One of the classic rules of propaganda is that if you say something enough times, regardless of whether or not it is true some people will come to believe it. With that in mind let us look at the newest conventional wisdom that has been increasingly circulating the past few years; especially in the aftermath of the recent climate change conference in Bali; namely, that the need to curb carbon emissions in order to prevent global warming means the world must rely more on nuclear power.
Yes, nice, clean, safe, nuclear power, as an advertisement from the Nuclear Energy Institute or the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, or even the International Atomic Energy Agency might put it. And no, I’m not picking on them. Like a character out of a Cecil B. Demille movie they are is just three of uncounted thousands –hmmm, in an internet age we better make that millions– parroting this new orthodoxy.
But before we think that advances in technology have made nuclear power so safe that even Homer Simpson can run a nuclear power plant perhaps we should pause to consider the world of reality, and not the one where Montgomery Burn’s Springfield nuclear power plant supplies our energy needs.
Incidentally, the Springfield plant was inspired by the Trojan Nuclear Plant of Oregon. It operated only sixteen years before it was closed by its owner and closed twenty years before the end of its design lifetime. Although its steam generators were designed to last the life of the plant, it took only four years before trouble was first detected in the form of premature cracking of the steam tubes.
Consider a recent report, Nuclear Power in a Warming World put out by the Union of Concerned Scientists. There are lot of interesting things going on; most of which you would probably prefer not to know about. You might, for example, think that there has not been a serious nuclear power accident in the United States since the 1979 Three Mile Island incident and that there is nothing to worry about. But did you know that since 1979 there have been 35 instances in which individual reactors have shut down to restore safety standards and the owner has taken a year or more to address dozens or even hundreds of equipment impairments that had accumulated; the most recent being in 2002?
Or how about the fact that Congress is pressuring the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to cut its budget so that it spends fewer resources on overseeing safety. This is happening at the same time that the NRC is being pressured to extend the licenses of existing reactors and license new ones.
Given a record like this we don’t have to worry about the threat of a terrorist strike against a nuclear power plant. Given the lack of a strong institutional safety culture in the industry it is almost inevitable that eventually there is going to be a serious accident that is going to make Three Mile Island look like a picnic.
But for the pièce de résistance consider this:
Today 104 reactors produce some 20 percent of U.S. electricity. If demand for electricity in 2050 is roughly that of today—because energy conservation offsets increases in demand—another 100 reactors would be required to produce an additional 20 percent of U.S. electricity in 2050. Because electricity production contributes roughly a third of U.S. global warming emissions today, those additional 100 reactors would reduce emissions by 6–7 percent relative to today. Recall that to avoid dangerous climate change, the United States and other industrialized nations will need to reduce emissions at least 80 percent by mid-century, compared with 2000 levels (which are comparable to today’s levels). Thus an additional 100 reactors would contribute roughly 8 percent of the total required U.S. reduction (6–7 percent of the required 80 percent), under the assumption that efficiency and conservation measures could offset any growth in electricity demand. (Without additional conservation and efficiency measures, U.S. electricity consumption is projected to almost double by 2050.)
In other words, extrapolating current trends in terms of lack of safety oversight, we more than double our risk in relying on nuclear power for a payoff that will do nothing to stop, let alone reverse climate change.
Hmm, maybe Homer Simpson is making energy policy as well as helping to run Monty Burn’s power plant. Doh!