Thursday, October 30, 2008

Nuclear spring?

Nuclear power has not, for most of its history, enjoyed much popular support. Three Mile Island and Chernobyl have had a very long half-life in the public's anxiety closet, and waste disposal solutions remain scientifically and politically challenging.

Yet support for nuclear power has shifted, returning closer to what it was before TMI, undergoing what some now call a renaissance. Climate change, energy security are the leading reasons for this change of sentiment. Politicians, leaders that they are, have been quick to follow. John McCain positions nuclear as a co-equal with expanded oil drilling as his energy solution; Barack Obama advocates $15B per year for renewables, but hedges his (political) bets by suggesting a role for both nuclear and greater oil drilling as part of his comprehensive approach to energy.

Our energy policy needs to change--there's little arguing with that, especially after events of the last few months (years.) While many worry about carbon emissions and climate change, and others about supporting foreign oil despots and achieving energy independence, most Americans care primarily these days about economic impacts. (Update: polling.)

What does it cost? A recent analysis by Amory B. Lovins and Imran Sheikh, "The Nuclear Illusion," pegs the cost of electricity from a new nuclear power plant at 14¢ per kilowatt hour, based on costs of fuel, capital, operations and maintenance, and transmission and distribution. The authors claim wind power under a comparable costing analysis to be just half that--7¢ per kilowatt hour. These cost estimates do not include the not insignificant costs of waste disposal, insuring plants against accidents, and decommissioning (cleaning up) the plants when they wear out.

These costs are not trivial:
To get a sense of the costs of nuclear waste disposal, we need not look beyond
the United States, which leads the world with 101,000 megawatts of
nuclear-generating capacity (compared with 63,000 megawatts in second-ranked
France). The United States proposes to store the radioactive waste from its 104
nuclear power reactors in the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, roughly
90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada. The cost of this repository, originally
estimated at $58 billion in 2001, climbed to $96 billion by 2008. This comes to
a staggering $923 million per reactor -- almost $1 billion each -- assuming no
further repository cost increases. (See data).

The repository is now 19 years behind schedule, and it becomes harder with each passing year to believe that it will ever be built at all. If it does get built through some miracle of political will, the cost will almost certainly be greater than today's estimate. Who will pay? Yep, that's right--the taxpayers.

McCain endorses nuclear and the folly of "drill, baby, drill" as the solution, but his policy fails on virtually any metric you care to pick--climate change, immediacy, security, cost, effectiveness. It looks increasingly like more of the same.

Looking at the statements of the candidates and the sentiments of public opinion, the question is not whether we should invest in our energy future, the question is how much do we invest and where do we get the best value? Investing in more fossil foolishness as we've done for decades will not now produce different results or solve our increasingly urgent problems. Nuclear is not the answer. Clean coal isn't. The only investment that simultaneously addresses energy independence, climate change, and long-term affordability is renewable energy.

The $150B Obama proposes to invest in boosting renewable energy is a step in the right direction, but as an investment in our future it looks downright paltry. Both for a forward-looking energy policy and as a response to the economic neo-Hooverism some now dangerously advocate, there needs to be a substantial investment in renewable energy.

We need a Green New Deal, not retreading tired and failed approaches of yesteryear.
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