How Green Are Your Nukes?

Environmentalists Stewart Brand and Al Gore debate nuclear power in two new books.


The role that nuclear power might play in addressing the problem of man-made global warming is fiercely disputed among environmentalists. Two new books by big names in the movement stake out the boundaries of that debate. On the pro-nuclear side stands Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, by Stewart Brand. And parked in the (more or less) anti-nuclear corner is Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis, by Al Gore. A self-described "green," Stewart Brand founded and edited the counterculture Whole Earth Catalog back in 1968. In his first book, Earth in the Balance (1992), then-Sen. Al Gore argued, "We must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization."

Stewart Brand

Once an opponent of nuclear power, Stewart Brand is now a big backer. With regard to the safety, cost, waste handling, and weapons potential of nuclear power, Brand writes, "I've learned to disbelieve much of what I've been told by my fellow environmentalists." On safety, Brand notes, "year after year, the industry has had no significant accidents" in the operation of the world's 443 civilian nuclear plants. "Radiation from nuclear energy has not killed a single American," asserts Brand. He does look at the after-effects of the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant which released a lot of radiation over swathes of northern Europe. He finds that the dire predictions that hundreds of thousands would die of radiation induced cancers turned out to be false. Weighing the safety tradeoffs between nuclear power and man-made global warming, Brand cites this observation from environmentalist Bill McKibben: "Nuclear power is a potential safety threat, if something goes wrong. Coal-fired power is guaranteed destruction, filling the atmosphere with planet-heating carbon when it operates the way it's supposed to."

Brand is also fairly sanguine about how to handle the radioactive wastes produced by nuclear power plants. He regards efforts to somehow isolate nuclear wastes for thousands of years as not just absurdly costly, but also wrongheaded, arguing instead that we should figure out how to store it for a couple of hundred years and leave to future generations the choice of what to do with the used fuel. "If we and our technology prosper, humanity by then will be unimaginably capable compared to now, with far more interesting things to worry about than some easily detected and treated stray radioactivity somewhere in the landscape," writes Brand. "If we crash back to the stone age, odd doses of radioactivity will be the least of our problems. Extrapolate to two thousand years, ten thousand years. The problem doesn't get worse over time, it vanishes over time."

But what about the problem of nuclear weapons proliferation? Brand points out that Israel, India, South Africa, and North Korea secretly developed their bombs using research reactors, not power reactors. To reduce the chance of fuel being diverted to produce weapons, he suggests developing an international fuel bank from which nations would basically rent their fuel and to which it would be returned for reprocessing once it was exhausted. President Barack Obama endorsed such a proposal in a speech in Prague in April 2009.

Brand bases his support for nuclear power on four considerations: baseload, footprint, portfolio, and government-scale. Brand enthusiastically hails the fact that in the 21st century most of humanity will dwell in cities and cities need a steady supply of lots of electricity. Baseload power is the minimum amount of consistent power that utilities must supply to their customers. Brand points out that there are currently only three sources for baseload power: fossil fuels, hydro, and nuclear. Brand dismisses solar and wind as baseload power sources because of their intermittency—the sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow.

Footprint? Nuclear power is compact and renewables occupy a lot of land. Brand quotes nuke booster Gwyneth Craven who notes, "A nuclear power plant producing 1,000 megawatts takes up a third of a square mile. A wind farm would have to cover over 200 square miles to obtain the same result, and a solar array over 50 square miles." Craven, a former opponent of the Shoreham nuclear power plant on Long Island, describes her change of mind in her book, The Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy (2007).

By "portfolio" Brand means that the problem of man-made global warming may be so bad, that humanity must simultaneously pursue all types of projects to cut its greenhouse gas emissions. Ruling nuclear out of that portfolio makes the task of reducing emissions that much harder to achieve. What Brand means by "government-scale" is that he thinks big energy infrastructure requires big government funding and regulatory intervention. Given the array of subsidies currently on offer, the Feds apparently agree.

But what about the costs? Brand breezily waves them aside. "We Greens are not economists," writes Brand. "We don't really care about money. Our agenda is to protect the natural environment, not taxpayers or ratepayers."

Al Gore

In the anti-nuke corner we have Al Gore, who pointedly cites "the grossly unacceptable economics of the present generation of reactors." He begins his chapter on the nuclear option: "In the world's debate over how to produce electricity without generating massive quantities of greenhouse gas pollution, there is a radioactive white elephant in the middle of the room: nuclear power." A white elephant is generally an object that costs more to maintain than it is worth. And it turns out that nuclear energy's excessive cost is one of two the chief arguments that Gore deploys against it. The second is the risk that nuclear fuel might be diverted to produce nuclear weapons. Gore quite rightly acknowledges that nuclear power is safe and that the issue of how to store nuclear waste could be solved.

