuclear fuel for this to be a replacement for carbon-based fuels, which I recall being told is very much the case, except perhaps is one allows the construction of breeder reactions to create plutonium, which some people think increases proliferation risks.

    I think this is one in many situations where progressive laws are resisted because they do not “go far enough.” Whether or not this is an effective strategy, I don’t know.

    • The
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  • Doug S.

    I’ve heard that there’s an awful lot of thorium around…

  • Two facts, which we have known since 1980, when I looked them up:
    A coal power plant produces more nuclear waste than a nuclear power plant, because coal contains some radioactive elements. It just isn’t a waste disposal problem, because it goes up the smokestack and into the air.
    Coal power plants cause an estimated 30,000 deaths/year in the US. That’s the same number of deaths that were believed to have been caused by Chernobyl.

    Also, AFAIK all US and Russian nuclear plants are based on designs from the 1950s-1960s for submarine nuclear power plants, which are inherently unsafe. This is because environmentalist opposition to nuclear power has prevented development of nuclear power by anyone other than the military. The fact that we have had only 1 nuclear reactor accident in 40 years using these dangerous designs, where “we” actually means the Russians, whose approach to safety can most charitably be described as “more stringent than China’s”, is a powerful argument that, with safer designs, and the discipline to not build nuclear plants on fault zones, we can attain zero accidents per (subjective-time) century.

  • nawitus

    “1) We have a new generation of super-duper designs that should eliminate costs to an tiny fraction of these old designs.”
    In my country the cost of nuclear power can never be an argument, as the government will never build a nuclear plant. The private sector does that, so it’s 100% their money and their risk. I don’t know about the situation in the U.S.

  • sk

    Robin, what’s your opinion on the content of Greenpeace’s opposition?

  • In the US, the nuclear industry is (partially) insulated from risk by the Price-Anderson Act. It has been alleged that without this, nuclear plants would not be economcally viable at all due to insurance costs. The Act can be considered a massive government subsidy to the nuclear power industry.

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