How Green Are Your Nukes?

Environmentalists spar over nuclear power


Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, by Stewart Brand, Viking, 325 pages, $25.95

Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis, by Al Gore, Rodale, 416 pages, $26.99  

Environmentalists fiercely disagree about the role nuclear power might play in addressing global warming. Two new books by big names in the green movement stake out the boundaries of that debate. On the pro-nuclear side stands Stewart Brand with Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. In the other corner you'll find Al Gore with Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis.

Both men have impeccable environmentalist credentials. A self-described Green, Brand edited the landmark hippie handbook, the Whole Earth Catalog, back in 1968. Gore, who served as vice president under Bill Clinton, wrote in his 1992 book Earth in the Balance that we "must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization."

Once an opponent of nuclear power, Brand is now a big backer. Where others argue that reactor generation of power is an unsafe, expensive process that produces hazardous waste and could contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, Brand writes, "I've learned to disbelieve much of what I've been told by my fellow environmentalists." On safety, he notes, "year after year, the industry has had no significant accidents" in the operation of 443 civilian nuclear plants around the world. "Radiation from nuclear energy has not killed a single American," he says. Even in the deadly Chernobyl explosion in 1986, dire predictions that hundreds of thousands would die of radiation-induced cancers turned out to be wildly exaggerated.

Weighing the safety tradeoffs between nuclear power and man-made global warming, Brand cites this observation from his fellow 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 handling the radioactive wastes produced by nuclear plants. He regards efforts to somehow isolate the wastes for thousands of years as not just prohibitively expensive but wrongheaded, arguing that we should instead figure out how to store the used fuel for a couple hundred years and leave future generations the choice of what to do with the stuff. "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," he writes. "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." Brand's confidence in human ingenuity and future technological progress is anathema to the more ideological wing of the environmental movement.

And 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 for weapons, he suggests developing an international fuel bank from which nations would basically rent their fuel, then eventually return it for reprocessing. President Barack Obama endorsed such a proposal in an April 2009 speech in Prague.

While the drawbacks to nuclear power are overstated, Brand argues, the benefits are considerable. He lists four main advantages: base load, footprint, portfolio, and government scale.

Base load power is the minimum amount of consistent energy that utilities must supply to their customers—an important consideration in an increasingly urbanizing world. Brand dismisses solar and wind as base load power sources because of their intermittency; the sun doesn't always shine, and the wind doesn't always blow. So he sees only three viable sources for base load power: fossil fuels, hydroelectric plants, and nukes.

As for footprint, nuclear power is compact, whereas renewables occupy a lot of land. Brand quotes nuclear 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."

By "portfolio," Brand means that the problem of 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. By "government scale," Brand means that 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 costs? Brand breezily waves them aside. "We Greens are not economists," he writes. "We don't really care about money. Our agenda is to protect the natural environment, not taxpayers or ratepayers."

On the other side of the debate we have Al Gore, who criticizes "the grossly unacceptable economics of the present generation of reactors." He opens his chapter on the nuclear option by calling it a "radioactive white elephant"—that is, an object that costs more to maintain than it's worth. This turns out to be one of two chief arguments Gore makes against nukes. The second is the risk that nuclear fuel might be diverted to produce atomic weapons. Like Brand, Gore 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 2000. That didn't happen. Only 104 plants currently operate, generating about 20 percent of the nation's electricity. The cost of building one increased from $400 million in the 1970s to $4 billion by the 1990s, while building times have 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 just one company in Japan.

But somehow Gore's cost consciousness gets lost when he considers his pet solutions, such as solar power. Elsewhere in the book, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate does a lot of hand waving about future photovoltaic cell breakthroughs and declining cost curves. Even though he decries lavish subsidies to nuclear power, he hails "the recent establishment by the U.S. government of new incentives for solar electricity," along with state government requirements that utilities obtain a certain 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, a 25-megawatt, $150 million facility. Scaling that plant up to generate the amount of power produced by a 1,000-megawatt nuclear plant would cost $18 billion. According to the Electric Power Research Institute, the independent R&D think tank for the electric power industry, 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 say the same thing about nuclear energy.

Gore's other argument against nuclear power—the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation—acknowledges that 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, he fears that unsavory governments would covertly divert nuclear fuel to enrichment facilities where it could be turned into weapons. Gore believes that the international nuclear fuel bank idea is a nonstarter. (Brand notes that since 2006, 18 nations have signed up for something similar, the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership. GNEP also has been endorsed by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.)

The federal government is now offering utilities a host of new subsidies and guarantees 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 for the first 6,000 megawatts of new nuclear generation capacity, $2 billion to cover the costs of any regulatory delays, federal loan guarantees up to 80 percent of the project cost for advanced reactors, and a 20-year extension of the law that limits the liability of the nuclear industry—that's the entire industry, with every company sharing a single fixed pool—to $10 billion. In 2008 the Department of Energy invited bids for up to $18.5 billion in nuclear construction loan guarantees. The department 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, that may say something about nuclear power's economic viability.

In light of such policies, the liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias recently, and properly, accused many American conservatives of favoring "nuclear socialism." Brand clearly falls into that camp as well. Gore, meanwhile, can fairly be accused of solar socialism.

If those were the only options we had, Brand would win the debate. If man-made climate change is a big problem, it doesn't make sense to rule out in advance energy technologies that could contribute to substantially reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But costs do matter. The best way to figure out which technologies are the most economical is to set a price on greenhouse gas emissions and let various energy sources compete against each other. No subsidies needed.

Ronald Bailey (rbailey@reason.com) is reason's science correspondent.