Gore notes that in the 1960s, the old Atomic Energy Commission predicted that the United States would have 1,000 nuclear power plants operating by the year 2000. That didn't happen. Instead only 104 plants are currently operating and they generate about 20 percent of the nation's electricity. Construction costs for building a nuclear power plant have increased from $400 million in the 1970s to $4 billion by the 1990s and building times doubled. Gore highlights bottlenecks that could choke any nuclear renaissance, including the fact that critical components such as containment facilities to house reactors are currently being produced by only one Japanese company.

Somehow Gore's cost consciousness gets lost when he considers solar power, however. In his solar power chapter, Gore does a lot of hand-waving about future photovoltaic cell breakthroughs and declining cost curves. Gore also decries lavish subsidies to nuclear power, but approvingly cites "the recent establishment by the U.S. government of new incentives for solar electricity," and state government requirements that utilities obtain a percentage of their power from high-cost renewable sources. As an example of the future of photovoltaic power, Gore points to a new solar plant opened by Florida Power and Light. President Obama dedicated the new 25-megawatt $150 million facility in October. Scaling that plant up to generate the amount of power equal to that a 1,000 megawatt nuclear plant would produce would now cost $18 billion. According the Electric Power Research Institute, constructing a comparable nuclear plant would cost $4 billion.

Gore declares, "Once the world chooses to set ambitious goals for scaling up solar electricity development and commits to the investments necessary to further improve the technologies involved, there is no question that solar energy will provide a major percentage of the world's electricity." Brand would certainly argue that exactly the same thing can be said of nuclear energy. 

Gore's second big issue with nuclear power is the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation. Reactor-grade fissionable material cannot be used to make bombs; it must be further enriched. If the world went on a nuclear power plant building binge, Gore and others fear that some unsavory governments would covertly divert nuclear fuel to enrichment facilities where it could be turned into nuclear weapons. Gore believes that the international nuclear fuel bank idea is a non-starter. However, Brand notes that since 2006, 18 nations have signed up for something similar, the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership. GNEP has also been endorsed by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The federal government is now offering a host of new subsidies and guarantees to utilities to build new nuclear power plants. For example, the Energy Policy Act of 2005, supported by the majority of Republicans in Congress and signed by President George W. Bush, authorizes a production tax credit of 2.1 cents per kilowatt hour from the first 6,000 megawatts of new nuclear generation capacity; $2 billion to cover the costs of any regulatory delays; federal loan guarantees for advanced reactors up to 80 percent of the project cost; and a 20 year extension of law that limits the nuclear industry liability to $10 billion dollars. In 2008, the Department of Energy (DOE) invited applications for up $18.5 billion in nuclear construction loan guarantees. The DOE was flooded with applications seeking a total of $122 billion in loan guarantees. If the private sector is unwilling to put money into nuclear projects without an extensive federal safety net, perhaps nuclear is not the way to go?

Recently Center for American Progress blogger Matt Yglesias properly accused generally pro-nuclear power American conservatives of favoring "nuclear socialism." For example, Senate Republicans proposed legislation earlier this year aimed at building 100 nuclear power plants over the next two decades. It's pretty clear that Brand falls into that camp. On the other hand, Gore can fairly be accused of solar socialism.In this debate among environmentalists, ecopragmatist Brand wins. If man-made climate change is a big problem, then it doesn't make sense to rule out in advance energy technologies that could contribute to substantially reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, costs matter. The best way to figure out which technologies are cheapest is to set a price on greenhouse gas emissions and let various energy sources compete among themselves. No subsidies needed.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is available from Prometheus Books.

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  1. “the problem of man-made global warming”

    [citation needed]

  2. Gore is blinded by his own prejudices, preconceptions and hubris.

    I do not consider him credible on the subject of dealing with anthropogenic climate change.

    1. You’re just jealous if his Peace Prize

    2. As though libertarians do not often succumb to the same shortcomings.

      1. Jealousy? NEVER

        1. Envy? um…MAYBE 😀

    3. …not to mention stupidity. Gore is not credible on any science subject.

  3. Nuclear power is the most expensive energy option in terms of overall cost, including the environmental costs.

    Except for all of the other options, of course.

    1. Can you prove that proposition?

    2. Most expensive compared to subsidizing the oil industry with trillion dollar wars?

      1. sigh, the oil industry is hurt by wars, just like everyone else. If we wanted cheap oil, we would have traded Saddam for it, just like Germany and France did.

        1. I meant “traded with Saddam”

          1. Perhaps I could have stated that better. Fact is, if the middle east had no oil or if we didn’t need so much oil we wouldn’t have cared what Saddam did and we would have never spent all that blood and treasure over there. We were protecting our access to oil from Saddam. If we had spent that same money on going nuclear starting 30 or 40 years ago would we have had to worry about Saddam? Do we really think that 20 or 30 years from now things are going to be any better in that region? Just asking the questions man.

            1. Just because some inept policy makers think that the way to protect the supply of oil is to stumble around in a foreign region like a bull in a china shop doesn’t make it so.

              Oil is more expensive because of such idiotic behavior. US foreign policy isn’t a subsidy on the oil trade: it is a liability.

