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Problems with nuclear power.

Rather than provide a careful exploration of the future of nuclear technologies, Paul Lorenzini's "A Second Look at Nuclear Power" (Issues, Spring 2005) rehashes the industry's own mythical account of its stalled penetration of the U.S. energy market.

Does Lorenzini really believe that the runaway capital costs, design errors, deficient quality control, flawed project management, and regulatory fraud besetting nuclear power in the 1970s and 1980s were concocted by environmental ideologues? The cold hard fact is that the Atomic Energy Commission, reactor vendors, and utilities grossly underestimated the complexity, costs, and vulnerabilities of the first two generations of nuclear power reactors. Indeed, the United States has a comparatively safe nuclear power industry today precisely because "environmentalist" citizen interveners, aided by industry whistleblowers, fought to expose dangerous conditions and practices.

Lorenzini shows little appreciation of the fact that during the past decade, the regulatory process has been transformed in the direction he seeks: It now largely shuts out meaningful public challenges. But even with the dreaded environmentalists banished to the sidelines--and more than $65 billion in taxpayer subsidies--Wall Street shows no interest. It has rushed to finance new production lines for solar, wind, and fuel cells in recent years, but not nuclear. Why? Lorenzini never addresses this key question. He fails to acknowledge the prime barrier to construction of U.S. nuclear plants for the past three decades: their exorbitant capital cost relative to those of other energy sources.

Meanwhile, Lorenzini devotes only one paragraph to assessing weapons proliferation and terrorism risks, conceding in passing that "reprocessing generates legitimate concerns." But this concern is immediately overridden by his assertion that a key to solving the nuclear waste isolation problem is to "reconsider the reprocessing of spent fuel." This is disastrous advice. There is no rational economic purpose to be served by separating quantities of plutonium now, when a low-enriched uranium fuel cycle can be employed for at least the next century at a fraction of the cost--and security risk--of a "closed" plutonium cycle.

The best way to determine whether nuclear power can put a dent in global warming is to foster competition with other energy sources on a playing field that has been leveled by requiring all producers to internalize their full environmental costs. For the fossil-fueled generators, that means a carbon cap, carbon capture, and emissions standards that fully protect the environment and public health. For the nuclear industry, it means internalizing and amortizing the full costs of nuclear waste storage, disposal, security, and decommissioning, while benefiting from tradeable carbon credits arising from the deployment of new nuclear plants. For coal- and uranium-mining companies, it means ending destructive mining practices. For renewable energy sources, it means new federal and state policies for grid access allowing unfettered markets for distributed generation.

Reasonable people ought to be able to agree on at least two points. The first is that the problem of long-term underground isolation of nuclear wastes is not an insuperable technical task. It remains in the public interest to identify an appropriate site than can meet protective public health standards.

The second point is that new nuclear plants should be afforded the opportunity to compete in the marketplace under a tightening carbon cap. Whether a particular technology also should enjoy a subsidy depends on whether that subsidy serves to permanently transform a market by significantly expanding the pool of initial purchasers, driving down unit costs and enabling the technology to compete on its own, or merely perpetuates what would likely remain unprofitable once the subsidy ends.

The nuclear power industry has already enjoyed a long and very expensive sojourn at the public trough. No one has convincingly demonstrated how further subsidizing nuclear power would lead to its market transformation.

Without resolution of its waste disposal, nuclear weapons proliferation, capital cost, and security problems, such a market transformation for nuclear power is highly unlikely, with or without the megasubsidies it is now seeking. It's not impossible, but certainly unlikely on a scale that would appreciably abate the accumulation of global warming pollution. That would require a massive mobilization of new investment capital for nuclear power on a scale that seems improbable, even in countries such as Russia, China, and India, where nuclear state socialism is alive and well.

During the next decade, increased public investment in renewable energy sources and efficiency technologies makes more sense and would have a higher near-term payoff for cutting emissions.

THOMAS COCHRAN

CHRISTOPHER PAINE

Natural Resources Defense Council

Washington, D.C.

www.nrdc.org

"A Second Look at Nuclear Power" provides an example of why the debate over nuclear power is unlikely to be resolved in the context of U.S. policy any time soon. As someone who agrees with Lorenzini's cost/benefit arguments for greater replacement of hydrocarbon-based energy sources with forms of nuclear power generation, I find parts of his article convincing.

