Tuesday, February 9, 2010

enviros debate nuclear

Excerpts from book reviews by Ronald Bailey in Reason on efforts by two of the key leaders in the environmental movement-- a proponent and an opponent of nuclear power.

The proponent is Stewart Brand, author of Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto; the opponent is Al Gore, author of Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis.

Environmentalists fiercely disagree about the role nuclear power might play in addressing global warming. Two new books by big names in the green movement stake out the boundaries of that debate....Both men have impeccable environmentalist credentials....

Once an opponent of nuclear power, Brand is now a big backer. Where others argue that reactor generation of power is an unsafe, expensive process that produces hazardous waste and could contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, Brand writes, “I’ve learned to disbelieve much of what I’ve been told by my fellow environmentalists.” On safety, he notes, “year after year, the industry has had no significant accidents” in the operation of 443 civilian nuclear plants around the world....

For those who profess concern about global warming, Brand cites fellow environmentalist Bill McKibben: “Nuclear power is a potential safety threat, if something goes wrong. Coal-fired power is guaranteed destruction, filling the atmosphere with planet-heating carbon when it operates the way it’s supposed to.”

Brand is also fairly sanguine about handling the radioactive wastes produced by nuclear plants....While the drawbacks to nuclear power are overstated, Brand argues, the benefits are considerable. He lists four main advantages: base load, footprint, portfolio, and government scale....

On the other side of the debate we have Al Gore, who criticizes “the grossly unacceptable economics of the present generation of reactors.”...But somehow Gore’s cost consciousness gets lost when he considers his pet solutions, such as solar power. Elsewhere in the book, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate does a lot of hand waving about future photovoltaic cell breakthroughs and declining cost curves. Even though he decries lavish subsidies to nuclear power, he hails “the recent establishment by the U.S. government of new incentives for solar electricity,” along with state government requirements that utilities obtain a certain percentage of their power from high-cost renewable sources....

The federal government is now offering utilities a host of new subsidies and guarantees to build new nuclear power plants....In light of such policies, the liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias recently, and properly, accused many American conservatives of favoring “nuclear socialism.” Brand clearly falls into that camp as well. Gore, meanwhile, can fairly be accused of solar socialism.

If those were the only options we had, Brand would win the debate. If man-made climate change is a big problem, it doesn’t make sense to rule out in advance energy technologies that could contribute to substantially reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But costs do matter. The best way to figure out which technologies are the most economical is to set a price on greenhouse gas emissions and let various energy sources compete against each other. No subsidies needed.


At February 9, 2010 at 8:12 PM , Blogger William Lang said...

A year or two ago, I read the Sierra Club plan for solving our energy and environmental problems. Their plan involved cutting our energy budget into "wedges," and eliminating or replacing each of them. Naturally, they favored increased use of renewable energy—wind and solar—but the plan appeared to boil down to this: Reduce energy usage by about 50%.

I think I have mentioned before, but the leading climate scientist James Hansen advocates use of nuclear. In fact, he advocates advanced fast neutron "breeder" reactors. These can burn nuclear waste, and leftover uranium hexafluoride from the cold war. We have enough of these to meet our energy needs for a thousand years.

By the way, if you are interested in nuclear power, there's a fine book on the subject: Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy by Gwyneth Cravens.


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