              1. Well that’s great Mike, when your president you can fix all that. The fact is I don’t think our policy makers are becoming less inept? Which means more of the same, which means more money being spent trying to “control” those oil producing regions. I never said the policy was a good idea.

            2. It was greeniacs who led the charge against nuclear power.

              It was in the 1970’s that reprocessing nuclear fuel in America was banned.

              1. What makes you so sure that the charge was not led by coal interests who were concerned about losing market share in the electrical power generation business? What about all of the market share lost by oil – which supplied 17% of the US electricity market in 1978 and now supplies less than 2%? How do you think natural gas suppliers feel when a new nuclear power plant displaces about 300 million cubic feet of gas demand each day?

                When the AEC predicted that there would be 1000 nuclear plants constructed in the US, the competitive fuel suppliers got going and worked really hard to stop that from happening.

                Just think what would have been the case had that prediction come true. If 104 plants supply 20% of the electricity in the US at an average production cost of just 1.8 cents per kilowatt hour, 1000 similarly sized plants would only have to run at about 50% CF to supply 100% of our current use.

                Of course, we could also have kept our manufacturing base instead of exporting it to China, India, Pakistan, Korea, Japan and Thailand.

  4. Nuclear power is the most expensive energy option in terms of overall cost, including the environmental costs.

    Except for all of the other options, of course.

  5. God damned muteated server squirrels.

    1. No, it’s MANBEARPIG!

      Half man, half bearpig!

      1. Are you sure it isn’t half manbear, half pig?

  6. How many nuclear reactors would it take for us to reach total energy dependence? We probably produce enough oil to keep the cars going.

    1. I think a good estimate is about 5 to 7 plants per state. However, most larger states could handle many more, and just sell that energy to smaller states. I think that might be an old estimate though, maybe newer tech could reduce that to two or three.

    2. We don’t produce enough oil to cover our transport needs by a long walk. We went through and shut down pretty much all the oil-fired power plants thirty years ago. What’s left in U.S. use is transportation, home heating oil, and manufacture of petrochemicals.

      Of course the Clinton Administration and northeastern Congressmen created a whole government program to discourage transition from home heating oil to other ways to heat fixed facilities (like U.S.-produced natural gas).

      If you wanted to put together a centralized-bureaucratic “energy independence” effort, you’d:

      1) Push a replacement of oil for heating with natural gas, with taxes on oil, subsidies on natural gas, and a gradually-enacted ban on oil burners.

      2) Actively discourage the use of natural gas for electricity (so we don’t just need to import natural gas). Wind and solar power generally need to be supported by natural gas for load-balancing purposes, so actively discourage wind and solar.

      3) Build lots and lots of nuclear plants in places with lots of coal and water. Take the steam/hot water after it’s generated electricity and feed it into into co-located Fischer-Tropsch process facilities, with the goal of converting the coal into petrochemicals (including methanol, diesel, and gasoline).

      If you build enough of those joint electricity/coal-to-liquids facilities (in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Michigan’s Bay Area, etc.), you can remove carbon emissions from our electricity production and oil from the list of things we import.

      You can even build them as fast reactors with on-site fuel reprocessing and largely wipe out the nuclear waste problem at the same time, since you consume all the actinides. (What’s left decays to less-than-original-uranium-ore radioactivity in less than two centuries, which greatly simplifies waste disposal. And the waste from existing nuclear plants and be put though the reprocessing and serve as fuel for the fast reactors).

      That all would be a big, heavy government intervention program, of course, and is even less likely to be done correctly as it is to be adopted as policy. But it’s what you would get as the rational government program designed to achieve the ends (energy independence and CO2 reductions) our current politicians are supposedly trying to implement.

      1. Besides the intervention part, I like your thinking. The only thing is that if you only build in places with ‘lots of coal and water’, you have pockets of energy dotted erratically across the country. We don’t have a good enough electrical infrastructure to send energy from these plants to everywhere.

  7. Where’s my fusion reactor? I could swear twenty years ago that they told me it was twenty years away.

    1. Did they specify Earth years? Maybe the fine print mentions something about Jupiter or one of the other gaseous planets?

    2. Hey now, we have several kinds of working fusion reactors. Inertial confinement and magnetic confinement get lots of government attention internationally (though not as much as solar/wind…). General Fusion, out of Canada, is a privately-funded company working on a sonic equivalent of inertial confinement fusion. The technology works, its just a matter of driving the costs down.

      1. Well, no. None of the technologies you cited produce even breakeven power (i.e. more power out than you have to put in to drive the reaction). Having said that, I can’t recall a time when there was more ferment in fusion research, with more crazy-ass but plausible ideas sprouting from more sources. It’s a shame that the tokamk/ITER folks are soaking up all the research dollars, but between the General Fusion guys (saving the world with steampunk fusion! Yippee!), various other magnetized target fusion projects, the inertial electrostatic fusion folks like EMC2’s polywell and the Los Alamos periodically oscillating plasma sphere project, the dense plasma focus fusion guys, the innumerable field-reversed configuration startups like Tri-Alpha, the other beam-induced inertial confinement projects, and even the various hybrid fusion/fission projects, I’m more sanguine about fusion than I’ve been for some time.

