Wednesday, June 22, 2005

At long last, it's 'nuclear option' time

Commentary by David Reinhard


David Reinhard

"There is now a great deal of scientific evidence showing nuclear power to be an environmentally sound and safe choice. A doubling of nuclear energy production would make it possible to significantly reduce total [greenhouse gas] emissions nationwide. In order to create a better environmental and energy-secure future, the [United States] must once again renew its leadership in this area."

OK, guess which nuclear-energy champion made the statement above. Vice President Dick Cheney or a uranium cufflinked lobbyist for the nuclear industry?

OK, guess again. The pro-nukes manifesto came from Greenpeace founder Patrick Moore. The head of Greenspirit Strategies testified before Congress this past April, and he's not the only big-foot environmentalist who's rethinking nuclear power.

The energy bill now before the Senate offers a chance for further reconsideration -- and action. It includes provisions that should advance nuclear power in the next decades: a new test reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory, an extension of industry-funded liability protection for nuclear facilities and incentives to jump-start construction of some advanced-design reactors.

The nuclear industry can point to several advances since the last nuclear power plant came on line or the Three Mile Island fiasco decades ago. Existing plants are more efficient and cost-effective, and designs for the next generation of reactors should make them better and safer still. Never mind the justifiable federal loan guarantees in the Senate bill. Standardized construction plans and a streamlined licensing process should help make nuclear power a more attractive investment.

But what's behind the welcome rethinking by some greenies? Why are they more open to going nuclear? Answer: their concern about greenhouse gases and global warming.

Quite simply, nuclear energy produces none of the sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide that are spewed into the atmosphere when fossil fuels are burned. It's greenhouse gas-free. Washington state's nuclear power plant, for example, kept 8,000 tons of sulfur dioxide emissions, 13,500 tons of nitrogen oxide emissions and 7.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions out of the sky in 2004. Forget global warming. Avoiding these greenhouse gases can help areas where car and industrial emissions degrade air quality.

Of course, renewable energy -- wind, solar, hydroelectric -- are emission-free sources, too. But they're not equal to the magnitude of the greenhouse gas problem. They aren't now; they aren't likely to be in the future. Wind and solar are a small part of U.S. energy production and have become smaller in recent years. Hydro power now often runs afoul of efforts to protect native fish, as we know too well in the Northwest.

Hydrogen is today's hot fuel of the future, but you still have to produce it, and that takes lots of electricity. This becomes a greenhouse gas problem if producing the electricity to produce the hydrogen also produces carbon dioxide. It doesn't become a greenhouse gas problem if the vast amounts of electricity used in electrolysis come from . . . nuclear power. Solar and wind power won't suffice -- unless you want to litter whole states with windmills and solar panels to produce enough hydrogen for all our cars and trucks. The Idaho National Laboratory project in the Senate bill is for research, development and construction of an advanced nuclear co-generation reactor to produce electricity and hydrogen.

Plenty of prominent and garden-variety greenies still oppose nuclear energy, of course. The easing of environmental hostility to nuclear power shouldn't be overstated. When Britain's Hugh Montefiore, a longtime trustee of Friends of the Earth was ready to make a pro-nukes pronouncement ("I have now come to the conclusion that the solution [to global warming] is to make more use of nuclear energy"), his colleagues made him resign. Yet as fears about greenhouse gases and global warming grow -- and the practical problems of filling the world's energy needs with non-emission sources become ever more apparent -- today's nuclear environmentalists may come to be seen as prophets.

Even if they did sound a bit like Dick Cheney or a nuclear-industry lobbyist.

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