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Nukes can never be the answer

One bizarre effect of global warming is how it’s become a reason to make the problems worse.

Global warming is so bad, that we have to pull out all the stops. That’s true. So far, so good.

But then people go on to lobby for fuel that doesn’t reduce greenhouse gases, that takes land away from food production, and that’s already causing food crises and environmental destruction [1]. They lobby for hydrogen made from coal, because hydrogen is so clean-burning. (No, no, don’t look at the coal plant. Look over here at the hydrogen car.) And they lobby for nuclear power. The first application in over twenty years to build a new nuclear reactor was recently submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The nuke stuff just blows me away. At least the other technologies haven’t been tried on a national scale in the US. If you’re stupid, you could pretend you can’t figure out what the problems are. But nukes have been tried. They did not work. They do not work. They will never work, because they can’t work.

Let me go over exactly why that’s true.

The facts, with their well known liberal bias, are overwhelmingly against nuclear power in any form. But surely, there has to be some positive fact somewhere. It can’t be all bad or people wouldn’t be so eager to build them.

It’s true. It isn’t all bad, depending on who you are. Utilities are regulated. Regulation stipulates that they’re allowed to make money proportional to their investment. It’s one of those ideas that seemed good at the time. It was supposed to give utilities an incentive to invest money in infrastructure. But what it means is that they’re rewarded for spending money. The regulations forgot to make sure the money was spent cost effectively. And nukes are the most expensive thing out there.

So, yes, nuclear reactors are good for the utilities. Any large, centralized, expensive method of generating electricity is better for them than anything small, cheap, and distributed. When they do wind power, they’re only interested in huge turbines that generate megawatts. It’s more efficient, they say. (That’s true, technically, but it sure isn’t true socially.) When they do solar power, they like solar concentrators, in which acres of mirrors or fresnel lenses focus an intense beam on a central tower and produce, again, megawatts of power. Or acres of sun-tracking photovoltaic arrays that produce megawatts. There’s a pattern here. It’s true that sometimes large point sources of energy are needed, but they’re not the only thing that’s needed. Changing the regulations could bring the incentives in line with reality.

The problem with the “debate” about nukes is its similarity to the “debate” about evolution. To be considered serious, you have to give time to both sides of the issue. You have to be willing to see validity on both sides. Anything else is shrill.

In the eagerness not to be called any names, people try to convince themselves nukes are worth trying. Again. But that’s not cost-free comfort. The money spent on nukes can’t be spent on energy efficiency, which, by itself, could achieve the majority, not some piddling fraction, of the carbon reductions we need (see, e.g, pdf [16], American Solar Energy Society summary of studies, 2007, p. 32.)

That bears repeating. Energy efficiency in transportation, buildings, and industry could reduce energy needs by over 50%. Energy efficiency does not involve a reduction in living standards. One could argue that the reduced pollution is actually an improvement. Nukes, with all their costs and radiation, assuming pie-in-the-sky building schedules, could provide barely a fifth of that, and then only for a few decades. So, between industry executives and stroller-pushing greenies, who, exactly, is the cloth-headed idealist who is avoiding the facts?

The money spent on nukes can’t be spent on clean, sustainable energy. It can’t be spent on changing power systems from a supply-demand model to a distributed production and power-wheeling model. Money spent on nukes does more than create waste and huge new problems. It prevents real solutions from happening.

Other links:
Union of Concerned Scientists [17], the great-granddad of citizen organizations pushing for safety in the nuclear industry.