        If you look at the odds of any one specific approach succeeding, they’re fairly low. But there are so many of them now that the odds of at least one of them succeeding are starting to be pretty good. Plus, note that many of these approaches have the property that they are hard to develop but extremely easy to deploy. If somebody hits a home run, we could go from 0% fusion baseload to >50% baseload awfully quickly, for a fairly modest capital cost.

        1. EMC2 abandoned their patent application on the Polywell recently. So if there’s any notion of developing that as a commercial enterprise, it’s toast (or something else is going on, albeit I have no idea what it could be).

          1. Hadn’t heard this. I knew they got a non-final rejection in early summer, but that’s not uncommon. Could you point me at your source?

            Note that EMC2 got another round of money from the Navy to develop their WB-8 experiment, this following completing the WB-7 experiments (which are all publication-embargoed because of the Navy contract). Presumably, the results were interesting enough to warrant more funding. On the other hand, the new contract is in the single-digit millions, which is chump change for the ONR–wouldn’t be beyond the realm of possibility that the Navy is merely being (gasp!) wasteful…

    3. The US and Russian governments have thousands of them. Of course, there is this little problem that they release all of their energy in about 0.000001 second.

      1. It’s a small but significant flaw.

        1. Meh, leave it to the engineers..

      2. That’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

    4. Like others are saying, they exist but right now they require several orders of magnitude more energy input in order to contain the reaction than they output.

  8. They’re hiding it behind a big stack of flying cars.

    1. …That run on water.

  9. I’d also like to live in a domed city.

    1. Like Springfield in The Simpsons Movie?

      Or the cities in the movie Logan’s Run?

  10. Remember when they said we’d all be using Segways?

  11. I’d also like to live in a domed city.

    Well, you could move to Detroit. At least then you’d live in a doomed city.

    1. Hey! Give J sub D a break!

    2. Detroit, Rock City.

      1. Which I thought was in Chattanooga.

  12. I was talking about global warming and nukes with my lefty brother and sister-in-law. My point was that nukes provided bountiful CO2-less energy. They absolutely would not hear of it. Apparently aren’t looking for a way to implement a solution, they’re looking for a way to implement their solution.

    .. Hobbit

    1. I thought Krugman was the bearded Hobbit.

  13. I’m all for cutting the subsidies to nuclear plants and letting the chips fall where they may. Of course, should we do that, I assume we also cut the lavish subsidies to solar, wind, and other “renewables.” And then we can talk about the implicit subsidy of assigning zero cost to most of coal’s emissions – not just CO2, but everything.

    Of course, in all fairness, we can also apply the same regulatory hell to solar, wind, natural gas and coal that we do to nuclear. Let’s see how the economics stack up then when frivolous complaints can delay construction for years, whereupon plant owners are still paying interest on borrowed capital.

    Seriously, I cringe at the idea of loan guarantees for nuclear, but as both a nuclear engineer and a libertarian, complaining about loan guarantees as “nuclear socialism” erstwhile ignoring the very heavy-handed governmental policies which force things into such a situation (such as constraints by state ratepayers boards to allow rate adjustments prior to construction, offsetting the need for additional capital, and of course, the infamous licensing process where any number of crackpots can object ad nauseum and delay the process) is a bit myopic.

    Outside of coal (and again, with its implicit environmental cost subsidy), nuclear is one of the cheapest forms of electricity – once built. Get the government and the anti-nuclear obstructionists out of the way – both of which are responsible for a significant portion of the cost inflation of building plants – and issues like loan guarantees become moot. It’s not a question of economics once the power starts flowing; it’s a question of guaranteeing delays won’t bankrupt the reactor before it’s turned on.

    AGW skeptics notwithstanding, if you’re looking for a cost-effective way to lower CO2 emissions, nuclear is easily the best, most market-friendly option.

    PS: The “1000 nuclear plants” number doesn’t look so far off when one examines the cancelled nuclear projects in the U.S. – 63 of which were between 1975 and 1980 (thanks Jane Fonda!), we would be sitting on nearly 167 operating reactors right now, assuming no further construction beyond that.

    1. The uranium market is tightly controlled and historically has endured major price swings.

      1. Which means it’s a good thing that fuel costs are typically less than 10% of a reactor’s operating costs. (AREVA’s numbers: 17% total cost for fuel, 51% of which is raw uranium costs.)

        Compare to coal or natural gas, which have endured such price swings, and whereupon the feedstock contributes a substantially higher portion to the operating cost.

    2. how much of that $4 billion to construct a new plant is a result of regulation and red tape that Gore and his ilk passed?

    3. Indeed, anti-nuclear activists brag about how sucessful they have been in stopping nuclear by driving up costs through obstructionism.

