In an earlier blog, I promised to touch on the topic of nuclear power as a source of “green energy”. This is in response to repeated calls from those on the political right (and some on the left as well actually) and in the mainstream media. As recently as last week an op-ed article appeared in the Financial Times calling on readers to embrace nuclear power as the best path to reduce global warming and improve energy security in the world. This follows on the heel of a flow of articles that have been hitting the pages of even “liberal” papers, such as the New York Times. For example, on May 15, 2006, the Times ran an editorial entitled, “The Greening of Nuclear Power,” in which the author all but declared nuclear energy as the only viable solution for climate control and security through energy independence . Another article by Joe Gertner, “Atomic Balm,” called for a “nuclear renaissance.”
Why has the media latched onto nuclear power as the best option? Currently the U.S. operates 104 nuclear power plants which supply twenty percent of electricity to the nation but, according to a 2007 issue of the Economist, over forty years have passed since the construction began on the last US nuclear power plant, which was not completed until 1996. This plant took over thirty years to build and came with billions of dollars of over-budget spending resulting in a final cost of $6.9 billion (in 1996 dollars). Past nuclear power plants built in the U.S. only have a lifespan of forty years, which is why eighteen have been recently given a twenty year extension-nothing was in place to replace them when they hit their end-point. This means that at best we have twenty years to replace these old plants, not to mention all the others that will soon hit their forty year mark.
Could it be that this renewed clarion call for nuclear power has more to do with “the $green$” companies can earn by building new plants and not with the greenness of the energy? After all, if the last plant they built took thirty years to complete, construction on new ones would need to start now if they are to replace current running models. The urgency to replace these power plants with another source of power is palpable but the need to do so with more nuclear power plants is less obvious.
The trail of money leading to replacing and building new power plants requires an objective study because the list of worries related to the efficacy of nuclear energy as a tool to reduce global warming is varied to say the least. It encompasses economic performance, proliferation of dangerous materials, the peril of terrorism, operation safety, radioactive waste disposal, and, as a result of all of these, public acceptance.
Despite the enthusiasm of media pundits the public remains wary of nuclear power. Even those that support it usually add the ubiquitous addendum known as N.I.M.B.Y. (not in my backyard). In the fifty-plus years since President Eisenhower envisioned a future in which the awesome power of the atom would “serve the needs rather than the fears of mankind,” many people still feel the need to fear nuclear power. The question remains—is this fear still justified? Has nuclear technology truly advanced to the stage where all the old concerns no longer exist? In the current political climate, where the world has seen the growing threat of nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran, not to mention the instability of nuclear weapon possessing nations such as Pakistan; is it wise for the U.S. to lead the world on a path where splitting the atom becomes the only viable option to burning the carbon? Against the threats of climate change and terrorism, nuclear energy might prove to be our worst enemy unless concerns for storage of nuclear waste and its subsequent potential to act as a tool for proliferation are addressed. –TO BE CONTINUED–
In my next blog I will get into more specifics about the problems of using nuclear power to reduce global warming and look into some of the hidden monetary costs of maintaining a nuclear power grid.
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