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How Green Are Your Nukes?

Environmentalists Stewart Brand and Al Gore debate nuclear power in two new books.

Ronald Bailey
November 10, 2009

The role that nuclear power might play in addressing the problem of man-made global warming is fiercely disputed among environmentalists. Two new books by big names in the movement stake out the boundaries of that debate. On the pro-nuclear side stands Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, by Stewart Brand. And parked in the (more or less) anti-nuclear corner is Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis, by Al Gore. A self-described “green,” Stewart Brand founded and edited the counterculture Whole Earth Catalog back in 1968. In his first book, Earth in the Balance (1992), then-Sen. Al Gore argued, “We must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization.”

Stewart BrandOnce an opponent of nuclear power, Stewart Brand is now a big backer. With regard to the safety, cost, waste handling, and weapons potential of nuclear power, Brand writes, “I’ve learned to disbelieve much of what I’ve been told by my fellow environmentalists.” On safety, Brand notes, “year after year, the industry has had no significant accidents” in the operation of the world’s 443 civilian nuclear plants. “Radiation from nuclear energy has not killed a single American,” asserts Brand. He does look at the after-effects of the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant which released a lot of radiation over swathes of northern Europe. He finds that the dire predictions that hundreds of thousands would die of radiation induced cancers turned out to be false. Weighing the safety tradeoffs between nuclear power and man-made global warming, Brand cites this observation from environmentalist Bill McKibben: “Nuclear power is a potential safety threat, if something goes wrong. Coal-fired power is guaranteed destruction, filling the atmosphere with planet-heating carbon when it operates the way it’s supposed to.”

Brand is also fairly sanguine about how to handle the radioactive wastes produced by nuclear power plants. He regards efforts to somehow isolate nuclear wastes for thousands of years as not just absurdly costly, but also wrongheaded, arguing instead that we should figure out how to store it for a couple of hundred years and leave to future generations the choice of what to do with the used fuel. “If we and our technology prosper, humanity by then will be unimaginably capable compared to now, with far more interesting things to worry about than some easily detected and treated stray radioactivity somewhere in the landscape,” writes Brand. “If we crash back to the stone age, odd doses of radioactivity will be the least of our problems. Extrapolate to two thousand years, ten thousand years. The problem doesn’t get worse over time, it vanishes over time.”

But what about the problem of nuclear weapons proliferation? Brand points out that Israel, India, South Africa, and North Korea secretly developed their bombs using research reactors, not power reactors. To reduce the chance of fuel being diverted to produce weapons, he suggests developing an international fuel bank from which nations would basically rent their fuel and to which it would be returned for reprocessing once it was exhausted. President Barack Obama endorsed such a proposal in a speech in Prague in April 2009.

Brand bases his support for nuclear power on four considerations: baseload, footprint, portfolio, and government-scale. Brand enthusiastically hails the fact that in the 21st century most of humanity will dwell in cities and cities need a steady supply of lots of electricity. Baseload power is the minimum amount of consistent power that utilities must supply to their customers. Brand points out that there are currently only three sources for baseload power: fossil fuels, hydro, and nuclear. Brand dismisses solar and wind as baseload power sources because of their intermittency—the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow.

Footprint? Nuclear power is compact and renewables occupy a lot of land. Brand quotes nuke booster Gwyneth Craven who notes, "A nuclear power plant producing 1,000 megawatts takes up a third of a square mile. A wind farm would have to cover over 200 square miles to obtain the same result, and a solar array over 50 square miles." Craven, a former opponent of the Shoreham nuclear power plant on Long Island, describes her change of mind in her book, The Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy (2007).

By "portfolio" Brand means that the problem of man-made global warming may be so bad, that humanity must simultaneously pursue all types of projects to cut its greenhouse gas emissions. Ruling nuclear out of that portfolio makes the task of reducing emissions that much harder to achieve. What Brand means by "government-scale" is that he thinks big energy infrastructure requires big government funding and regulatory intervention. Given the array of subsidies currently on offer, the Feds apparently agree.

But what about the costs? Brand breezily waves them aside. “We Greens are not economists,” writes Brand. “We don’t really care about money. Our agenda is to protect the natural environment, not taxpayers or ratepayers."