      It’s a deliberate tactic of choice, not an accident.

      And guess who lobbied for the licensing process to be so easily o0bstructable in the first place? Doesn’t take a brain surgeon …

    4. To hell with global warming, I want nukes to provide cheap, ubiquitous energy to replace camel-fucker juice. Send those raggots back to the 7th century, where they belong.

      Restart reprocessing, live off of Russian pits, clean up Rocky Flats plutonium and burn it. 3-phase 480v power to every home garage and 220v trickle chargers in every parking garage.

  14. BTW, Ron: A more interesting dust-up involving Stewart Brand is going on with famous anti-nuke Amory Lovins: NEI’s nuclear notes blog has been chronicling the bad data the anti-nukes have been cherrypicking in favor of the, ah, “alternatives.”

    (Seriously, here. You want to talk energy socialism? Have a word with our friendly alternative energy promoters.)

  15. But what about the costs? Brand breezily waves them aside. “We Greens are not economists,” writes Brand. “We don’t really care about money. Our agenda is to protect the natural environment, not taxpayers or ratepayers.”

    Hard to take anyone seriously who talks like this, because they are guaranteed to have a huge blind spot about unintended consequences.

    1. Almost everybody seems to have that blind spot, libertarians included. Ideology warps the mind.

      1. Hey Pony,

        Your one fucking trick is up.

  16. “Correspondent Ronald Bailey notes that both are energy socialists, but declares Brand the winner.”

    Of course he is.

    There is no publishing equivalent of cutting off somebody’s mike.

    That’s the only way that Gore can “win” an argument.

    1. People still listen to Al Gores “arguments”?

      1. Al Gores? Not familiar with anyone by that name. Drawing a blank here. Is he that famous Norweigen cumla ball eating champion? If so, I don’t follow Scandinavian sports that closely.

  17. Nuclear power would allow us to continue to consume. The environmentalists don’t care about saving the environment, they care about dragging us back down to the stone ages when we were noble savages, so that we will be sorry for our decadent lifestyles and bow down and tell them they were right.

    1. Down to the stone age, or into extinction, just depends on which sect within the greater Green religion.

      We are carbon based life, CO and CO2 are natures redistribution system that allows life to flourish around the globe.

      Obviously the “CO2 is evil” sect takes standard environmentalist misanthropy and extends it to include all life forms, not just humans.

  18. Ron, a couple of points.

    I am currently reading Brand’s book, which actually aligns pretty closely to my personal thinking (somewhat of a technophile environmentalist). One point of his that you repeat, in the same somewhat misleading way he did, is that a gigawatt scale windfarm uses 200 square miles of land. This is how much space it is sprawled out over. It actually only uses a few percent of that. The typical rule of thumb is about 30 acres per generator, only half an acre of which will be the generator itself, plus another acre or so for access roads and power lines. The entire gigawatt scale wind farm would actually only use several thousand acres. Additionally, most of the places we have these large wind farms are on marginal lands anyway. Wind (and solar) have larger land footprints than nuclear, but not by as many orders of magnitude as Brand suggest.

    The other issue you and Brand seem to miss on is the rapidly falling price of solar. It ain’t just some pie-in-the-sky thinking anymore, and the data is too hot for either book to contain it. Solar prices are down enormously this year – some 30-50%. There is a great article here that you probably can’t access from the American Chemical Society’s trade journal.…..5bus1.html

    A few highlights:

    “It would have been a great site for concentrated solar thermal, but it’s a question of cost, benefit, and value to our investors and customer,” explains Jim Woodruff, NextLight’s vice president of government affairs. Photovoltaic solar has been widely criticized for being expensive, but Woodruff says the market for photovoltaics abruptly changed during the project’s planning phase in 2008?09 … NextLight’s $1.5 billion, 290-MW Arizona project may foreshadow the strong demand that awaits cheaper polysilicon solar panels

    Module producers in China with low costs and high capacities, including Suntech Power, Trina Solar, and Yingli Green Energy, will have an edge as prices drop, Reis says. “The Darwinian process is under way right now?higher cost regions may not have module facilities in the future,” he warns. Some vendors are already producing solar modules at a price below $2.00 per watt, Reis adds, down from $4.00 per watt in early 2008.

    Spot prices on crystalline silicon have fallen from $150 to $60 per kg, and are rapidly hurdling towards the ~$30 production costs estimated for the leading suppliers (as would be expected of any material as it becomes a large-scale commodity). Note that NextLight’s solar plant is $5.5 billion/gigawatt – not much more than a very very optimistic estimate of $4 billion you gave for a gigawatt of nuclear.

    I have no significant problem with nuclear per se, but it is not clear that it can beat out renewables on cost. Putting out a real carbon tax will more or less kill coal, and natural gas power will likely not expand because there are better uses for the natural gas, such as a replacement for diesel. The race is on between nuclear, wind and solar. Let’s embrace all three and let the market decide the winner.

