04/10/2007 - 07:00

Nuclear is more reliable, safer than before

There is every reason to pursue increased energy efficiency. There are even justifications for
subsidizing capital investments in energy-efficient technology. After all, the discount rates used
by corporate managers who choose those investments are, in effect, considerably larger than the
discount rates implicit in governmental decisions. The former are based on near-term returns and
stock prices, while the latter are based on a society's long-term sustainability.

But, despite some beliefs to the contrary, all of our past experience and evidence tells us that
we'll need to generate more energy in the coming years. If the standard of living rises in
underdeveloped countries, this is an absolute certainty globally--regardless of the efficiency in
the United States, Europe, and even China and India. It's also terribly dangerous to the
sustainability of humanity as we know it to allow the concentrations of human-generated greenhouse
gases to grow at even a moderate fraction of their current rates--Oklahoma Republican Sen. James
Inhofe notwithstanding. Hence, our response to the sustainability challenge must include better
energy generation methods than those we rely on today--both in terms of their impact on climate and
human life.

There are probably places where wind power is reliable and not harmful to the environment,
increasing its usefulness. Biofuels provide a "break-even" means of slowing greenhouse gas
concentrations, but they don't help reduce those concentrations. And biofuels only make sense if
they're made from plants that don't double as food. Hydropower is virtually saturated and (perhaps
surprisingly) the deadliest source of electric power because people live in the floodplains below
dams, which occasionally break. Direct solar power, either as heat or electricity, is a marvelously
attractive goal that we currently can't achieve at a cost that would make it available to a large
part of the population. There's plenty of motivation for us to invest in solar power research,
making it a realistic component of the overall energy picture. But that's not going to happen for
many years.

Nuclear power has become more and more reliable and increasingly safe. While no energy source is
risk-free, nuclear power probably represents the safest electricity source in overall costs of
human life--and also the most reliable. Nuclear reactors now perform at about 90 percent of their
theoretical limits; 20 years ago, it was roughly 60 percent. New designs of conventional light
water reactors will be safer still, because they'll have inherent, gravity-driven self-quenching
that won't require active steps by operators if something goes wrong.

The direct cost of nuclear power now is indeed higher than that of coal-, oil-, or gas-generated
electric power. But this wouldn't be the case if the indirect costs of environmental damage from
greenhouse gases were formulated into the cost, which would happen if a carbon tax were introduced.
Even without a carbon tax, at least one extensive economic study found that the cost of nuclear
reactors will drop after the first three or four new nuclear reactors are built, making nuclear
competitive with fossil-fueled generating plants.

The emotional reaction to resist nuclear power is an interesting analogue to the emotional
reaction to deny the likelihood of human-generated climate change. The two positions have
remarkable similarities, at opposite ends of a common scale. Let's hope there's enough rationality
for us to make our way in a healthy, sustainable manner between those emotional extremes.