Nuclear Power: Japan melts down, Europe backs off, but US says “Full speed ahead”

  • Published on March 17th, 2011

As Japan’s nuclear industry experiences its “Titanic meets iceberg” moment, you’d think America’s politicians would at least be entertaining second thoughts.

  • China says it will hold off on approving new nuclear power plants, and it will upgrade safety standards.
  • France’s legislature grilled the head of Electricite de France, the biggest operator of atomic power plants in the world.
  • Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero ordered a study of Spain’s power plant vulnerability.
  • Germany nuked their plans to extend the life of their reactors.

The Japanese disaster “will put new nuclear development on ice,” Toronto energy consultant Tom Adams told the Globe and Mail.

But in Washington this week it’s “Full speed ahead” for nuclear power. What gives?

Writing at the Atlantic, Josh Green has this explanation for the DC consensus:

Beyond political factors lie common policy interests. One reason more Democrats haven’t responded critically is that many now view nuclear power in the broader context of climate change. With the planet overheating from carbon pollution, nuclear energy has come to appear part of the necessary solution to a global disaster, rather than a potential source of a regional disaster, like Japan’s. Republicans push nuclear power as at least a partial substitute for their lack of a comprehensive energy plan. And so, nuclear energy has appeared to be the rare issue on which both parties might agree.

It’s a nice fairy tale, but as with most things out of Washington, the surface explanation doesn’t give the true story.

The warm atomic heart of the M/I complex

Republicans’ friends in what GOP President Eisenhower described as “the military-industrial complex” love nuclear power. It’s got three things going for it:

  • Huge construction budgets with built-in profits for mega-corporations.
  • Built-in annual profits from energy company ratepayers.
  • Built-in government backing to socialize any risks.

With profits guaranteed and risks underwritten by the government, what’s not to like?

The warm power of the sun

Democrats, on the other hand, have long been no-nukers, going back to the ’80s, when then-Orleans frontman (and later Congressman) John Hall sang “Take all your atomic poison power away.”

Have we really decided that the risk of global warming is more important than the risk of global meltdown?

  • Nuclear still has a nasty carbon footprint – the cement industry is one of the worst CO2 generators, and nuke plants take vast amounts of cement. (According to Treehugger, 2.22 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per gigawatt-hour (GWh), compared to 0.95 tons per GWh for combined-cycle natural gas.)
  • Mining and processing uranium are both carbon-intensive (0.683 tons per GWh), and heavy-water production (another part of the chain) is even more so (9.64 tons per GWh).
  • You’ll hear a lot about how solar also has a high CO2 cost on the front end. But solar is a technology in its infancy, and those numbers are coming down every year. Nuclear, in contrast, is a mature technology. The front end costs are pretty much fixed, and as for the back end – dealing with waste and decommissioning the plants- the sky’s the limit. (Q: “How much CO2 will that generate?” A: “Nobody knows“).
  • New nuclear power plants won’t come online fast enough to make a difference – up to ten years.

Happiness is a warm subsidy

The nuclear industry never made economic sense – it was subsidized by the government in the ’50s as a way to get fuel for our bombs; calling it the “Atoms for Peace” program was a PR strategy to make nukes seem more human and friendly.

Dr. David Lilienthal, The first chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission resigned in disgust, later saying,

“Once a bright hope shared by all mankind, including myself, the rash proliferation of nuclear power plants is now one of the ugliest clouds hanging over America.”

It makes no sense to be dumping more subsidies into this ancient dinosaur of an industry 60 years down the line, but once you’ve got big corporations on the government tit, it’s really hard to get them off (see: Ethanol, Farm subsidies, and big oil).

Subsidies that DO make sense

Thomas Cochran, a nuclear physicist and senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), notes that similar investments in wind and solar would pay off sooner (without the unknown and unknowable costs on the back end).

Here are the numbers for current wind, solar and nukes. Benjamin K. Sovacool, a research fellow at the National University of Singapore, did the most comprehensive study for Energy Policy, and found (in grams of CO2 per kilowatt/hour of energy produced):

  • 10 –  onshore wind farms
  • 32 – solar photovoltaic
  • 66 – Nuclear power
  • 443 – natural gas-fired plants
  • 960 – scrubbed coal-fired plants

“A number in the 60s puts it well below natural gas, oil, coal and even clean-coal technologies,” Sovacool told Nature. “On the other hand, things like energy efficiency, and some of the cheaper renewables are a factor of six better. So for every dollar you spend on nuclear, you could have saved five or six times as much carbon with efficiency, or wind farms.”

Unfortunately, subsidies for wind and solar were part of the budget-slashing the GOP perpetrated last week (but NOT cuts to subsidies for oil and nuclear).

And again, those relatively nice-looking numbers for nukes don’t include the cost of dealing with the waste and decommissioning the plants, which could be astronomical.

So where do Green’s green fairy tales of Kumbaya-singing pro-nukes Republicans and Democrats come from?

In Washington DC, the answer is obvious: follow the green. Coming tomorrow: How the nuclear industry spends millions on politicians – to get billions in subsidies.

More on the quake and nukes:

About the Author

Jeremy Bloom is the Editor of RedGreenAndBlue. He lives in New York, where he combines his passion for the environment with his passion for film, and is working on making the world a better place.
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  • You know what’s really a myth? That soldiers in the US military nowadays fight for my freedom or anyone else’s freedom but their own, or that they have a hard job. That is just propaganda shoved down on us by big-government-loving conservatives.

    Meanwhile, anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is real and serious. AGW-deniers are guilty of treason and interfering with the hard work of the IPCC and Greenpeace and solar and wind power companies.

  • In North American, the TV news coverage of the nuclear disaster in Japan is very biased. Watch the BBC news on PBS to get better quality information. In Canada, our incompetent federal government wants to sell our nuclear power industry to private interests and is therefore controlling information on this subject. I did some metallurgy on nuclear reactors and I say that we should have left the Uranium in the ground.

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    • Yan

      This is one of the best acltries I’ve read in a long time. But how do we “unscare” the public? How do we reach the masses without the scare tactics and dirty politics that wind/solar are using? Reply

  • “With the planet overheating from carbon pollution”

    Can we please get past this myth? We cannot successfully build a long term energy plan if idealogy left over from the mid nineties continues to circulate ‘unchecked’ by the misinformed.

    • Jeremy Bloom

      So what’s your proposal for a long-term energy plan? Just keep burning coal and oil until there’s none left, then you count all your money while we sit here in the dark?
      Like the cartoon says, “But what if climate change is a fraud and we build a better world with cleaner, cheaper energy for nothing?”

    • Never mind tihroum, there is plenty of DU that could be feedstock for the proper breeder already above ground and refined. And that’s not counting “used fuel” that could be be used as well. Reply