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Nuclear Renaissance or Radiaion Relapse?

Nuclear Renaissance or Radiation Relapse?

This week, Political Buzz is happy to bring you a guest column on energy policy from a fellow political junkie, Lance Duroni. Enjoy!

Red Alert!  Disciples of the interminable campaign, we are receiving a transmission from the situation room:  Hillary Clinton just drop-kicked Robert F. Kennedy’s tombstone and snuffed out the eternal flame with the long wind of identity politics!  No, wait…scratch that.  She was simply using the date of RFK’s assassination to illustrate a point about the historical length of the primary season.  Back to your day jobs/crossword puzzles.  Sorry for any confusion.

Meanwhile, down here in the belly of the beast, just beyond the range of errant satellite beams sent ricocheting out of the sound-bite vortex, we’ve got real fucking problems.  Foremost among them, the nexus of peak oil production and climate change, the dual climate-energy crisis that too few of our leaders address in the same breath.  How to provide the energy coveted by billions of cellphone junkies–many of whom are developing American-style consumer tastes–while maintaining a climate suitable for the agriculture, infrastructure, and general quality of life needed by those same ambitious little primates?  Increasingly, the hypothetical answers to this fundamental question involve nuclear energy to some extent.            

Depending on who you ask, the resurrection of the nuclear power industry in the United States is either a colossal boondoggle or the last ace humanity has left up its sleeve to stem the growth of greenhouse gas emissions.  This debate is light years away from the unanimity of the social climate that produced an unofficial moratorium on the construction of nuclear power plants after the incident at Three Mile Island in 1979.  This shift in attitudes and policy is almost entirely a response to the darkening reality of climate change.

The case for nuclear power in relation to climate change basically boils down to a lesser-of-two-evils scenario.  Yes, nuclear waste is scary and the potential for terrorist attacks and catastrophic meltdown breeds caution.  But the threat of millions of climate refugees displaced by rising seas and violent shifts in rainfall patterns could be far more destructive, according to many climate alarmists.  James Lovelock, renowned atmospheric scientist and author of the Gaia hypothesis, summed up this view in a letter published in The Independent (London) in 2004:

“Opposition to nuclear energy is based on irrational fear fed by Hollywood style fiction, the green lobbies and the media… We must stop fretting over the minute statistical risk of cancer from chemicals or radiation.  Nearly one-third of us will die from cancer anyway… If we fail to concentrate on the real danger, which is global warming, we may die even sooner.” [For an interesting take on Hollywood’s effect on the public perception of nuclear power see The Jane Fonda Effect]

It is difficult to dismiss Lovelock as just another “Chicken Little.”  His Gaia theory underpins much of what we understand in the field of earth system science, the cutting edge of climate research.

But what about solar and wind and tidal and marshmallow horseshoes, you ask?  Tidal energy is still in its primitive stages of development and solar and wind, in their current incarnations, are supplemental sources of power at best.  They do not provide that essential “baseload” power—24 hour a day, 7 day a week power like coal and nuclear.  When the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, those coal plants are working overtime.  And that will be the case until some kind of humongous battery is developed to store industrial quantities of electricity.  Also, solar energy, the most promising among these renewables—is envisioned as a decentralized power source, with individual solar panels on homes and businesses feeding excess energy back into the grid.  It is difficult to estimate the kind of time frame it will take to produce a given quantity of energy with this decentralized set-up.  We know exactly how much time it will take to produce a grip-load of CO2-free energy via the nuclear route. 

And time is of the essence.  The much-touted Renewables may well be the energy resources of the future.  But the fundamental question is, can the technologies be developed and implemented in time to reach the IPCC prescribed emissions targets for mitigating the worst consequences of climate change (60-80% reduction by 2050).  No industrialized nation has even managed to stabilize emissions, let alone reduce them (Kyoto be damned!).  Here in the U.S., demand for electricity continues to rise and states are taking action to prevent the construction of new coal fired power plants.  So where, dear friends, is the juice going to come from for the 42-inch flat screen in my bedroom and the multiple A/C units that keep my balls on ice 4 months out of the year?       

Nuclear energy has implications for the oil production crisis as well.  Assume that oil prices remain high and we all make the switch to plug-in hybrids (or possibly hydrogen in the distant future).  Assume as well that we expand mass transit with trains run off electricity rather than dwindling oil supplies.  This will be vastly more efficient in relation to carbon emissions, but again, it requires a large portion of the formerly oil-powered transportation sector to be transferred to the electrical grid (hydrogen production would require vast amounts of electricity).  I have trouble believing that conservation alone will make enough room for this transition, leading us again back to nuclear power.

