Tuesday, May 17, 2005
Topic of the Day: Nuclear Power
Today's Topic of the Day was inspired by today's John Tierney column. While Tierney and I may differ in many respects, we essentially agree on nuclear power.
Note: Today's Topic of the Day will be relatively short because I'm writing it in my car while jacking someone's hotspot and my battery is running low. Don't think I don't have much to say on this subject.
There are three main factors to consider when deciding on a power source: availability, reliability, and safety.
Sources like oil, coal, and natural gas have availability problems. While the total world supply may be enough to last for decades, why would one build a new power plant if it could only be active for a decade or two? You can't even turn a profit in that period of time without government subsidies (think: Bush's Energy Bill). I would also argue that hydro power has an availability problem: we just can't dam up every stream without causing significant environmental hazards.
Sources like wind and solar have reliability problems. This not only means that you get less wind power when it isn't windy and less solar power when its cloudy, it also means that it isn't a very efficient use of investment dollars (not a high ROI as the investors say).
Nuclear power obviously has the highest safety concerns. Undeniable. But compare Three Mile Island to Chernobyl in terms of the human and environmental impact. Even back during the Three Mile Island incident, the control over the problem was fairly decent compared to Chernobyl because we had lots of safety mechanisms build into the plant (the most important being the huge concrete walls around the reactor). I think that given the 30+ years since a nuclear plant has gone from design to build, we can greatly improve the safety of these plants.
As far as a nuclear plant's availability and safety: there's enough Uranium in the earth's crust to power the entire planet for decades if not more, many orders of magnitude more than oil, coal, and natural gas. Furthermore nuclear power is extremely high-output, so its ROI is fairly nice.
Now some prominent environmentalists are having second thoughts, as Felicity Barringer reported in Sunday's Times. Given the threat of global warming, they say, encouraging new nuclear power plants may be necessary. And Congress is about to take up proposals to reinvigorate the industry.In conclusion, I agree with Tierney that nuclear power is a mixed blessing, but we ain't gonna get very far in the status quo. If we're going to expand our power system in this country, nuclear power has the least environmental impact and greatest performance for the buck.