02 May 2006

Greenpeace Co-Founder Supports Nuclear Power

Mr. Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, explains why he thinks that environmentalists should support nuclear power:

His argument has two basic prongs. First, the main alternative, coal is really a problem.

More than 600 coal-fired electric plants in the United States produce 36 percent of U.S. emissions — or nearly 10 percent of global emissions — of CO2, the primary greenhouse gas responsible for climate change. Nuclear energy is the only large-scale, cost-effective energy source that can reduce these emissions while continuing to satisfy a growing demand for power. And these days it can do so safely. . . . [M]ore than 5,000 coal-mining deaths that occur worldwide every year. . . .The 600-plus coal-fired plants emit nearly 2 billion tons of CO2 annually — the equivalent of the exhaust from about 300 million automobiles. In addition, the Clean Air Council reports that coal plants are responsible for 64 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions, 26 percent of nitrous oxides and 33 percent of mercury emissions. These pollutants are eroding the health of our environment, producing acid rain, smog, respiratory illness and mercury contamination.

Next, many of the concerns connected with nuclear power are exaggerated:

Three Mile Island was in fact a success story: The concrete containment structure did just what it was designed to do — prevent radiation from escaping into the environment. And although the reactor itself was crippled, there was no injury or death among nuclear workers or nearby residents. Three Mile Island was the only serious accident in the history of nuclear energy generation in the United States, but it was enough to scare us away from further developing the technology: There hasn’t been a nuclear plant ordered up since then.

Today, there are 103 nuclear reactors quietly delivering just 20 percent of America’s electricity. Eighty percent of the people living within 10 miles of these plants approve of them (that’s not including the nuclear workers). . . .

It is in fact one of the least expensive energy sources. In 2004, the average cost of producing nuclear energy in the United States was less than two cents per kilowatt-hour, comparable with coal and hydroelectric. . . .

Although Three Mile Island was a success story, the accident at Chernobyl, 20 years ago this month, was not. But Chernobyl was an accident waiting to happen. This early model of Soviet reactor had no containment vessel, was an inherently bad design, and its operators literally blew it up. The multi-agency U.N. Chernobyl Forum reported last year that 56 deaths could be directly attributed to the accident, most of those from radiation or burns suffered while fighting the fire. . . No one has died of a radiation-related accident in the history of the U.S. civilian nuclear reactor program. (And although hundreds of uranium mine workers did die from radiation exposure underground in the early years of that industry, that problem was long ago corrected.) . . . .

Within 40 years, used fuel has less than one-thousandth of the radioactivity it had when it was removed from the reactor. And it is incorrect to call it waste, because 95 percent of the potential energy is still contained in the used fuel after the first cycle. Now that the United States has removed the ban on recycling used fuel, it will be possible to use that energy and to greatly reduce the amount of waste that needs treatment and disposal.

The bottom line is that coal pollutes far more than nuclear power and is far more dangerous to those involved in its production. Yes, we need to have good places to dispose of high level nuclear waste, and we don't right now. But, from this perspective it seems that opposition to Yucca Mountain has more to do with NIMBY politics than good science. While, the safety and health problems associated with coal are immense, expensive to address, and impossible to completely solve.


Kyle said...

Here here! I realize I'm constantly repeating this, but it deserves saying over and over - coal costs more than its price tag suggests! The health issues involved in mining it cost society a great deal of money, and many of those costs are passed to the rest of us outside the cost of coal.

I've always felt the "green" movement was against nuclear, and that this was a big hinderance. It's nice to see I was at least partly wrong.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Your phrasing offers a seemingly reasonable way of approaching the issue from a policy perspective. The law and economics approach to solving the apparent overuse of coal as a means of generating electricity, would be to impose liability on the coal industry (or upon power producers using coal) for the "externalities" it causes. To some extent this does happen for matters like worker deaths (through the worker's compensation system) and deaths from rail accidents involving coal trains (from tort liability for railroads that pass that cost onto people who ship via rail). But, it is not done to a meaningful extent in the area of air pollution.

Taxing air pollution emissions could help reduce those emissions with less regulartory hassel than our existing clean air act regulatory scheme in the long run, since it would impact decisions on long term costs for new plants. But, the flip side of that is that most power is generated by regulated utilities that are forbidden by law from making a profit above a statutory percentage of costs, or revenues or return on investment, as the case may be, on their core regulated power generation business. This is for the very reasonable reason that utilities are typically natural monopolies (i.e. economies of scale make a single provider much more efficient than competition, or at least, have done so historically), and consumers shouldn't have to pay monopoly profits on this service. But, as a result, they don't have a strong economic incentive to seek out cheaper power generation. Instead, they take the route of least resistance and pass it on to the customer. The political flack a utility takes from the NIMBY politics of building a nuclear power plant will often outweigh cost savings. Taxes that have a very low incidence of impact on a utility have little impact on behavior.

This works in reverse as well. My local utility, Xcel Energy, has a large investment in renewable power (mostly wind), because customers and political forces want it, not because it is or is not cost effective.

James Aach said...

In a recent opinion piece in the Wahsington Post, Dr. Moore mentioned other environmentalists looking at the nuclear issue, including Stewart Brand, the founder of The Whole Earth Catalog Mr. Brand has also endorsed a techno-thriller novel of nuclear power by a longtime industry insider (me). This story serves as a lay person's guide to the good and the bad of this power source. (There's plenty of both.) The book is available at no cost to readers at http://RadDecision.blogspot.com - and they seem to like it, judging from their comments on the homepage.