Nuclear trifecta

Let’s go for the three nuclear power posts in a row.  I just want to say that at this point in time I would consider myself moderately pro-nuclear power.  I like that it’s carbon-emission free, I think the disposal and plant safety issues– especially with new plants– can be handled in a way to keep the public safe, and I’m not all that concerned by the higher costs involved due to the safety issues.  That said, I’ve got a completely open mind on the issue and I could most certainly be convinced the other way with some solid analysis, especially of the cost-benefit variety.  I end up sounding more pro-nuclear than I actually am because I hate how much anti-nuclear power seems to be a reflexive reaction based on anything “nuclear” or based on costs-benefit comparisons that don’t account for the externalities in fossil fuels.  Now back to non-nuclear blogging.  At least for a post or two.

Nuclear externalities

We were discussing nuclear power in my class yesterday and when the cost disadvantage of nuclear power was brought up, I made the point that nuclear power’s huge disadvantage is that it actually has to pay for its own externalities.  The first externality is the radioactive waste, with which great expense is required to dispose of safely.  Even more notably, a huge cost of nuclear plants is the tremendous expense to prevent any damage to public health through a catastrophic meltdown.  Those safety steps– to protect the public– are quite expensive, and they are built into the cost of nuclear-generated electricity.  The externalities of fossil-fuel power, however, fall upon the general public in terms of actually realized costs to public health that we pay for in thousands of ways, but not in our electricity bills.  Anyway, it was quite edifying to make this point in class yesterday and then return from class to see that Kevin Drum had a nice post on the matter:

It’s perfectly reasonable to argue that the problem here isn’t that nukes are genuinely more dangerous or more expensive than other forms of power generation, it’s that other forms of power generation aren’t forced to pay for their own externalities. Charge them properly for the carbon they emit and the mercury they spew and the particulates they make us breathe and they’d be just as expensive and just as dangerous as nuclear power. I think there’s a pretty good case to be made for that. Nonetheless, until we do start charging properly for all those externalities, nukes just aren’t going to be cost effective and nothing is going to change that.

The answer, then, is to force coal and oil and gas power plants to pay for their externalities properly. However, our most recent attempt to make even modest progress toward that goal went down in flames and the Republican Party has made it crystal clear that they’ll fight to the death to keep energy generation from ever bearing its market price.

So, if Republicans really support nuclear power– instead of just pretending to– they’d actually support a price on carbon to create a more fair marketplace.  Of course, when it comes to what Republicans say they support to what they actually support, that could keep us here a long time.

Nuclear Power: fear and reality

I was so hoping that if I waited a few days, I’d see a piece about nuclear power like the one that Will Saletan had in Slate yesterday.  Does a terrific job of putting things in perspective.  Yes, the situation is very serious, but every time I logged in the Post over the weekend there was an ever-more alarming headline with the words “nuclear meltdown” in it.  One scary-sounding headline I clicked through to read revealed that this dreaded partial “meltdown” had resulted in release of cesium atoms.  Oh, no!  Yet, it turns out that although this is most definitetly something you don’t want your reactor doing and a sign of potential further trouble, in itself, it’s basically harmless.  Sure didn’t get that from the headline.  Anyway, here’s Saletan:

Less than a year ago, a drilling rig exploded off the coast of the United States, killing 11 workers and pouring 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. No natural disaster caused this tragedy. It was entirely man-made. President Obama halted deep-water drilling but lifted the moratorium less than six months later. On Friday, while fielding questions about Japan’s nuclear reactors, he proudly noted that his administration, under new, stricter rules, had “approved more than 35 new offshore drilling permits.”

That’s how we deal with tragedies in the oil business. Accidents happen. People die. Pollution spreads. We don’t abandon oil. We study what went wrong, try to fix it, and move on.

Contrast this with the panic over Japan’s reactors. For 40 years, they’ve quietly done their work. Three days ago, they were hit almost simultaneously by Japan’s worst earthquake and one of its worst tsunamis. Not one reactor container has failed. The only employee who has died at a Japanese nuclear facility since the quake was killed by a crane. Despite this, voices are rising in Europe and the United States to abandon nuclear power. Industry analysts predict that the Japan scare, like Chernobyl, will freeze plant construction

In advanced countries like Japan and the United States, nuclear plants are built to standards no drilling rig can touch. If a sensor, cable, or power source fails, another sensor, cable, or power source is available. Containers of steel or concrete envelop the reactors to prevent massive radiation leaks. Chernobyl didn’t have such a container. Three Mile Island did. That’s why Three Mile Island produced no uncontrolled leakage or injuries.

Not to mention, it turns out, that fossil fuel use is actually much more dangerous:

If Japan, the United States, or Europe retreats from nuclear power in the face of the current panic, the most likely alternative energy source is fossil fuel. And by any measure, fossil fuel is more dangerous. The sole fatal nuclear power accident of the last 40 years, Chernobyl, directly killed 31 people. By comparison, Switzerland’s Paul Scherrer Institutecalculates that from 1969 to 2000, more than 20,000 people died in severe accidents in the oil supply chain. More than 15,000 people died in severe accidents in the coal supply chain—11,000 in China alone. The rate of direct fatalities per unit of energy production is 18 times worse for oil than it is for nuclear power.

This is not to say the nuclear power is the solution to our energy problems or that it does not have significant drawbacks of its own, but let’s please keep things in perspective.

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