    1. Does anyone know how much of the alleged decline in price for solar units is due to government incentives and subsidies?

      1. Solar subsidies have declined substantially in the last couple of years in most places, so the answer in the direct sense is zero. However, the decrease in subsidies along with the economic slowdown and lack of credit, has created a situation of oversupply, which is depressing prices. No one in the industry expects them to go back up.

        Industrial-scale solar receives the 1.8c/kwh subsidy at the federal level. Additional ones apply at state levesl. Coal, of course, receives a much larger subsidiy of 5-10c/kwh, which would price it out of the market the day it were lifted.

        1. Fair enough. I have no firsthand knowledge of current and existing subsidies, but I do seem to recall quite a large amount of talk about “green energy incentives” in that wretched legislation euphemistically labeled the “American reinvestment and recovery act”. I just assumed that since they had burned through almost a trillion dollars we don’t have, that solar subsidies were on the menu.

          1. The basics of what happened was that Germany and Spain had some very generous subsidies, the industry massively expanded to fill the demand (lowering their costs!), and now, with the economic collapse, the subsidies were reduced, depressing demand even more so than the economic collapse would have on its own. Supply is now much greater than demand, so prices are falling and margins thinning to almost nothing. The companies that survive will be in a good position, with much improved technology and a large installed infrastructure.

            Prices are rapidly pushing towards the magic “One dollar per watt” (a little more than half the lowest prices now) where solar will reach “grid parity” without subsidies in certain markets, such as peak power in California, Japan, or Europe. Once it has a foothold on the market, it can grow even faster and capture better economies of scale.

            The sad thing is, we are clearly falling behind in this technology. Even though we invented it, our very slow adoption of the first generation technologies has made it all but inevitable that it will be largely manufactured overseas.

            1. The sad thing is, we are clearly falling behind in this technology. Even though we invented it, our very slow adoption of the first generation technologies has made it all but inevitable that it will be largely manufactured overseas.

              That’s a bit unfair, there’s quite a bit of research being done in the US on solar tech, but the US is definitely losing out on the manufacturing end. I’d posit that that’s more an issue of the costs of doing business in the USA (tax, labor, regulation, environmental) rather than any technical superiority of non-American engineers and researchers.

              1. It is going to be hard enough to get any manufacturing here because we have to compete against the lax labor and environmental laws in China, etc. We surely are not going to have much manufacturing if the demand isn’t here, either.

                Even our R&D is being offshored at an ever more rapid pace. Big pharma is slashing American jobs left and right (while hiring in China), and the materials segment isn’t far behind.

    2. Got to give a +1 to Chad. That is one of the most optimistic while being realistic news I have heard in a long time.

      1. put ‘some’ in for ‘one’. Should not got this long without coffee.

    3. Show me a scheme for providing baseload with solar or wind and I’ll be a lot happier. Show me an electrical grid that can really transport significant power from sunny/windy areas to cloudy/calm areas and I’ll be even happier.

      I’ll concede your point that wind doesn’t have nearly the footprint that Brand is claiming, but you haven’t convinced me of the same for solar. It’s all well and good to assume that we’ll shingle our houses with PVs but again, where’s the grid that will support that? And where are you going to get the land for the high-density PV sources that are viable for (the currently undeveloped, unproven, with dubious economics even on the drawing board) baseload generation?

      I finally found a satisfying way to clarify this issue: Suppose, tomorrow, that we received ironclad proof that we were all going to die from global warming in 20 years unless we reduced carbon emissions by 50% in the next ten years. Given the state of the technology right now, of solar, wind, or nukes, in which one would you invest a few trillion dollars to be certain that we all get to live?

    4. It actually only uses a few percent of that
      Yeah but who is going to build anything in the few acres between? (about a 5×6 acre area per windmill). No one will. Do you want to build your house or open a store next to a giant generator x stories tall?

      1. Those wind farms are the (expletive)s I’ve ever seen.

        Ted Kennedy loved ’em, and crapped his pants over hearing they’d be anywhere near his home.

        The drive between Phoenix and LA is monotonous, having drove it so many times, but, the only part I dread is through the wind farms.

        Unlike towers for cell phone service, many of which are so cleverly camouflaged they blend right in, those windmills would be near impossible to do the same with.

        Besides, they make me feel dizzy.

    5. “technophile environmentalist”

      Seems a bit of a contradiction in terms. By “technophile” maybe you are implying you are a lover of Techno music? You can’t mean you love technology, that would imply you love technology in general. Maybe you meant to say you love environmentally orientated technology, or that you love to look for ways to apply technology within the environmentalist religion. But, to say you are “a technophile environmentalist” indicates you must be fighting an inner battle within yourself.

      Who will win? The lover of technology? Or the practitioner of the environmentalist religion?

      I have no such battle, I am a lover of science and have been for half a century. The hijacking of my love’s name to serve your religion is something I take personally.