The lines of reasoning listed above are exactly the sort that get Eric Epstein piping mad.  Epstein is the chairman of TMI Alert, a nuclear energy watchdog group out of Harrisburg, PA.  I had a chance to sit down with Epstein last November at his home, where he laid out compelling counterpoints to the push for a Nuclear Renaissance.  “Americans like that one silver bullet answer, and they think nuclear power is it.  But there isn’t a silver bullet answer for our energy issues,” he said.  Epstein refers to the nuclear industry as “corporate socialism.”  He notes that the industry would not be competitive with other forms of energy were it not for massive government subsidies.  He also takes the long view on nuclear waste, pointing out that corporations like Exelon energy can’t be trusted to clean up their sites when the transition to renewables is complete or the uranium runs out.  This is especially troubling, Epstein contends, because all of these power plants are located on major waterways, a potentially (in)convenient means of distributing the mess.

This is just the tip of the iceberg for Epstein’s reasoned argument against nuclear power (for the whole spiel visit  While there are obviously high stakes and passionate voices on both sides of the argument, the entire debate might be merely academic in nature.  The Nuclear Regulatory Commission had received applications for 17 new reactors from the end of 2005 through 2007, after receiving none from 1979 through 2005.  17 represents 1/6 of the total number of power generating reactors currently online in the U.S. today.  The wheels have been set in motion for a resurgence of nuclear power even as communities and governing bodies debate the merits of such an effort.  

All 3 (2 ½?) remaining presidential candidates have expressed some position on nuclear energy’s potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the worst effects of climate change.  All three are guilty of pandering to their political base and glossing over the harsh realities of the situation.

Hillary Clinton expressed her pseudo-stance on nuclear energy in an interview with, “I am agnostic about nuclear… until we can figure out what to do with the waste and overcome political objections, we should not be putting an emphasis on nuclear.”  If she was aiming to bolster her image as a politically expedient, equivocating centrist, well, mission accomplishedAgnostic?  Fuck off.  That does not qualify as an answer any more than her husband disputing the definition of “is.”  And overcoming political objections should not be high on any candidate’s list of priorities if they are serious about confronting the climate-energy conundrum.  The unforgiving realities of the climate system and the energy sector are far more real than any political considerations, and should be treated as such.

McCain is understandably gung-ho about nuclear power.  It fits the pro-industry, “economic growth above-all” view of the Republicans.  In a recent public appearance McCain stated, with vigor, “My dear friends, nuclear power must be part of any equation that leads to addressing climate change and also that leads to addressing reduction of our dependence on foreign oil.” 

In a rare departure from France-bashing by a Republican, McCain goes on to point out that our friends on the River Seine produce 80% of their electricity via nuclear power.  McCain’s view toes the party line in that it paints nuclear as the “silver bullet.”  Energy demands will be met, economic growth will not be impeded, and conservation will be an afterthought or a nice gesture at best.

Barack Obama has possibly the most reasonable and even-handed stance on nuclear.  He is careful to state that nuclear power must be “explored” as a potential energy option.  However, he also qualifies his statements at all times with the caveat that waste issues will have to be entirely resolved before moving forward with any earnest expansion of the nuclear industry.  The time necessary for a 100% resolution of those issues may not fit neatly into the collapsing window for confronting global warming.    

These half-hearted responses are not the innocent feints of good-intentioned politicians.  They are the sad convergence of a spoiled citizenry and a political system unprepared to tackle the looming threats of the 21st century.  In plain and simple English, it is a failure of our leaders to own up.  This is what I would like to hear from somebody, anybody with a microphone and a campaign coffer: 

All options are on the table, period.  The transition from fossil fuels to new energy sources is not going to be a simple matter of development and replacement.  Real sacrifice on an individual level, in the form of conservation, will have to be coupled with tough decisions on policy.  This may mean a massive expansion of the nuclear power industry.  It may not.  We will devote a considerable portion of the budget, an amount commensurate with the threat we’re facing, towards determining and implementing the best portfolio of energy options for the future.  In the end, your grandma might get cancer, and that cancer might be linked to a waste dump near the old-folks home.  Wish her well for me, because we’re taking this civilization into the 22nd century, no matter the cost–climate system intact, oil independent, and lit up like a fucking Christmas tree.   


So, are we basking in the light of the Nuclear Renaissance or have we sunk into the depths of a radiation relapse?  For straight answers on this and other pressing problems, ask anybody but the bobbleheads running for president.   

-Lance Duroni

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