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CC: Nuclear Energy Can't Solve Global Warming

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    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 9, 2005
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      NHNE News List
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      By Mark Hertsgaard
      San Francisco Chronicle
      Sunday, August 7, 2005


      During a public lecture in San Francisco last month, Jared Diamond, the
      mega-selling author of "Guns, Germs and Steel,'' became the latest and most
      prominent environmental intellectual to endorse nuclear power as a necessary
      response to global warming.

      Addressing an overflow crowd at the Cowell Theater about why some societies
      fail and others don't (the theme of his most recent book, "Collapse''),
      Diamond three times cited global warming as a threat that could ruin modern
      civilization. During the question period, he was asked if he agreed with
      Stewart Brand, whose Long Now Foundation was sponsoring the lecture, that
      global warming posed such a grave threat that humanity had to embrace
      nuclear power.

      It was a delicate moment, because Brand, the former editor of the Whole
      Earth Catalogue, was on stage with Diamond.

      "I did not know that Stewart Brand said that," Diamond replied. "But yes, to
      deal with our energy problems we need everything available to us, including
      nuclear power." Nuclear, he added, should simply be "done carefully, like
      they do in France, where there have been no accidents."

      "I did not expect that answer," Brand said.

      Neither, it seemed, did much of the audience. Overwhelmingly white and
      affluent, they had nodded reverentially at everything Diamond said -- about
      the self-destructiveness of ancient civilizations that leveled forests
      (Easter Island) or eroded soils (the Mayans) in pursuit of short-term gain,
      about the need for America to rethink its "core value" of consumerism if it
      hopes to survive. They had applauded when Diamond mocked President Bush's
      see-no-evil approach to environmental protection. Yet here was Diamond
      urging an expansion of nuclear power, a technology most environmentalists
      regard as irredeemably evil.

      "Deal with it," crowed Brand as the crowd sat in stunned silence. It was
      smug but useful advice, for this debate is bound to intensify. The Bush
      administration and much of Congress are pushing hard to revive the nuclear
      industry, which provides 20 percent of America's electricity but has not had
      a new reactor order since 1974.

      In June, Bush became the first president in 26 years to visit a nuclear
      power plant, the Calvert Cliffs facility near Washington, D.C., where he
      endorsed nuclear as an "environmentally friendly" energy source. His
      administration's 2006 budget increased nuclear power funding by 5 percent,
      even as it cut overall energy funding.

      Congress followed suit in its recent energy bill. Besides giving the nuclear
      industry $7 billion in research-and-development subsidies and $7.3 billion
      in tax breaks, the bill contains unlimited taxpayer-backed loan guarantees
      and insurance protection for new reactors.

      Diamond may not agree with Bush about much, but their shared support for
      nuclear power hints at the other factor that will drive the future debate.
      As the United States experiences more killer heat waves and out-of season
      hurricanes like this summer's, more Americans will recognize what the rest
      of the world has long accepted: Global warming is here, it will get worse,
      and the costs will be enormous. As we cast about for alternatives to the
      carbon- based fuels that are cooking our planet, nuclear power seems to be
      an obvious answer.

      As Vice President Dick Cheney observed in 2001 when defending the
      administration's energy plan, which urged constructing hundreds of new
      nuclear plants, fission produces no greenhouse gases.

      But the truth is that nuclear power is a weakling in combatting global
      warming. Investing in a nuclear revival would make our global warming
      predicament worse, not better. The reasons have little to do with nuclear
      safety, which may be why environmentalists tend to overlook them.

      Environmentalists center their critique on safety concerns: Nuclear reactors
      can suffer meltdowns from malfunctions or terrorist attacks; radioactivity
      is released in all phases of the nuclear production cycle from uranium
      mining through fission; the problem of waste disposal still hasn't been
      solved; civilian nuclear programs can spur weapons proliferation. But absent
      a Chernobyl-scale disaster, such arguments may not prove to be decisive.

      In an atmosphere of desperation over how to keep our TVs, computers and
      refrigerators humming in a globally warmed world, economic considerations
      will dominate. This is especially so when dissident greens like Diamond and
      Brand say nuclear safety is a solvable problem. Diamond is correct that
      France has generated most of its electricity from nuclear power for decades
      without a major mishap.