      Leave the children alone, they’re too young to decide on their own, indoctrinating them into your cult is despicable. Keep your hands off our children, they aren’t your little Hitler Youth to manipulate as you please.

      And leave science out of it, call it quasi-science, or para-science, or some term to let people know that objectivity and scientific method were not involved and it won’t be so personal.

      Of course I realize you’re just a member of the congregation and not calling the shots. Nonetheless, there’s little chance your cult will allow either. So opposition from the concerned will continue.

      It certainly can’t be left up to you and yours. Doubtful any of you lost a wink of sleep over the deaths, riots, and starvation your little ethanol scam alone resulted in causing.

      The complete absence of remorse and inability to differentiate right from wrong are traits we more often associate with sociopaths than lovers in individuals responsible for causing serious injury and death.

      Yes, I understand you didn’t know your actions would do such serious harm. Well, there’s a great deal you don’t know, and you see no reason to let that get in the way.

      Never fails, every time someone tries mixing cult with science and politics a lot of innocent people end up tortured, murdered, oppressed and suffering.

      Resistance is not a choice, it’s an obligation.

  19. An interesting problem posed by ideas similar to the senate’s “100 reactors in 20” years is who is going to staff these reactors? I mean nuclear engineering requires a little more than liberal arts degree and with only 104 plants currently in operation, they would be talking about doubling the number of facilities. Where would all the staff come from?

    1. I’m sure Nidal Hasan knows a bunch of people that would be up for those jobs. I’m sorry. That wasn’t funny.

    2. We’ve got something like 20 million unemployed, don’t we? Get back to work, Proles!

    3. Easy. First, regular electrical engineers, specializing in power system can handle much of the work. Second, there are hordes of graduates with PhDs in physics who would probably be happy to retire from their shitty post-doc research positions and work as a senior nuclear scientist at a power plant instead. Hordes of people who are sick to death of studying string theory and attempting to find gravitons and would just like to retire to a nice cushy corporate job where all they have to look at are normal, boring neutons.

      1. Its still a little bit of a walk from understanding the theory to being qualified to run and manage a nuclear reactor.

      2. You know what will take care this problem?

        Supply, Demand.

        BTW, if the US Navy can do it, those nuclear subs and aircraft carriers that get ignored in the debate about safety concerns for some reason, surely the civilian population it recruits its members from can.

    4. Nuclear engineering is still somewhat common, even if there is almost no demand for actual nuclear engineering work. It is still useful in the regular electrical, chemical, and medical fields for example. So there are plenty of people out there who would be a start in fulfilling the demand. And it shouldn’t take a shitload of operators with engineering degrees to operate a plant if they are working under people who do have them.

    5. This is a significant problem. The people who have been running the current plants since TMI are getting old and are ready to retire (like me). It is NOT a good idea to think you can just take a EE or a ChemE(me) and convert them to be a nuclear operator/engineer overnight. There is a mindset and discipline that needs to be instilled and that takes time. The Navy used to be able to do it in a year, but there are many fewer subs and aircraft carriers now than 30 years ago. A lot of the problems with the current set of reactors occurred because they were designed by engineers who did not appreciate the technology. We should not repeat those mistakes.

  20. I mean nuclear engineering requires a little more than liberal arts degree and with only 104 plants currently in operation, they would be talking about doubling the number of facilities. Where would all the staff come from?

    Fool! From Womens Studies programs of course!

    1. The same place all the new doctors and hosptials are going to come from under a single payer system….MAGIC LAND.

      1. “MAGIC LAND.”

        You mean India?

        1. Have you SEEN what they worship over there?

          “MAGIC LAND” is truly apt.

          1. You mean like an invisible super being that control our fate like the one they believe in the U.S.? Yeah.

    2. Where did they come from the first time around? You train them? It takes a few years to build nuke sites- if you build them, they will come.

  21. Lets just fucking stop subsidizing, taxing, and imposing bullshit regulations on all energy. Nuclear and coal for electricity, natural gas for heating, and petroleum for transportation would come out on top. I am perfectly fine with these. Anthropogenic global climate change is bullshit.

  22. coal waste is pretty damn bad for the environment but you never hear about that.
    there is no such thing as nuclear waste. you can use transmutation to turn it back into fuel and you can also use the radioactive decay from “waste” to generate electricity in a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator and with thermophotovoltaic cells. but the environmentalist nuts won’t hear it, if they really believed in science it would damage support for many of their so called solutions.

  23. I’ll second what Chad said. It looks like, in a fair market fight, nuclear would play a small role, but I am not sure it would win out in the long run, primarily if you are talking large scale centralized power plants. Distributed power generation from a variety of sources paired with efficient design will be the likely winner.

    For nuclear to be in the mix there, you need something more like this…

  24. BTW, Environmentalists, more radiation is released by burning coal/oil in one year than has ever been released into the environment from nuclear plant accidents.

    I just pulled that out of my ass, but it’s ironic enough to be true.

