Chair Force Engineer

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Case Against Nuclear Power from the Right

Over the decades, the debate over nuclear power could be framed in somewhat simple terms. "Corporate polluters" on the right wanted to destroy the environment with nuclear power, while "Luddite environmentalist hippies" on the left were standing in the way of science and progress. My use of those terms is sarcastic of course, but such is the banality of debate in America where opposing viewpoints are belittled in such simple terms.

In more recent times, environmentalist opposition to nuclear power has softened due to fears about carbon dioxide's role in global climate change. While many environmentalists still put their faith in solar and wind power, the more pragmatic proponents of Anthropomorphic Global Warming have seen the drawbacks of "clean energy" and begrudgingly put their faith in nuclear power as a bridge technology until something better (such as fusion) comes along. But if the left can rethink its stereotypical opposition to nuclear power, can the right rethink its unflinching support?

During the height of the Atomic Age in the 1950's, the American public was sold on the idea that nuclear power would be "too cheap to meter." At the most basic level of nuclear physics, the proponents of nuclear power were correct; a tiny amount of uranium fuel could produce far more power than an equivalent amount of coal or natural gas.

As nuclear power progressed from the experimental stage to operational nuclear plants, it became clear that "too cheap to meter" would not survive a head-on collision with reality. While the fuel costs would be comparatively low when compared with fossil energy, the deadly radiation made it necessary to spend a lot of time, money and bureaucracy to ensure the safety of the power plant. These measures made the startup costs of nuclear power astronomical. Nuclear power only became commercially viable thanks to guaranteed loans and laws to limit the insurance liability for nuclear accidents. For free-market libertarians, nuclear power became a corporate welfare queen that could not survive in a free market (although the energy sector is not a free market and operates under heavy government regulation.) While some of the bureaucracy could likely be trimmed to get plants licensed and built faster, some of it is also necessary to ensure the safety of the plants once they go into service.

Can nuclear power compete on an equal footing with fossil fuels? Does nuclear's lack of carbon emissions compensate for any economic disadvantages? These are all some of the complex issues swirling at the center of an unsettled debate on the economics of nuclear power. There is no doubt that even if environmental catastrophe is avoided at Japan's Fukushima plant, the economic impact will be measured in the billions of dollars.

Admittedly I have a fascination with nuclear power. I am extremely proud of the decades of work my father has accomplished in support of nuclear power. I was excited enough about graduate studies in nuclear engineering that I took a 200-level course on the topic before rethinking the direction of my career. Yet the staggering startup costs and the cost (and risk) associated with potential failure are enough to make me question whether taming the power of fission is really worth it.