Thursday, July 30, 2009

Nuclear Power: The answer to climate change?

Well, I certainly don't think nuclear power is THE answer to climate change - the problem of carbon emissions is far too complex to have just one simple answer - but when you have an energy source that clean with technology that advanced and that available, there's no way you can't include it as part of your solution package.

On June 23, The Hill, one of three newspapers on Capitol Hill, published a special section on energy and the environment with Op-Eds by nine Members of Congress and one White House aide. All told, their were four GOP articles, four Democratic articles, and one bi-partisan piece. To The Hill's credit, all but one of these Op-Eds were promoting specific solutions rather than sniping at the oppositions' plans - it was the newspaper of multiple yeses rather than the party of no. (I guess Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) didn't get the memo.)

Three of the four Repub articles focused on nuclear energy. It's not often that I agree with mainstream Repubs (at least of this century) on environmental issues - just look at Sarah Palin's head-in-the-sand Washington Post Op-Ed arguing on behalf of coal and oil - but I think they have a point here. Of the three Op-Eds, I think Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN)'s was the best. An excerpt:

The thermal plants in the West take more than 30 square miles — that’s about five miles on a side — to produce the same electricity you can get from a single nuclear plant that sits on one square mile. And to generate only a fourth of a nuclear plant’s electricity with wind, you would need an unbroken line of ridge-top windmills from Washington, D.C., to New York City — and we’d still need that nuclear plant for when the wind doesn’t blow. We are going to need some breakthroughs before we can rely very much on renewable electricity.

The way forward is to encourage what is being called the “Nuclear Renaissance” and start making nuclear energy the backbone of a new industrial economy. To that end, Senate and House Republicans propose that, from the years 2010 to 2030, we build 100 new nuclear reactors.

During the 20-year interval from 1970 to 1990, we built almost every one of the 104 reactors that now provide us with 20 percent of our electricity. If we built another 100 by 2030, we’d be able to provide well over 40 percent —getting us to a clean-energy economy faster, safer and more cheaply than any other plan under consideration in Congress or by the president.

But that’s only the beginning. I also believe we should make half our cars and trucks plug-in within 20 years. Brookings Institution scholars estimate that we can power half our automobiles by plugging them in at night without building one new power plant. That would reduce by one-third the oil we import from foreign sources.

A major hat tip to the conservative Alexander for getting out of the conservative echo chamber and quoting the liberal Brookings Institution instead of something like the Heritage Foundation. He goes on to explain why nuclear power is not just a clean and efficient option but a safe one, as well.

Alexander's is not the only piece on nuclear power worth reading. While I hate to say it, the usually bat-looney Michele Bachmann brought up some important facts, as well:

In 1999, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Energy Information Administration reported that nuclear energy is the single most effective emission control strategy for utilities. And a 2002 study by Paul J. Meier, a scientist at the University of Wisconsin, reiterates that finding, revealing that nuclear energy emits less carbon dioxide than coal, natural gas, biomass, solar PV, and hydroelectric sources...

Currently, a fifth of U.S. electricity is generated by nuclear power, which is relatively small, particularly given its extraordinary environmental benefits. Other nations have fully embraced nuclear power, such as France, which relies on nuclear energy for more than three-quarters of its energy. Three other nations — Lithuania, Slovakia, and Belgium — get more than half of their power from nuclear generation.

If the Repub Party ever wants to shed its image as the "party of no" and provide some detailed ideas and bills of its own, nuclear power would be a great place to start. I have no desire to help the Republicans back into power and would much rather see my fellow Democrats embrace this idea, but hey, turning a good idea into law is always a good thing for America, no matter who it is that gets it done.


Jordan said...

Ignoring that last snipe, if there's one silver bullet on climate change it is nuclear power.

I'd like to see public opinion polls on the issue; because if members of both parties endorse the concept sure more than 90% of the country must be behind it!

Nathan Empsall said...

I don't think nuclear power is anything close to a silver bullet - it still leaves immense transportation issues (while raising non climate-issues of waste storage and transportation). But I think the trifecta of increased efficiency and cultural/social change in consumption values; mass transit; and nuclear power would go a heckuva long way, and if you throw in either cap and trade or a carbon tax, you may well be almost home.

Nathan Empsall said...

Oh, and as regards public opinion - the problem is NIMBY. Everyone wants plants SOMEWHERE, they just can't agree where given the (no-longer founded) safety and (more legit) transportation fears. Not In My Backyard!

Jordan said...

My words were "if there's one silver bullet;" as in it's the most effective technology, not the silver bullet.