  25. The USA generates very little electricity from burning oil. Nuclear baseline power will displace coal (today nuclear 20%, coal P of our generating capacity). Coal OTOH can be converted to natgas or synthetic oil whereas uranium cannot. So it makes sense to use more nuclear and divert coal to other uses or even leave it in the ground. Everything in life is dangerous and you just have to weigh the costs vs benefits.

  26. Chad: “Note that NextLight’s solar plant is $5.5 billion/gigawatt – not much more than a very very optimistic estimate of $4 billion you gave for a gigawatt of nuclear.

    You have to allow for the difference in capacity factor. This solar plant is supposed to produce 700 gigawatt-hours/year ? an average of 80 MW. So $1.5billion / 80MW = 18 $/W(average).

    By contrast, a 1 GW nuke should produce an average of 900 MW.

  27. Thorium … The use of a thorium based reactor a lot of issues. It can recycle much of the current “waste” as fuel and cannot be sidetracked into weapons.

  28. Mike Hulme1 – letter in nature. some good points methinks.

    1. School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, Norwich


    Sanjay Khanna’s survey of climate-campaign activities (Nature 461, 1058?1059; 2009) implies that the arts and advertising ought to be helping to bring into being a “worldwide consensus for action”. But the point is not to engineer a global consensus for action, as though the ‘action’ that is being sought is somehow self-evident, unambiguous and uncontested. Palpably, it is not.

    Instead, the urgency is to articulate the many types of action ? individual or collective, selfish or altruistic, conservative or radical ? that can be justified by the prospect of climate change, and to understand why, in a plural and contradictory world, these actions may differ. And then to accommodate them.

    To paraphrase one of the six messages that came out of the Copenhagen climate congress in March, it is not inaction that is inexcusable. What is inexcusable is to pretend that there is just one message, one voice, one number to be communicated, that there is just one action agenda that (the science of) climate change demands from us, and that the arts and advertising can deliver it.

  29. No surprise, those motivated by the green cause, such as Brand, occasionally examine facts. Those motivated by the desire to ram socialism down the free world’s throat on the end of a gun barrel, such as Gore, see factuality only as an obstacle.

    The little Alvin Goron and his Goronite Sect are to the Green religion what the Pope and the Vatican is to Catholicism. They preach that people are awful vile creatures who can only destroy the earth and end all life in the Universe unless we repent now and accept the God Goron as our savior.

    What ever happened to the responsible quasi religious cults? They used to just climax in suicidal orgies. Well, occasionally they’d dust a couple fellow liberals on the way out, but all in all for the most part they kept the mental illness and murder close to home.

    Seems nowadays we’re all expected to drink the Kool Aid and they refuse to take no for an answer.

    The more time that passes, the more groups like The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement start to seem sane. For the time being, at least, they’re displaying unbelievable tolerance and generosity towards the human race in offering extinction as a voluntary option.

    With so many seriously mentally ill individuals running around loose, I strongly recommend we build millions of new sanitariums, now, without further delay. They can serve as isles of refuge for sane people. We deserve some protection from the zombies.

  30. Brand also supports GM Crops and sees urbanization in the third world as a means to rise the boat of poverty… His talk is at the TED website. it’s pretty good.

  31. On the topic of energy; smaller is bigger. In every instance where the sources for whatever we need to live our lives are limited to monolithic entities, the price goes up, and quality goes down. Solar, wind, composte, and all of these lower wattages are unsexy by themselves, but imagine what power individuals will hold… when they are the ones who control the generation of their own power!

    The irony what what is being pushed out Al Gore, and others who seem to be of a statist bent, is that it might just lead to a libertarian future of literal power for the individual.

    ….. then again, I might just be enjoying a nice fantasy! 🙂

  32. The idea that solar (at ‘a dollar a watt’) and wind can beat nuclear is absurd. You still have to overbuild any faceplate capacity by 3 for wind and about 6 for solar, then add storage, which NONE of these costs quoted on this blog commentary have included.

    FPL…with huge subsidies from the government, is building a 150 million dollar 25 MW solar plant. Wanna work out the costs “per watt’ on this? That’s 6 cents a KW for the overnight costs. IF you add storage for 24 hour delivery…(you can scale this up to any size to cover any number of baseload wattage you need) you reduce the 25MWs to about 4MWs…and thus the cost is not $6,000 a KW anymore, it’s now about $30,000 a KW.

    S U R E it’s cheaper….


  33. ask a child to hammer in a nail, and he’ll have a hard time. Ask him to do a thousand times and he’ll get better at it. France was able to build 6 reactors a year. Is that slow?

  34. What about reactors that don’t use or produce weapons fuel? They do exist; they just haven’t been built commercially due to licensing issues.

  35. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on.

  36. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane.

  37. The idea that solar (at ‘a dollar a watt’) and wind can beat nuclear is absurd. You still have to overbuild any faceplate capacity by 3 for wind and about 6 for solar, then add storage, which NONE of these costs quoted on this blog commentary have included.

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