Kids on treadmills
One of the most highly compensated sales forces is in the world is coming up with some pretty fantastic arguments for why we need to keep building nuclear reactors. Why? Because there is so much money involved and because there are so few good reasons to select nuclear power. One argument we often hear (recently from former environmentalist Steward Brand) is that we need to keep the nuclear option as “part of a mix” of energy solutions, because we need to be doing everything. Amory Lovins disassembles this thesis quickly:
Portfolio: The one paper he cites as proof that we need all energy options (Pacala & Socolow’s “Stabilization Wedges“) actually says the opposite. There is no analytic basis for his conclusion, and there’s strong science to the contrary. We can’t afford to stuff our energy portfolio indiscriminately with some of everything, and we shouldn’t: some options are less worthy and effective than others. The more you fear climate change, the more judiciously you should invest to get the most solution per dollar and per year. Nuclear flunks both these tests.
My rant in reply to a recent article in Red, Green and Blue environmental blog:
Putting children on treadmills to generate power has a very low carbon footprint– should not this be included in the mix of energy solutions?
For decades, as the economic, environmental, and safety arguments for new reactors have fallen apart, the nuclear industry has turned more and more to the “we have to do everything, so let’s keep nuclear in the mix” rationale for more reactors. The problem with this type of thinking is several fold.
First, it ignores that this is not how utilities that build generating capacity make decisions. If you build a $10 billion reactor, you don’t go build a bunch of windmills as well because you now have a bunch of generating capacity and you have spent all your available capital. (New reactors are often a huge fraction of the market capitalization of the utilities ordering them.)
Second, like the kids on treadmills proposal, it does not deal with the impracticality and poor economics of the choice. New reactor construction has a long history of cost overruns and delays. This is not due to the diligent efforts of protesters (though we are often given credit for this, incorrectly). Reactors are fantastically complicated and exacting devices. If we think there is an urgency to dealing with climate change or peak oil, these slow-to-complete devices are a poor choice. If you want to read about the stunningly poor economic performance of these investments, read Amory Lovins’ piece at http://www.tinyurl.com/forgetnuclear.
Third, despite the US insistence on building new reactors, the rest of the world is dumping this technology. The new PM of Japan has just reaffirmed no new reactors and no life extension for existing plants. Germany is out by 2022. Italy just agreed not to build any new reactors and had already shut down its three existing plants after Chernobyl. Switzerland will not build new plants after a recent vote. Even France is building more wind power stations than new reactors. [China is a notable exception to this trend, and India is having serious civil unrest over new reactor construction, complete with protesters being killed.]
Finally, there is a structural problem with the groups that are supposed to regulate nuclear power and the utilities which build and operate plants. We see this not just repeatedly in Japan, but here in the US also. The NRC will come to North Anna, but they will not inspect the plant – they will read papers created by the utility, they will talk with engineers, and the job of inspecting the reactor will be left to the company– which, of course, stands to lose hundreds of millions if anything significant is found wrong with the plant. The type of corruption this situation breeds will ultimately lead to meltdowns like the one at Fukushima.