Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Nuclear Freakonomics

Several weeks ago a reader of this blog commented to me on the contrast between the periodic calls for a new Manhattan Project to tackle our energy problems and the results of the actual Manhattan Project sixty years ago, which have matured to provide large quantities of economical base-load electricity in the US and many other countries. Several recent articles have addressed the revived prospects for nuclear energy, including one in last week's Economist and another in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine. In the latter, the authors of "Freakonomics" examine America's sudden shift away from nuclear power and the consequences that has had for our greenhouse gas emissions. I couldn't resist quantifying their observations.

What if the Three Mile Island accident had never occurred, or if it hadn't coincided with the release "The China Syndrome", which amplified the public's perception of the event? Would nuclear power plants have still encountered the project delays that drove up their construction costs, contributing to the roughly 20-year hiatus in new plant activity? Any answers to these questions would be purely speculative, but if the industry had continued expanding at its previous rate, then instead of the current 104 reactors, we might easily have 200, contributing 40% of our total electricity supplies. Coal-fired power plants would supply only 32% of our power needs, instead of 50%, and we'd emit roughly 650 million tons less CO2 per year. That's over 10% of our current CO2 emissions.

Or what if the US Congress had voted in 1997 to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions, and the country had embarked on a major expansion of nuclear power to meet our commitments under the treaty? The first new reactors would have started up a few years ago, and we'd be on a path to meet our target of reducing our emissions below 1990 levels by 2012--or at least come a lot closer to that than now seems likely.

While these scenarios ignore real-world complications such as nuclear waste and proliferation, they underline an important point. Choices have consequences, and our decision a generation ago to leave nuclear power in limbo has added billions of tons of CO2 to the atmosphere since we made it, while constraining our options for addressing the challenges we face. The decisions we make now could have similar consequences, because while renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar power can add important quantities of low-emissions electricity in the decade ahead, they cannot match nuclear's baseload characteristics and 90% onstream capacity factor. As impressive as the addition of 2,454 MW of new US wind power capacity last year was, the resulting increase in net power generation is still less than that from one new nuclear reactor.

When we assess nuclear power as an option for dealing with our energy security and emissions concerns, we ought to consider what a new fleet of reactors would enable, in terms of reducing our reliance on coal--with its implied dependence on future carbon sequestration--and providing large quantities of reliable off-peak power for the plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars that look like our lowest net-environmental-impact alternatives for displacing gasoline in the medium term. Are those benefits significant enough to warrant a more pragmatic approach to nuclear power and its byproducts? I believe so, and there are at least a few environmentalists who share that view. On balance, the risks of nuclear power look more manageable than the uncertainties of climate change or an unstable Middle East.

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