Friday, January 18, 2013

Not Stooges of the Nuclear Industry

Here’s a line to perk up a Friday:
These are not corporate stooges of the nuclear industry.
Because heaven knows there are a lot of those out there trying to look legitimate.
To a person, their embrace of nuclear power is motivated by a deep concern about climate change and the conviction that no other carbon-free source of energy is sufficient (and safe) enough to replace coal and gas.
Write Keith Kloor’s story is on a strong topic – the embrace by some environmentalists of nuclear energy. Kloor talks to an impressive number of them, starting with NASA’s lead climate scientist James Hansen and moving on from there:
He’s not the only environmental luminary who is bullish on nuclear power. Last year, Columbia University’s Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute, echoed Hansen’s argument. A number of other champions of nuclear power have stepped forward in recent years, from Australian climate scientist Barry Brook to American writer Gwyneth Cravens, author of Power to Save the World: The Truth about Nuclear Energy. A breakaway group in the traditionally no-nukes environmental movement has also begun advocating passionately for nuclear power. That story is the subject of a new documentary that is premiering this month at the Sundance Festival.
That would be Pandora’s Promise, one of the more interesting cinematic efforts for 2013. About environmentalists, the story misses Dr. Patrick Moore, who recently left his position as co-chairman of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition. It makes a bracing argument for the weaknesses of renewable energy:
This is, to put it charitably, wishful thinking. Renewable energy analyst Vaclav Smil lays out the major drawbacks with wind and solar: The energy it produces is intermittent, there is marginal storage capacity, it is still too costly, and it takes too long to scale up to become a meaningful substitute for coal.
These are problems for the industries to sort out, not stopping points. But for now, this is true and makes discussions in places like Germany so much hooey – or, to be kinder, wishful thinking.
But the story aims to be fair and lays out the most dire outcomes for nuclear energy. This is the part that doesn’t make me purr, but that could be the sign of a balanced article:
At this point, if there is going to be a revival of nuclear energy anywhere, it appears it will happen only with the arrival of new technology (what is referred to as "fourth generation" design) that resolves longstanding concerns and is competitive price-wise with coal and gas.
Well, nuclear energy already is competitive with coal and nuclear plants so have a lifespan of at least 60 years, which allows for a lot of depreciation on admittedly very expensive plants. One thing we can say for sure, the current low cost of natural gas will not sustain itself for 60 years.

The article also picks up the Pew argument that it’s not possible to build nuclear plants fast enough to have an impact on climate change – but that misses a large part of its appeal internationally, which is that it can be the first major electricity plant that many developing nations use – the choice of energy producers is much broader now than when the developed world electrified. It’s true that many countries are proceeding with the facilities they have now, but there’s a lot of growth to come – China and India currently (and both invested in nuclear energy) and many more to follow.

Still, a fair and valuable article.

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