Sunday, September 03, 2006

The nuclear wildcard

The U.S. nuclear energy industry is poised to make a comeback. Despite tremendous odds, its renaissance is a very real possibility. In fact, nuclear power hasn't been faced with more favorable environments (natural and political) for its development since President Dwight D. Eisenhower addresed the United Nations touting "Atoms for Peace".

Consider the following:

  • Americans continue to demonstrate a remarkable inability to quench our insatiable appetite for energy. We represent just 4% of the world population yet consume 25% of its energy -- 85% of which is supplied by fossil fuels. The National Commission on Energy Policy has predicted that energy demand in the U.S. will increase significantly over the next two decades.
  • Growing acceptance of the reality of climate change has increased public pressure to find alternatives to greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels.
  • Meanwhile, across the country major wind projects are being held up as developers face stiff opposition from anti-wind groups.
  • In response to this confluence of events, a number of prominent environmentalists have or are leaning toward supporting the development of new nuclear energy facilities.

I work in the renewable energy field and remain unconvinced that nuclear fission is a viable option primarily because of plant safety, proliferation and waste disposal issues. Nonetheless, it seems clear from the sampling of stories posted below that unless advocates can demonstrate that conservation, energy efficiency and renewables are capable of addressing our combined energy/environmental challenges, the nuclear option will remain on the table and may be inevitable.

One can't help but wonder if those opposing windfarms would consider the prospect of a nuclear power plant being built in their community an acceptable alternative. (GW)

Atomic Balm

Over the past year, the debate over nuclear power has increasingly been framed as an environmental one, as several commentators — most notably Patrick Moore, a founder of Greenpeace (and now estranged from the organization); the British conservationist James Lovelock; and the Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand — have stepped forward to assert that global warming requires an embrace of new nuclear plants, because unlike gas- or coal-powered plants, nuclear reactors produce electricity without emitting greenhouse gasses.

The nuclear industry, in turn, has capitalized on the chance to adopt a green tinge, or at least greenish one; among its recent slogans is the exhortation to “Go nuclear: because you care about the air.” Most environmental groups have not softened their opposition, however.

“This is more a propaganda exercise than a serious discussion of the viability of the industry,” Jim Riccio, the nuclear policy analyst at Greenpeace, told me. By using global warming, he added, “the nuclear industry is trying to find some fear greater than the nuclear fear to be their selling point.”

Counties Eye Nuke Plants, Utilities Eye Government Handouts

With the Bush administration pushing nuclear power as an “alternative energy,” big utilities are looking to revitalize what was recently a dormant industry, and some local governmentsare keen on the potential industrial influx.

A Maryland county recently offered $300 million in property tax breaks to a nuclear-energy company to build a reactor, in a move environmentalists say reflects a resurgence of the nuclear industry.

Calvert County officials offered the tax incentives to entice the power company Constellation Energy, which is currently choosing between Calvert and two counties in New York for the site of a new nuclear reactor. If Calvert secures the deal, the company would add a third reactor to the existing Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant.

While some government officials tout nuclear energy as a solution to the growing demand for energy, environmentalists consider it extraordinarily expensive, ecologically harmful and a national security risk. Instead, they are pushing for alternatives.

County officials estimate that adding a new reactor to the company's Calvert Cliffs location would bring approximately 3,000 construction jobs and 400 permanent positions to the community. They say the expansion would also contribute to the county tax base.

"It virtually changed the face of this county. People who couldn't find work did," said Linda Vassallo, director of the Calvert County Department of Economic Development, referring to the reactors that arrived in the 1970s. "Given the history of the job, I think they're going to attempt to hire locally," she said. Officials added in a statement that the expansion would also contribute to the county tax base. They also cited nuclear energy as relatively safe and less polluting compared to other sources.

Read the entire New Standard News article.

Nuclear Now!

Burning hydrocarbons is a luxury that a planet with 6 billion energy-hungry souls can't afford. There's only one sane, practical alternative: nuclear power.

We now know that the risks of splitting atoms pale beside the dreadful toll exacted by fossil fuels. Radiation containment, waste disposal, and nuclear weapons proliferation are manageable problems in a way that global warming is not. Unlike the usual green alternatives - water, wind, solar, and biomass - nuclear energy is here, now, in industrial quantities. Sure, nuke plants are expensive to build - upward of $2 billion apiece - but they start to look cheap when you factor in the true cost to people and the planet of burning fossil fuels. And nuclear is our best hope for cleanly and efficiently generating hydrogen, which would end our other ugly hydrocarbon addiction - dependence on gasoline and diesel for transport.

Read the entire Wired article.


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