Al Gore

In the anti-nuke corner we have Al Gore, who pointedly cites "the grossly unacceptable economics of the present generation of reactors." He begins his chapter on the nuclear option: "In the world’s debate over how to produce electricity without generating massive quantities of greenhouse gas pollution, there is a radioactive white elephant in the middle of the room: nuclear power." A white elephant is generally an object that costs more to maintain than it is worth. And it turns out that nuclear energy’s excessive cost is one of two the chief arguments that Gore deploys against it. The second is the risk that nuclear fuel might be diverted to produce nuclear weapons. Gore quite rightly acknowledges that nuclear power is safe and that the issue of how to store nuclear waste could be solved.

Gore notes that in the 1960s, the old Atomic Energy Commission predicted that the United States would have 1,000 nuclear power plants operating by the year 2000. That didn’t happen. Instead only 104 plants are currently operating and they generate about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. Construction costs for building a nuclear power plant have increased from $400 million in the 1970s to $4 billion by the 1990s and building times doubled. Gore highlights bottlenecks that could choke any nuclear renaissance, including the fact that critical components such as containment facilities to house reactors are currently being produced by only one Japanese company.

Somehow Gore’s cost consciousness gets lost when he considers solar power, however. In his solar power chapter, Gore does a lot of hand-waving about future photovoltaic cell breakthroughs and declining cost curves. Gore also decries lavish subsidies to nuclear power, but approvingly cites "the recent establishment by the U.S. government of new incentives for solar electricity," and state government requirements that utilities obtain a percentage of their power from high-cost renewable sources. As an example of the future of photovoltaic power, Gore points to a new solar plant opened by Florida Power and Light. President Obama dedicated the new 25-megawatt $150 million facility in October. Scaling that plant up to generate the amount of power equal to that a 1,000 megawatt nuclear plant would produce would now cost $18 billion. According the Electric Power Research Institute, constructing a comparable nuclear plant would cost $4 billion.

Gore declares, "Once the world chooses to set ambitious goals for scaling up solar electricity development and commits to the investments necessary to further improve the technologies involved, there is no question that solar energy will provide a major percentage of the world’s electricity." Brand would certainly argue that exactly the same thing can be said of nuclear energy. 

Gore’s second big issue with nuclear power is the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation. Reactor-grade fissionable material cannot be used to make bombs; it must be further enriched. If the world went on a nuclear power plant building binge, Gore and others fear that some unsavory governments would covertly divert nuclear fuel to enrichment facilities where it could be turned into nuclear weapons. Gore believes that the international nuclear fuel bank idea is a non-starter. However, Brand notes that since 2006, 18 nations have signed up for something similar, the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership. GNEP has also been endorsed by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The federal government is now offering a host of new subsidies and guarantees to utilities to build new nuclear power plants. For example, the Energy Policy Act of 2005, supported by the majority of Republicans in Congress and signed by President George W. Bush, authorizes a production tax credit of 2.1 cents per kilowatt hour from the first 6,000 megawatts of new nuclear generation capacity; $2 billion to cover the costs of any regulatory delays; federal loan guarantees for advanced reactors up to 80 percent of the project cost; and a 20 year extension of law that limits the nuclear industry liability to $10 billion dollars. In 2008, the Department of Energy (DOE) invited applications for up $18.5 billion in nuclear construction loan guarantees. The DOE was flooded with applications seeking a total of $122 billion in loan guarantees. If the private sector is unwilling to put money into nuclear projects without an extensive federal safety net, perhaps nuclear is not the way to go?

Recently Center for American Progress blogger Matt Yglesias properly accused generally pro-nuclear power American conservatives of favoring "nuclear socialism." For example, Senate Republicans proposed legislation earlier this year aimed at building 100 nuclear power plants over the next two decades. It’s pretty clear that Brand falls into that camp. On the other hand, Gore can fairly be accused of solar socialism.In this debate among environmentalists, ecopragmatist Brand wins. If man-made climate change is a big problem, then it doesn’t make sense to rule out in advance energy technologies that could contribute to substantially reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, costs matter. The best way to figure out which technologies are cheapest is to set a price on greenhouse gas emissions and let various energy sources compete among themselves. No subsidies needed.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is available from Prometheus Books. This column first appeared at Reason.com.


Ronald Bailey is Science Correspondent


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