At the same time, the article shows symptoms of the "talk past" rather than "talk with" problem, caused by the overly crude division of the nuclear power conversation into two warring camps (science versus environmentalists) that afflicts energy policy. Using technological determinist arguments to paint nuclear energy opponents as hysterical Luddites is tired and ill-thought out from the standpoint of helping promote nuclear power strategies. It is equivalent to labeling pro-nuclear arguments as being simply the product of lobbyist boosterism and "Atomic Energy for Your Business" techno-lust. In any case, it ignores the current opportunity for progress (which Lorenzini notes), given that several major environmental figures have announced willingness to discuss nuclear options.

Put plainly, the nuclear power industry has earned a tremendous deficit of public trust and confidence. This is not the fault of mischaracterization of waste or an ignorant desire to return to a mythical nontechnological Eden. Previous incarnations of commercial nuclear power technologies largely overpromised and failed to deliver. Missteps were made in ensuring that the public perceptions of regulatory independence and vigilance would be fostered and that operators could be trusted to behave honorably. There are unfortunate, but rational, reasons to doubt industry commitment to full disclosure of hazards, as well as process fairness in siting past generations of reactors and waste facilities. The industry has also displayed overconfidence in engineering ability and a desire to hide behind the skirts of government secrecy and subsidies.

Until friends of nuclear power decide to enter into vibrant, open debate with those who disagree, I fear this problem of public policy will continue to be diagnosed as a struggle over rationality versus unreason. Are there groups who attempt to exploit emotions to promote their own interests instead of "the facts?" Of course: In the past, both the industry and its opposition have fallen short of the pure pursuit of truth. Lorenzini raises a number of excellent points as to why nuclear power must be part of future energy choices. However, progress depends on its supporters dealing with the real question: For many in our democracy, it does not matter what advantages we claim for nuclear power if they do not trust the messenger; after all, no one cares what diseases the snake-oil medicine salesman promises to cure.

ANDREW KOEHLER

Technical Staff Member

Los Alamos National Laboratory

Los Alamos, New Mexico

akoehler@lanl.gov

The length to which Paul Lorenzini goes to selectively use data to support his position in "A Second Look at Nuclear Power" is astonishing. Some real numbers on renewables are called for. It is true that the total contribution from renewables has not increased significantly in the United States during the past 30 years, but that is because of the size and stability of the fraction due to wood and hydropower. It is also true that the International Energy Agency has predicted slow growth of wind, solar, and biofuels, but they have also been predicting stable oil and gas prices for the past 7 years while these have been increasing at an average rate of 28 percent annually.

Biodiesel use in the United States has been doubling every five quarters for the past 2 years, and that growth rate is projected to continue for at least the next 3 years. Wind energy has been growing at roughly 30 percent annually for the past 5 years, both in the United States and globally, and those growth rates are expected to continue for at least the next decade. Solar has seen annual global growth of about 30 percent for the past decade, and General Electric is betting hundreds of millions of dollars that that growth rate will continue or increase over the coming decade. The cost of the enzyme cellulase, needed to produce cellulosic ethanol, has decreased by more than an order of magnitude in the past 3 years. The energy balance for corn ethanol currently exceeds 1.7, and that for cellulosic ethanol from waste woody materials may soon exceed 10. Brazil is producing more than 5 billion gallons of ethanol annually at a cost of about $0.6 per gallon, and the annual growth rate of ethanol production there is projected to remain above 20 percent for at least the next 5 years.

On the subject of nuclear power, only a small minority of scientists would take issue with Lorenzini on the subjects of regulation and waste storage, but spent fuel reprocessing and breeder reactors are not nearly as straightforward as he implies. In fact, despite four decades of worldwide efforts, the viability of the breeder reactor cycle has not yet been demonstrated; and without it, nuclear energy is but a flash in the pan. The International Atomic Energy Agency concludes that the total global uranium reserves (5 million tons) of usable quality are sufficient to sustain nuclear power plants, with a 2 percent annual growth rate, only through 2040. Others have recently concluded that even with near-zero growth, the high-grade ores (those greater than 0.15 percent uranium) will be depleted within 25 years. Moreover, 15 years after the high-grade ores are depleted, we'll be into the low-grade ores (below 0.02 percent uranium), which may have negative energy balance and result in more carbon dioxide emissions (during ore refining, processing, disposal, etc.) than would be produced by gas-fired power plants. The price of natural uranium has tripled during the past 4 years, and it seems likely that its price will triple again in the next 6 to 10 years, as the finitude of this resource becomes more widely appreciated by those controlling the mines.

F. DAVID DOTY

President

Doty Scientific

Columbia, South Carolina

david@dotynmr.com
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Title Annotation:FORUM
Author:Cochran, Thomas; Paine, Christopher; Koehler, Andrew; Doty, F. David
Publication:Issues in Science and Technology
Date:Jun 22, 2005
Words:1751
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