      Dissident greens concede there are risks to nuclear power. But those risks,
      they say, are less than the alternatives. Coal, the world's major
      electricity source, kills thousands of people a year right now through air
      pollution and mining accidents. Coal is also the main driver of climate
      change, which is on track to kill millions of people in the 21st century --
      not in the sudden bang of radioactive explosions but the gradual whimper of
      environmental collapse as soaring temperatures and rising seas submerge
      cities, parch farmlands, crash ecosystems and spread disease and chaos

      Fear of such an apocalypse led the British scientist James Loveluck to
      become the first prominent environmentalist to endorse nuclear power as a
      global warming remedy, in 2003. Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace
      (who left the group a decade ago), soon echoed Loveluck's apostasy, as did
      Hugh Montefiore, a board member of Friends of the Earth, UK. All three were
      criticized by fellow greens. Likewise in the United States, the movement's
      major organizations remain adamantly anti-nuclear. But environmentalists on
      both sides of this argument are overlooking the strongest objection to
      nuclear power, even as the nuclear industry hopes no one notices it. The
      objection is rooted in energy economics, hence the oversight.

      As energy economist Joseph Romm argued in a blog exchange with Brand, "It is
      too often the case that experts on the environment think they know a lot
      about energy, but they don't."

      The case against nuclear power as a global warming remedy begins with the
      fact that nuclear-generated electricity is very expensive. Despite more than
      $150 billion in federal subsides over the past 60 years (roughly 30 times
      more than solar, wind and other renewable energy sources have received),
      nuclear power costs substantially more than electricity made from wind,
      coal, oil or natural gas. This is mainly due to the cost of borrowing money
      for the decade or more it usually takes to get a nuclear plant up and

      Remarkably, this inconvenient fact does not deter industry officials from
      boasting that nuclear is the cheapest power available. Their trick is to
      count only the cost of operating the plants, not of constructing them. By
      that logic, a Rolls-Royce is cheap to drive because the gasoline but not the
      sticker price matters. The marketplace, however, sees through such blarney.
      As Amory Lovins, the soft energy guru who directs the Rocky Mountain
      Institute, a Colorado think tank that advises corporations and governments
      on energy use, points out, "Nowhere (in the world) do market-driven
      utilities buy, or private investors finance, new nuclear plants." Only large
      government intervention keeps the nuclear option alive.

      A second strike against nuclear is that it produces only electricity, but
      electricity amounts to only one third of America's total energy use (and
      less of the world's). Nuclear power thus addresses only a small fraction of
      the global warming problem, and has no effect whatsoever on two of the
      largest sources of carbon emissions: driving vehicles and heating buildings.

      The upshot is that nuclear power is seven times less cost-effective at
      displacing carbon than the cheapest, fastest alternative -- energy
      efficiency, according to studies by the Rocky Mountain Institute. For
      example, a nuclear power plant typically costs at least $2 billion. If that
      $2 billion were instead spent to insulate drafty buildings, purchase hybrid
      cars or install super-efficient lightbulbs and clothes dryers, it would make
      unnecessary seven times more carbon consumption than the nuclear power plant
      would. In short, energy efficiency offers a much bigger bang for the buck.
      In a world of limited capital, investing in nuclear power would divert money
      away from better responses to global warming, thus slowing the world's
      withdrawal from carbon fuels at a time when speed is essential.

      Mainstream environmentalists do argue that energy efficiency, solar, wind
      and other renewable fuels are better weapons against global warming than
      nuclear is. But they will fare better if they go a step further and point
      out that embracing nuclear is not just unnecessary but a step backward.

      Even so, a tough fight lies ahead. As the energy bill illustrates, the
      nuclear industry has many friends in high places. And the case for nuclear
      power will strengthen if its economics improve. The key to lower nuclear
      costs is to reduce construction times, which could happen if the industry at
      last adopts standardized reactors and the Bush or a future administration
      streamlines the plant approval process.

      On a more fundamental level, any defeat of nuclear power is likely to be
      short-lived if America does not confront what Diamond calls its core value
      of consumerism. After all, there is only so much waste to wring out of any
      given economy. Eventually, if human population and appetites keep growing --
      and some growth is inevitable, given the ambitions of China and other newly
      industrializing nations -- new sources of energy must be exploited. At that
      point, nuclear power and other undesirable alternatives such as shale oil
      will be waiting. (For the record, that is Brand's rejoinder: future demand
      growth makes nuclear, as well as efficiency and renewables, necessary.
      Diamond did not respond to an e-mail request for comment.)

      Environmentalists have been afraid to talk honestly about consumerism ever
      since a cardigan-clad Jimmy Carter was ridiculed for urging people to turn
      down their thermostats in the 1979 oil crisis. But now that our species,
      through our carbon-fueled pursuit of the good life, has turned up the
      planet's thermostat to ominous levels, it's time to break the silence. We
      don't have to freeze in the dark, but neither can we keep consuming as if
      there's no tomorrow.


      Mark Hertsgaard's books include "Nuclear Inc." and "Earth Odyssey." Contact
      us at <insight@...>.


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