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Published October 20, 2008 08:57 AM

Nuclear Power is NOT the Solution to Our Global Warming Woes

As our presidential campaign season draws towards a close and the attacks / counter-attacks reach a fever pitch, it’s almost impossible to separate fact from fiction. So many contradictory proposals, so many disparate numbers — I wouldn’t be surprised if someone says the sky is bright pink before we’re through.

The debate about energy policy is a case in point: the proposals so far have ranged from sound (invest in multiple forms of renewable energy) to questionable (clean coal, 45 new nuclear power plants) to the insultingly cynical and foolish (Drill Baby Drill!).

With most of these energy proposals, we’re being asked to take a leap of faith. Can coal ever be clean, or will carbon dioxide just leak back to the surface from the underground reservoirs where it is stored? Will battery technology advance enough to have one million plug-in hybrids on the road by 2015? Can we make the technology changes and corn-subsidy reductions required to develop ethanol sources that are at least carbon neutral if not negative?

There’s one area, however, where we seem to have a long enough track record to know: nuclear power.  If you listen to the McCain campaign, nuclear power (second only to drilling) is a key solution to our energy dependence and global warming woes. Remove a few regulations here, provide some tax credits there, and poof! – energy independence, clean power and new jobs flow forth like oil through a pipeline.

There are a number of assumptions that underly this proposal. One is that nuclear reactors can be operated in a safe manner, which in turn assumes that our government has a strong enough regulatory system to avoid even one small failure (since there really isn’t such thing as a small failure with a nuclear reactor). There are plenty of reasons NOT to believe this, most recently the meltdown of another sort that has crippled our financial system.

You also have to believe that we’ll figure out a way to store and process our nuclear wastes. We’ve been working on that for several decades, and political hot air is the only measurable result.

And, you have to believe that investing in nuclear power makes economic sense as compared to other options available.  Fortunately, the Rocky Mountain Institute, one of the leading voices worldwide on energy efficiency and our energy economy, has published a study that addresses this very issue.  Some of the key findings:

  • Long term, nuclear offers the most expensive way to generate power. When you factor in all of the costs associated with electricity generating options (construction, maintenance, transmission, etc.), even industry-sponsored research suggests that nuclear power is likely to be the most expensive source of electricity we have over the long run.  It is 50% more expensive than large coal or natural gas plants and twice as costly as large wind farms or energy efficiency projects. If you don’t see that extra cost in your electricity bill, it’s only because it’s hidden away in your tax bill via government subsidies.
  • Per unit of carbon dioxide avoided, nuclear power is also the most expensive option.Nuclear power doesn’t emit much if any carbon dioxide, but when you compare the cost of each pound of carbon dioxide avoided from nuclear power to wind power, energy efficiency or cogeneration plants you once again end up with a loser.
  • Even with existing favorable subsidies, nuclear power is not attracting the private investment that renewables are. This means that the costs of developing nuclear power (as mentioned above) will be borne by tax- and rate-payers alone, rather than shared with private investors. 

There are many reasons not to like nuclear power. It increases the flow of very dangerous nuclear materials across the planet. Nuclear accidents can be catastrophic, whereas accidents with other energy sources merely reduce the electricity available. We still haven’t found a good way to deal with the waste generated.

In the end, though, they just don’t seem to pay off. Renewable prices will only fall as economies of scale develop and new technologies flood the market, whereas projections for nuclear prices rise with each new report. In these hard economic times, we can all agree regardless of our political or environmental leanings that saving money makes the most sense of all!

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