It is consistently frustrating to engage in rational discussion with people who cannot see the inconsistencies in their own positions. People who express great worry about climate change and then dismiss nuclear energy as unnecessary indicate either an amazing ability for self-delusion or an inability to perform basic arithmetic. People with either affliction should never successfully make into a position where they can run the editorial board of a major newspaper; there should be some kind of survival-of-the-fittest process in their training and professional development that weeds them out.
Unfortunately, that is not always the case. There is an editorial in the Los Angeles Times dated May 17, 2010 titled Senate climate bill under a cloud that indicates that the decision makers who edit the LA Times feel quite strongly about taking action to reduce CO2 emissions, but still feel the need to say the following:
Nuclear power. The bill seeks to loosen safety and environmental safeguards to expedite the construction of new nuclear plants, which is both unnecessary and dangerous. Further, it calls for billions of dollars in additional loan guarantees for nuclear power even though the nation still hasn’t solved the problem of what to do with its radioactive waste, most of which is stored at the country’s 104 nuclear plants. Until we have a better way to dispose of a waste stream that remains potentially deadly for thousands of years, we shouldn’t invest massive federal resources in new nuclear facilities.
There is so much that is wrong with that statement. First of all, there is no effort to reduce safety or environmental safeguards, though there may be a few minor tweaks aimed at reducing bureaucratic delays and administrative hearings.
I will grant that our nation has not agreed on ways to dispose of the used material that is removed from reactors every 18-24 months. Many of us do not even agree that it is waste since it still contains so many valuable materials and unused potential energy. Some people have demonstrated that they will never agree with any proposed solution for waste because that agreement would remove one of the few remaining weapons in the arsenal of arguments used to fight nuclear energy.
A lack of agreement about used nuclear fuel does not indicate that there is a serious problem that needs to be solved immediately. We have figured out safe ways to store the material; no one has been or is being hurt because the material exists. The storage processes have been in use for more than fifty years and show no indication of any pending problems. When cooling pools approach their storage limits, there are a number of generically licensed dry storage solutions available and ready to implement.
The costs involved in our current methods are reasonable compared to the value of the electricity being produced. When you add up all of the money involved, it can seem like a very large number, but that is only because the cumulative amount of electricity that has been produced is very large and valuable. (Note: As of the end of 2008, nuclear power plants in the US had generated a cumulative total of 18.7 billion megawatt-hours, equivalent to 10.5 billion barrels of oil. Source US Energy Information Agency Table 8.2a Electricity Net Generation: Total (All Sectors), 1949-2008).
Aside: The Senate climate legislation is still subject to a lot of give and take during floor debates. In its initially proposed form, however, it provided some evidence that the established nuclear industry has been guilty of overreaching in its lobbying effort by attempting to capture more taxpayer dollars to direct toward company bottom lines. I can understand loan guarantees to enable financing for moderate risk projects that banks do not yet fully understand, but I hate the idea of expanding the production tax credits for a reliable energy source with already low operating costs. Those production credits are honest to goodness subsidies from taxpayers to companies and their stockholders. End Aside.
Here is a response comment that I attempted to post on the LA Times site. I gave up trying after running into technical difficulties with their site registration process.
It is logically inconsistent to indicate concern that spewing CO2 into the atmosphere can lead to a climate crisis and then to claim that it is unnecessary to take action to reduce the administrative burden that causes nuclear projects to require far more time and resources during construction than they legitimately should require.
Every time a new large nuclear power plant starts operating, it reduces coal consumption by about 11,000 tons per day and prevents dumping about 40,000 tons of CO2 each day. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the 104 nuclear plants that are operating in the US today allow us to avoid producing 650 MILLION metric TONS of CO2 each year. Those plants produce electricity at a marginal cost that is 32% CHEAPER than coal and only 40% of the cost of producing power from burning natural gas.
(Power from existing nuclear plants costs 2.03 cents per kilowatt hour versus 2.97 cents for coal and 5.00 cents for natural gas in 2009). http://bit.ly/anazS6
However, building new nuclear power plants in the US today costs about 3 times as much as it would in China – a portion of that is the cost of the delays imposed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Time is money!
The only beneficiaries of the excessive rules are the people who hate the competition from nuclear energy because they have dirtier and more expensive fuels to sell.
For future reference, here is the graph from the Nuclear Energy Institute that shows the historical trend of production costs of electricity from the weather independent sources that provide about 90% of our current supply. You can get a PowerPoint version of the graph directly from the NEI via a page on their site titled U.S. Electricity Production Costs (1995 – 2009), but I know that not everyone has access to that program or wants to download a presentation format in order to see useful graphs and numbers.