No Nukes? No Climate Progress

March 30th, 2009 at 10:50 am | 9 Comments |

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The Obama Administration talks a good game about shaping bipartisan energy and climate change policies. The talk is good. History shows that the best way to ensure that these policies work and survive shifts in the political winds is to pass it with strong support from both sides of the aisle.

But talk alone will not do the trick.

So, how can President Obama and his fellow Democrats in Congress persuade wary Republicans that they will, in good faith, move energy and climate legislation that is a balanced attempt to solve the problem rather than an ideological spasm to please the Daily Kos crowd?

Show us the atoms.

Show us that nuclear energy will have a significant place at the table for zero-carbon energy sources.

That could be any number of things:

  • Prod the Department of Energy to fix its creaky loan guarantee program.
  • Establish an energy bank to finance zero-carbon technology development.
  • Crank up funding for advanced reactors that could produce both electricity and process heat for industry.
  • Make a serious run at figuring out whether reprocessing is a safe and economical strategy for managing spent reactor fuel.

Reasonable people on the starboard side of the spectrum won’t insist that nuclear is a magic solution for picking apart the global warming and other energy knots that we’ve entangled ourselves in.

We must acknowledge that waste and proliferation issues need to be dealt with forthrightly.

We must also enthusiastically support scaling up a suite of technologies – efficiency, renewables, natural gas, biofuels, and carbon-sequestered coal, as well as nuclear.

But if the no-nukers in the Democrat base and left-leaning environmental groups succeed in badgering congressional leaders into leaving nuclear energy out of the equation, fixing our greenhouse gas emissions problem will be more difficult than it already is likely to be.

The scale of emissions reductions that climate scientists tell us are necessary is enormous. We don’t have the luxury to be picky about the technologies that should be mobilized.

Here’s a science-made-simple illustration of the daunting math, courtesy of Princeton engineering genius Robert Socolow.

Socolow identified 15 currently available technologies that can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These include low-carbon energy sources such as wind, solar, and nuclear, gains in automobile and building efficiency, carbon capture, and natural carbon sinks.

To stabilize emissions at current levels 50 years from now, while allowing for global economic growth, we must use manageable combinations of these technologies to build seven “wedges” that will each prevent 1 billion tons of CO2 emissions per year.

A mere tripling of today’s nuclear capacity would give us one wedge.

To get a wedge from wind energy, its worldwide generating capacity would have to be expanded by a factor of 30. To get a wedge from solar, its capacity must rise by a factor of 700.

Congressional Democrats, take note: Rule nuclear off the table in the interests of political correctness, however, and you make the task much more daunting. Filling it would mean finding another wedge: scaling up wind energy by a factor of 60 instead of 30, for example, or solar by a factor of 1,400 instead of 700.

The Democrats have a choice. They can be politically and technologically practical and support a thoughtful nuclear development policy. Or, they can pander to their base, keep nuclear in the shadows, and pray that their favorite technologies can carry the entire burden of ramping down greenhouse gas emissions.

Barack, Harry and Nancy, it’s your call.

Recent Posts by David Jenkins



9 Comments so far ↓

  • Rel

    David,Would any of the policies you propose do more to promote nuclear power than cap-and-trade or a carbon tax, if either of these were coupled to regulatory permission to “temporarily” store nuclear waste on-site? I think not.

  • JJWFromME

    It’s a hostage situation, eh? Nice.Well, if nuclear can compete in terms of price, and do it safely, then fine. (Again, that’s “if.” And I’d also note that more nuclear waste means more material for nuclear weapons, which conflicts with our goals in the GWOT.)If it *can’t* compete safely at a competitive price, then it’s just pork for the extraction industries etc right? Pork can help pass bills, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it. But the Kos crowd (as you put it) is nothing if not practical, and will swallow castor oil if it means passing legislation as important as this.

  • dendup

    “We must acknowledge that waste and proliferation issues need to be dealt with forthrightly.” I don’t care about acknowledging thoses issues. Tell me how to solve them. Then we can talk about the rest. Then we will truly know how to accurately calculate cost.

  • Stewardship

    One would think that if France can depend on nuclear energy, has a long track record of safety, and reprocesses spent fuel, the United States could do it, too.

  • JJWFromME

    Stewardship: I’m not sure they’re a good example to emulate. I’ve heard French electricity is pretty expensive.

  • JJWFromME

    Although, maybe the rumors I heard are out of date:”Unlike other Western countries, France generates some 75 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power, the balance coming mostly from various hydro-electric power stations.This means that Frances electricity is among the cheapest in Europe (it supplies electricity to its neighbours for less than they can produce it themselves and owns nine other European electricity companies, including Seeboard in the UK). Due to the moderate cost of electricity and the high degree of insulation in new homes, electric heating is more common in France than in other European countries.”http://www.justlanded.com/english/France/Articles/Property/Utilities

  • sinz54

    The nuclear reprocessing issue is a red herring. President Carter stopped nuclear reprocessing in the forlorn hope that this would prevent nuclear proliferation.That didn’t work. India test-fired a nuclear bomb during Carter’s administration. He protested, India told him to stuff it. Then Pakistan developed their own nukes. So did North Korea. And now Iran is busily developing their own nukes. The lack of American reprocessing hasn’t prevented ANY nation that wants nuclear weapons from developing them.When it comes to nuclear proliferation, the Left keeps blaming the West for it. But we didn’t tell North Korea or Iran to develop nukes, did we? Just once, just once, I wish the Left would be has strong in its criticism of North Korea or Iran as they constantly are of the United States.

  • dendup

    Sinz: you have inadvertently cleared up one of my life’s mysteries by pointing out that (a) nuclear proliferation is all Carter’s fault, and (b) the left wrongly blames the West for proliferation. Back in the day I worked in a box factory, and while Ford was Pres. the lunch room activity was penny ante poker and the sandwich of choice was baloney. Then Carter assumed the highest office and suddenly everyone was playing Go and had irresistable cravings for Moo Goo Gai Pan and sushi. I found a better job before Reagan, but I heard poker and baloney instantly became popular again once the hostages were freed.

  • Egli Ha

    I’m not an expert but I have read in a usually-trustworthy source that although running the nuclear reaction, when done correctly, is clean and carbon-free, even then, mining and processing the uranium and other necessary chemicals is dirty and CO2ogenic.Anyone better-informed than I am wanna comment?