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Summary of Long Now Debate on Nuclear Energy

We've been passed an e-mail summary of Friday night's Long Now debate on climate change and nuclear energy that was authored by Stewart Brand. The account is reprinted below:
The Long Now Foundation
Seminars on Long-term Thinking

Climate Change and Nuclear Prospects
(Cavanagh-Schwartz discussion)

Given the power to decide who would go first--- anti-nuke Ralph Cavanagh from Natural Resources Defense Counsel or pro-nuke Peter Schwartz from Global Business Network--- the large audience Friday night voted for Schwartz to make the opening argument.

It is the threat of "abrupt climate change" that converted him to support new emphasis on nuclear power, Schwartz said. Gradual global warming is clearly now under way, and there is increasing reason to believe that human activity is driving it, mostly through the burning of coal and oil. If warming is all that happens, it will be an enormous problem, but some regions of the Earth would gain (Russia,Canada) while many others would lose.

In the event of abrupt climate change, though, everyone loses. The most likely change would be a sudden (in one decade) shift to a much colder, drier, and windier world. The world's carrying capacity for humans would plummet, driving human population from the current 6.5 billion to as low as 2 billion, with most of the losses from war. It would be a civilization-threatening catastrophe. From research Schwartz has led for the Pentagon as well as from his own training in fluid dynamics, he thinks that continuation of the current warming is very likely to trigger the kind of radical climate instability that has been the norm in Earth's past, except for the last 10,000 years of uncharacteristically stable climate. Therefore everything must be done to head off the shift to climate instability.

Meanwhile, Schwartz said, world demand for energy will continue to grow for decades, as two billion more people climb out of poverty and developing nations become fully developed economies. China and India alone will double or quadruple their energy use over the next 50 years.We will run out of oil in that period. That leaves coal or nuclear for electricity. Conservation is crucial, but it doesn't generate power. Renewables must grow fast, but they cannot hope to fill the whole need.

Nuclear technology has improved its efficiency and safety and can improve a lot more. Reprocessing fuel will add further efficiency.

The discussion format called for Cavanagh to quiz Schwartz for ten minutes, drawing out his views further. Cavanagh asked, "What about the storage of nuclear waste?" "We defined the problem wrong,"Schwartz said. "Storage for thousands of years is not needed. The present storage on site in concrete casks is working, and the 'waste'is available as a further energy source with later technology." In the discussion Schwartz also pointed out that new reactor sites are not needed in the US, since all the existing sites are expandable.

The format called for Cavanagh to now summarize Schwartz's argument. He did so to Schwartz's satisfaction, adding a point Schwartz missed--- recent findings indicating that the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now the highest it has been in 25,000 to 400,000 years.

It was Ralph Cavanagh's turn to present for 15 minutes, striding the front of the stage. He began by agreeing that messing with the atmosphere and thus the climate is a "suicidal" experiment for humanity to be conducting, and it has to be stopped. He agreed that nuclear should not be considered taboo and should be included as a candidate clean power source, but its history is not encouraging. No new reactors have built in the US since 1973. Nevada has stonewalled on waste storage at Yucca Mountain. The nuclear industry has all manner of government subsidies, loan guarantees, and protections from liability. It has never competed in the open market with other energy sources.

California, Cavanagh said, has led the way in developing a balanced energy policy. Places like China are paying close attention. PG&E has become the world's largest investor in efficiency, led by Carl Weinberg (who was in the audience and got a round of applause). And now there are signs that California may become the leader in setting limits to carbon emissions. Within limits like that, then the private sector can compete with full entrepreneurial zest, and may the best technologies
win. Nuclear would have to compete fairly with new forms of biofuels and with ever improving renewables.

Schwartz asked Cavanagh about the large government subsidies for solar research while there have been none for nuclear (except fusion). Cavanagh said the subsidies were declining, and should. There should be more funding for R&D in biofuels and other alternatives, but the main role for government should be in setting emission standards and then let the private sector duke it out for the best solutions.

Schwartz summarized Cavanagh's argument to his satisfaction (many later reported they liked that feature of the evening), and then a host of written questions came from the audience. Asked for a catalog of desirable new technologies, Schwartz wanted cheaper solar, effective energy storage (batteries are painfully limited), and a better electrical grid, while Cavanagh would like more R&D on vehicles and breakthroughs on coal processing.

My take on the evening is that Cavanagh was particularly persuasive on the need for nuclear to compete on the open market, and Schwartz was persuasive on the direness of climate prospects and the relative readiness of nuclear power to help.

The debate is continuing over at the Long Now's discussion forum.

UPDATE: More from the Digital Crusader.

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Jim Hopf said…
I attended the talk Friday night. My biggest issue with Mr. Schwartz’s presentation was the general suggestion that current reactors, the once-through fuel cycle, and Yucca Mtn. are “unacceptable”, and that nuclear will only acceptable if various exotic, distant technologies are developed. He tended to hype nuclear’s current “problems” (waste, proliferation, etc…) to show the “need” for these technologies. This may (unjustifiably) reduce support for the next generation of LWRs that we so desperately need (in lieu of coal) over the next several decades.

With respect to Mr. Cavanagh, I take issue with all of his major points, i.e., that nuclear is the most subsidized source, that it is (or will be) uneconomical compared to renewables, and that nuclear power contributes to proliferation.

Nuclear has been among the least subsidized sources for decades now. The proliferation situation will not be affected one iota whether the US doubled its nuclear capacity, or if it never built another plant. In terms of economics, the only thing nuclear has not been able to compete with is coal and gas, and that is only because their massive external costs are not included, and they are not held to anywhere near the same standards. Renewables, thus far, have required even more support (subsidy) than nuclear, as well as outright government mandates that they be used.

All that said, I was very encouraged by Mr. Cavanagh's statement that nuclear should not be interfered with, and should be allowed to compete in a fair market. He said we should have a CO2 cap-and-trade system, and that the market should decide. He apparently thinks that renewables can handle most or all of our future energy needs, at a cost that nuclear will not be able to compete with.

Suffice it to say that we will never see eye to eye on this. The good news is that this fundamental (and unending) disagreement does not need to be resolved in order for us to agree on policy. We actually agree totally on the policy, even though we vastly differ in our prognostications, and our views on nuclear's and renewables' potential.

Thus, despite our disagreements, nuclear advocates and environmental groups can (politically) get together behind a CO2 cap-and-trade policy.
Doug Koplow said…

You shouldn't keep posting that nuclear is among the "least subsidized sources" when a plethora of evidence disproves this, and as we have debated already on other NEI threads.

David Bradish said…

I'm on your website Earth Track and am trying to look at your publications on nuclear subsidies or any of your analyses on subsidies and nothing is coming up. Is this a website flaw or am I doing something wrong?

David, NEI
Doug Koplow said…

The documents load in a new window. If your pop-up prevention is on, this is normally what causes the problems.

If you are still having trouble, please contact me off-blog.

David Bradish said…
It worked, Thanks. I'm looking forward to having discussions on subsidies. It looks like you have a wealth of information on your website.

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