Nuclear is not an essential solution

By Peter A. Bradford, March 23, 2007

A sensible approach to climate change would put a significant price on fuels according to their
carbon content. It would offer nondiscriminatory, governmental support to technologies according to
their ability to achieve reductions rapidly, economically, and acceptably to the public. It would
insist that any nuclear power growth occur in ways that diminish the association between nuclear
power and proliferation.

Instead, too many nuclear proponents have turned to their old playbook– pushed power plants;
postponed problems. Nuclear power’s asserted comeback in the United States rests not on newfound
cost competitiveness, but on an ancient formula: licensing shortcuts, risks borne by customers and
taxpayers, political muscle, and ballyhoo. Climate change has replaced oil dependence as the
bogeyman from which nuclear power can save us.

Those who assert,
“Nuclear energy just may be the energy source that can save our planet from
catastrophic climate change,”

“It could save the Earth,” or
“Clean, green
atomic energy can stop global warming,”
are inviting us into a dangerous la-la land in which
nuclear power will be oversubsidized and underscrutinized while more promising and quicker
responses to climate change are neglected.

Nuclear power may not even be an essential part of the solution to global warming. A widely
(PDF, 1 MB) by Princeton professors Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow introduces the useful concept
of a “wedge,” defined as any measure that would lead to a global reduction of 25 billion tons of
carbon dioxide emissions relative to business-as-usual over the next 50 years. Under optimistic
assumptions, some seven wedges are needed to avoid dangerous climate change; this number could
increase significantly under less optimistic assumptions.

The study provides a list of 15 measures involving technologies that exist today and could be
scaled up to become one or more wedges. Energy efficiency comprises three wedges, alternatives to
business-as-usual transportation account for another four, and increasing natural sinks provides
two wedges. Generating electricity in less carbon intensive ways contributes four wedges. Of the
a worldwide tripling of nuclear power would contribute one wedge at most, and that’s if
the new plants replace only coal and old nuclear units.

In addition, a nuclear wedge requires fuel enrichment (perhaps an additional 15 plants), waste
repositories (perhaps the equivalent of 14 Yucca Mountains), and possibly reprocessing plants.

Nothing resembling such a massive scaling up of nuclear construction is underway. Indeed, when
retirements are netted against new nuclear plants, the worldwide annual megawatt growth rate is
about 5 percent, far under the 15 percent that a wedge will require.

Nuclear power is more expensive and controversial than other ways of generating electricity and
other ways of cubing carbon emissions, so this trebling can only be done through substantial
governmental assistance. The subsidies enacted by the U.S. Congress in 2005 are limited to a few
plants. Many successful years of construction and operation will have to pass before these few
plants can become a basis for a stream of privately financed orders.

A nuclear ramp up necessary to provide a wedge will not be some idealized future in which the
problems are solved before the plants are built. Massive construction commitments will have to be
made long before present waste and proliferation problems are resolved.

Proliferation is a particularly troublesome prospect. Aspects of civilian nuclear power programs
have been implicated in every recent proliferation example, but particularly India, Pakistan, and
potentially, Iran. Given a trebling of worldwide nuclear capacity, other countries of proliferation
concern will have nuclear power programs. (For example, see Richard Beeston’s
Times Online article,
“Six Arab States Join Rush to Go Nuclear.”) International Atomic Energy Agency
safeguards are not adequate for separated plutonium, which is directly useable in nuclear weapons.
Two Bush administration initiatives–the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership and the nuclear
arrangement with India–contain elements that undermine aspects of the already strained
nonproliferation regime.

Nuclear power plants are made safe by combinations of vigilance and careful engineering and
construction. If, in an effort to improve their dubious economics, we again freight the technology
with unrealistic demands and expectations this safety can be seriously compromised.

Asserting that nuclear power answers climate change is like asserting that invading Iraq answers
9/11. This is policy making built on distraction, bolstered by deception, burdened by debt, and
bound for disillusion. Both nuclear power and the country deserve better.