Thursday, August 17, 2006

Social Barriers to Clean Energy

Many of the comments posted here by my readers reflect the appeal and importance of nuclear power as a domestic alternative to imported energy and a key response to climate change. An editorial in today's Washington Post seems to share these views. The Post focuses on what they regard as the main impediment to building a new generation of nuclear power plants in this country: the absence of a permanent solution for handling nuclear waste. It is certainly a major impediment, but I don't agree that this is principally a technical and political problem. The politics that has blocked a solution to nuclear waste shares a common heritage with the opposition to offshore wind farms, LNG receiving terminals, and all manner of large energy projects.

We don't lack for viable technical options for dealing with nuclear waste. Long-term storage is the most obvious, of the type envisioned for Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Spent fuel reprocessing provides other benefits, including expanding the supply of reactor fuel and reducing the volume of highly-radioactive waste that must be "buried." More exotic solutions, including turning the waste into an inert glass, also look promising. Technologies for managing nuclear waste, even on the level of regional interim repositories, are available; what is not available is the political will to implement them.

Now, some of the political obstacles reflect important considerations about public safety and reducing the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation, especially in an era of nihilistic terrorism. Concerns about proliferation have held back reprocessing in the US for a generation, perhaps rightly so, though that calculus has arguably shifted with the end of the Cold War and the arrival of much greater proliferation risks from North Korea and Pakistan. But the other political dimension of nuclear waste management is grounded in the rampant NIMBY-ism that has spread from coast to coast in the last two decades.

I'm not suggesting that there aren't millions of Americans who oppose nuclear power as a matter of fundamental environmental or political principle. I respect their views, although concerns about climate change have eroded their solidarity of late. However, I believe a much larger segment of the population isn't anti-nuclear, per se, but rather worried about practical aspects of nuclear safety and the possibility of a nuclear accident affecting their community. This has much much in common with the opposition to LNG.

When you dissect the opposition to Yucca Mountain--separating out concerns about radiation leaks in a portion of the Nevada desert that hosted nuclear weapons tests for four decades-- much of it boils down to anxiety about how the waste will get there from the nation's 104 operating nuclear power plants, and from any new ones that might get built. While I don't relish the idea of casks of radioactive material passing through my own town by truck or rail, I also recognize that I and my family are actually at much greater risk from gasoline tank trucks and coal trains. In addition, the greenhouse gases released by these other fuels seem likely to change our world in much more profound and personally-impactful ways than any of the nuclear material shipped from power plants to storage, temporary or permanent.

Nuclear power isn't a panacea, but it is the largest-scale, most readily-available source of emissions-free primary energy, and it can expand enough to displace--not merely augment--large quantities of fossil fuels. Rather than competing with wind and solar power, it complements them nicely, providing steady base-load power to support their intermittent contribution. And by recharging plug-in hybrid cars, it can deliver transportation energy in direct competition with petroleum products. None of that will happen, however, unless we overcome our aversion to all of the less-attractive foundations of our economy. Unless we come to grips with our post-industrial squeamishness about large energy facilities and infrastructure, we will foreclose some of our best options for energy that is cleaner and less reliant on unstable or unpredictable foreign governments. That applies not just to nuclear power, but to offshore gas drilling and large-scale wind power.

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