Friday, November 13, 2009

Nuclear power is the future (for now)

I’ve recently taken to reading David Frum’s blog, simply because I’ve been looking for places to read serious conservative thought which doesn’t involve screaming or insane comparisons of health care reform to Nazi death camps.  My old conservative magazine of choice, National Review, has been overtaken by the ideologues, I fear, and Bill Buckley is dead.  The Weekly Standard is not a serious choice, either.  Frum, on the other hand, seems willing to acknowledge the fact that good government sometimes means bending on one’s principles, since there is no “one size fits all” set of ideas.  I’m also willing to make that concession.  The Democrats seem to be showing how limited their toolbox really is, and at the risk of being bitten, I’d like to re-engage American conservatives in a serious discussion.


I’ll start with something at once controversial and non-partisan: nuclear power.


Frum writes:

The big cost in wind and solar is not the turbine or the solar panel. The prices of turbine and panels could fall to zero, and still wind and solar would cost much more than coal or nuclear. Electricity cannot be stored and it is expensive to move. Cheap power is power that flows at predictable levels and is generated near to its users.

A modern nuclear reactor can generate about 1300 megawatts of electricity. A single nuclear plant with two or three reactors can generate enough power to sustain a fair-sized city – and can be sited as close to the population center as politics permits, so long as there is a body of water nearby for reactor cooling.

A modern wind turbine generates at most 2 megawatts. To equal a single reactor you’d need 650 turbines – probably many more, since they are so unreliable. Now think of the cost of the land assembly to support this vast array of machines. Next – think about the wiring required to connect them to a grid. Finally – think of the cost of moving that power across the country, because wind blows strongest in places like west Texas and the Dakotas, about as far as you can get from the nation’s big consumer markets. It’s the wiring that makes wind so costly, and that cost is not going to be reduced anytime soon by technological improvements.

Solar of course confronts this problem in even more radical form. The basic solar panel we’ve all seen emits only about 120 watts. You’d need acres of them to equal even the output of a wind turbine. And again, the sun shines brightest where people don’t live.

Frum makes a few points I hadn’t previously considered, but while electricity cannot be stored as such, there are ways to store other forms of potential energy which can be easily converted into electricity.  However, Frum is correct that such technology does not yet exist and as such our beloved renewable energy sources (which are wonderful, don’t get me wrong) cannot yet replace the amount of energy which coal currently produces.  Nuclear can.


It emits no greenhouse gases, and it produces less radioactive waste than coal plants.




Don’t take my word for it:


Over the past few decades, however, a series of studies has called these stereotypes into question. Among the surprising conclusions: the waste produced by coal plants is actually more radioactive than that generated by their nuclear counterparts. In fact, the fly ash emitted by a power plant—a by-product from burning coal for electricity—carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy. * [See Editor's Note at end of page 2]


At issue is coal's content of uranium and thorium, both radioactive elements. They occur in such trace amounts in natural, or "whole," coal that they aren't a problem. But when coal is burned into fly ash, uranium and thorium are concentrated at up to 10 times their original levels.


Fly ash uranium sometimes leaches into the soil and water surrounding a coal plant, affecting cropland and, in turn, food. People living within a "stack shadow"—the area within a half- to one-mile (0.8- to 1.6-kilometer) radius of a coal plant's smokestacks—might then ingest small amounts of radiation. Fly ash is also disposed of in landfills and abandoned mines and quarries, posing a potential risk to people living around those areas.


In short, replacing coal plants with nuclear plants would reduce the amount of radioactive waste current being introduced into our environment.  Disposal is also at issue: it is much easier to dispose and contain the small amounts of radioactive waste from a nuclear plant than it is to contain all the fly ash from a coal plant.  Trying to contain all of that would be a logistical nightmare.


Nuclear energy is by no means a perfect solution, but it is one which would buy us more time to come up with something better.


Matthew Yglesias’s take largely revolves around the ideological inconsistencies inherent to conservatives backing nuclear power, due to the large government subsidies needed to stand up nuclear power on a large scale:


What I find especially odd about it is that it’s so at odds with American conservatives’ ardor for the free market. You see this mismatch in a small sense in that their nuclear agenda in congress consists basically of asking for subsidies. But in a larger sense the issue is that the big example one can find of a country living the nuclear dream is . . . France. And it’s not just an irony or a funny coincidence, nuclear power in France is deeply tied to the genuinely socialistic (i.e., not just high taxes and a generous welfare state) aspects of the French economy.


Which is all well and good, but I’m less interested in whether or not an idea is ideologically consistent than I am in whether or not it will work.  Yglesias’s blog stems from a New Republic article written by Brad Plumer:


The debate over nukes has long exacerbated the deadlock over climate policy. Of the handful of Republicans who think global warming is a serious problem--like Alexander--most refuse to address it unless nuclear power gets a starring role. But many Democrats and green groups are loath to lavish even more money on an industry that has received countless subsidies to date--including $18.5 billion in federal loan guarantees in 2005--yet still struggles to procure financing for new plants, to say nothing of concerns about safety and waste disposal. John McCain has chalked up his refusal to support the very cap-and-trade policies he once championed to "left-wing environmentalist organizations that are not allowing us to move forward with nuclear power."


Now, however, that deadlock may be dissolving. In October, John Kerry, the lead sponsor of the Senate cap-and-trade bill, co-authored a New York Times op-ed with Republican Lindsey Graham outlining a possible bipartisan deal that would include offshore drilling and nukes. "Nuclear power needs to be a core component of electricity generation if we are to meet our emission reduction targets," they wrote, endorsing the need to "jettison cumbersome regulations" and help utilities "secure financing for more plants." Graham has hinted that sufficient nuclear incentives could get "at least half a dozen" Republicans on board--allowing a climate bill to squeak through the Senate. As a result, many liberals and environmental groups are gritting their teeth and nervously bracing for a possible compromise. But that raises the question: If Democrats do haggle on nukes, will Republicans actually step up and agree to tackle global warming?


This is a compromise which I support, of course.  There’s a saying about not making the perfect the enemy of the good.  Nuclear power is a good option for now, and it will carry us for a long time while we continue research and development into renewable energy sources.  Environmentalists and Luddites need to recognize that we aren’t going to go back to horse-and-buggy without a steep drop in our population and life expectancies.