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All I am saying, is give nukes a chance

(Via, again, Brad DeLong.Warning: non-expert opinions below (not the quoted ones; my own.) )
Mark Kleyman makes a case that nuclear fuel should get another chance:

Nukes, if run right, are fully competitive with coal, and a hell of a lot cleaner. (Modern coal plants are much cleaner than they used to be, but that's not saying much. In addition to all that greenhousing carbon dioxide, coal makes particles, and particles are BAD. As for all the old coal plants still running -- the ones whose lives the Bush Administration just extended to infinity by changing the New Source Review standards -- fuhgettabadit.)

I'm not really qualified to judge this, but I think (and have thought for some time) that a return to nukes would reduce two problems that could bite us in the ass in the next generation or so. One is climate change, which is likely to inconvenience a few people here and there in the not-so-distant future, the other is our dependency on not just coal, but oil, much of which is owned by countries whose governments and/or populations hate us *).

But these are all short-term problems, what about the nuclear waste that will irradiate us until the end of time? Mark makes the point quite forcefully:

Nuclear waste. This is a problem only if you think that we need to plan waste disposal that will (no, I'm not making this up) survive the end of civilization and be safe for the ignorant primitive nomads who will wander the earth 10,000 years from now. Actually, the solution isn't technically very hard.
... and then he gets a bit technical. I don't want to quote the whole article here; go read it if you're interested.

I am still less optimistic than Mark about operational security (both the large-scale problem of a plant going KABOOM and the smaller contaminations that come from routine human error) and the risk of spent nuclear fuel falling in the wrong hands, but if these problems are solvable, then we should give nukes a chance.

Mark concludes his article with:

[Note: Thirty years ago, I was pretty current on this stuff. I had to take the engineering on faith, but I knew the policy problem just about as well as anyone did. (I think I was the original author of the pyramid idea, which didn't pass the giggle test but which no one, as far as I'm aware, actually refuted.) But that was thirty years ago, and it's more than possible that my memory is faulty or that the world has changed so that some important detail above is imprecisely stated or flat wrong. Corrections invited.]

I'm looking forward to seeing those corrections to Mark's article, and also to seeing any misconceptions of my own cleared up. I'll follow this debate with great interest.

*)I know oil isn't a major resource for electricity generation, but oil, coal and gas are still part of the same market. If the price of one of them goes up, so do the others. Oil dependency exacerbates the effect of our other fossil fuel dependencies. Plus, as Matt Yglesias notes "... any strategy to burn less gasoline -- electric cars, the "hydrogen economy," more mass transit, some combination of the three -- is going to require the production of more electricity."

[Update: Nuclear power is doing the rounds in the blogosphere lately, and so just trawling my usual sources, I found a contrary view from John Quiggin who writes:

Nuclear (fission) power is probably the cheapest large-scale alternative electricity source (there are some sites where wind is cost-competitive, and similarly for geothermal) but it is still a good deal more expensive than coal or gas. How much more expensive is hard to tell because the industry is riddled with subsidies, but I'd guess that the full economic cost is about twice as high for nuclear electricity as for coal or gas. Moreover, most recent construction has been in places like China and Korea where safety standards may not be as high as they would have to be to get nuclear energy restarted in the developed world as a whole.

What this means is that nuclear power won't enter into calculations until we have a carbon tax (or equivalent) steep enough to double the price of electricity. It's clear though, that much smaller increases in costs would make a wide range of energy conservation measures economically viable, as well as reducing final demand for energy services. Implementing Kyoto, for example, would not require anything like a doubling of prices. Whether or not a more radical response is justified, it's clearly not going to happen for at least a decade and probably longer.

And in another post at Crooked Timber, he asks:

Can anyone point me to a reliable source of comparative information on this? Is there general agreement, or a partisan divide between pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear advocates ? I’d also be interested in comments on the general question raised in my opening sentence.

which rather gets to the hub of the problem. As far as I can tell, the field of energy policy is both inherently complex and rife with mendacity, so it's very hard to find information you can trust.

Comments (2)

You really should read the post by Kevin Drum and the comments on it.

Actually, I had read the post but not all the comments. I try, but it's been hard to keep up with this stuff.


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