Analysis: Report, nuke reality don’t mesh
– Energy – Analysis
Published: April 23, 2007 at 6:55 PM
By BEN LANDO
UPI Energy Correspondent
WASHINGTON April 23 (UPI) — A new report by the Council on Foreign Relations makes broad characterizations about humanity as a whole and those who want to increase the amount of nuclear energy for electricity generation, purportedly as a way to halt and reverse global climate change.”According to a prevailing belief, humanity confronts two stark risks: catastrophes caused by climate change and annihilation by nuclear war,” begins the report, “Nuclear Energy at a Crossroads,” released last week.
The climate-change issue has momentum; U.S. media, the White House and Congress all talk it up regularly. But the CFR report says proponents “advocate a major expansion of nuclear energy” that “oversells the contribution nuclear energy can make to reduce global warming and strengthen energy security while downplaying the dangers associated with this energy source.”
“To realistically address global warming, the nuclear industry would have to expand at such a rapid rate as to pose serious concerns for how the industry would ensure an adequate supply of reasonably inexpensive reactor-grade construction materials, well-trained technicians, and rigorous safety and security measures.”
That’s true, the nuclear industry says. Its main goal is to maintain nuclear’s electricity share.
“Nuclear energy is not a silver bullet,” said Mitch Singer, spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the U.S. nuclear industry’s trade group. Rather, Singer said, it is one piece of the overall picture, which includes renewable energy, clean-coal technology and energy conservation and efficiency. (Two top NEI officials served on the advisory committee for the CFR report, but not all of their comments were included in the final draft, the Brookings Institution’s Susan Rice wrote.)
While nuclear-power proponents are trying to make talk of the “nuclear renaissance” in this country a reality, after a nearly 30-year absence of new nuclear activity, the industry is merely trying to maintain.
“To be able to do that, we have to build 35 new reactors by 2030,” said Adrian Heymer, senior director of new plant deployment at NEI.
Nuclear energy feeds about 20 percent of U.S. electricity demand and 16 percent of worldwide demand, which is expected to triple by 2050. No nuclear plant has been licensed since 1978, before a chill brought on by accidents at Chernobyl in Ukraine and Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, and a move to coal and natural-gas plants, the latter which, at the time, had low fuel costs.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission expects applications for at least 30 new reactors in the next few years, pushed largely because of a new — though untested — streamlined application process and various subsidies and tax breaks in energy legislation passed in 2005. There are 103 reactors operating now.
The NEI and other nuclear proponents are keen to point out nuclear’s near zero carbon dioxide emissions — “clean-air energy” — which is true compared to standard coal, oil and natural-gas operations. Nuclear power does emit, however, if you take into account its entire cycle, which includes mining and enriching the uranium to fuel the reactor, as well as construction of the plants.
Most of the climate-change-causing toxins are related to transportation. The United States imports more than 60 percent of the oil it uses, the vast majority of it being used for transportation. Nuclear power can’t replace that.
There is much in the CFR report that the nuclear industry echoes, and vice versa. It costs $3 billion to $4 billion to build a plant, much more than other electricity sources, though nuclear plants are big baseload generators that have, in the United States, operated at more than 90 percent capacity.
An already tight supply of material and labor would squeeze further, and costs would go up if there was an all-out blitz — either in the United States or worldwide — to replace fossil-fuel electricity generation with nuclear. Other issues would be exacerbated as well: There is no general consensus on what to do with the nuclear waste created by nuclear plants; the additional spent fuel is a risk for weapons proliferation, as is the enrichment needed to get the fuel reactor ready; and if, in the midst of the expansion, another Chernobyl were to happen, the boom would immediately stall and possibly bust.
Instead of relying on nuclear power to address global warming, the CFR report recommends the U.S. government “should shift from providing subsidies to holding all energy sectors equally accountable for their external costs. … The costs incurred through carbon pollution are a debt unpaid.”
Polluters should be charged for polluting, which “would act to level the economic playing field among high-carbon emitters such as traditional coal-fired plants and no- and low-carbon emitters such as highly efficient natural gas plants, nuclear plants and wind- and solar-generated electricity.”
The CFR’s nuclear energy report appears, rather, to be advocacy for creating a more equal footing for energy sources to compete for their place in the mix. As the report puts it: “Nuclear power will remain part of this mix for the foreseeable future.”