Why no love for cost-effective, low-emissions nuclear power?
With the UN climate summit set to kick off, environmental activist Bill McKibben on Sunday will lead what is being advertised as history’s largest climate-change march through the streets of Manhattan. McKibben calls it “an invitation to change everything.”
Notably absent from McKibben’s agenda is any endorsement of the one carbon-free electricity source that, unlike many other forms of alternative energy, can be affordably scaled up to power modern economies: nuclear energy.
The U.S. today relies on 100 nuclear power plants for roughly 20% of its electricity. Were it not for a wave of plant cancellations starting in the mid-1970s — prompted, in part, by the financing costs of the era, but exacerbated by the overreaction to the Three Mile Island accident — U.S. nuclear capacity could have significantly increased; in fact, U.S. nuclear capacity might plausibly be double what it now is.
Had that nuclear capacity replaced coal, kilowatt-for-kilowatt, the country’s emissions would have fallen below the current Kyoto Protocol target for the U.S.
And despite what we often hear from alarmists, this could have happened with relatively little risk.
While the events at Japan’s Fukushima plant were tragic, nuclear energy’s health and safety profile is sterling compared with other energy-centered fixtures of modern life. Automobile accidents directly kill more than 30,000 Americans a year; America’s civilian nuclear reactor program, meanwhile, has seen zero fatalities in its history. Even wind turbines have killed more people.
While we need to acknowledge and address the health and safety risks of potential worst-case nuclear disasters, such risks are surprisingly low. Fukushima, despite the double whammy of an earthquake and a tsunami, suffered zero radiation deaths — and not a single case of radiation sickness.
What’s more, new, ever-safer designs for nuclear plants are being developed, such as an MIT design for floating reactors moored offshore to protect them from seismic events.
Environmentalists have long opposed nuclear power because of the complexity of disposing nuclear waste. This fear, too, is overblown. France has reprocessed its nuclear fuel for decades, a method of recycling that reduces the half-life of nuclear waste to hundreds, rather than thousands, of years.
Even better, Bill Gates and Peter Thiel are each putting their money behind innovative nuclear startups with reactor designs capable of directly burning traditional waste as fuel, leaving behind only short-lived waste.
So nuclear power is quite safe and getting safer — but is it economically practical?
France has long produced nearly 80% of its electricity from nuclear plants, reaping both lower prices and lower emissions than Germany, which has moved to phase out nuclear power in favor of solar (and has had to turn to coal to ensure reliability).
Household electricity costs the French just 21 cents a kilowatt-hour — cheaper than what Con Ed charges in New York. France also emitted 87% less carbon dioxide per unit of electrical energy than Germany, according to the most recent data.
McKibben recently claimed nuclear power is “like burning $20 bills for energy.” Yet according to the federal Energy Information Administration, utility-scale solar power — even with a lavish government subsidy — remains nearly 40% more expensive than nuclear. Onshore wind at a small scale is slightly cheaper, but requires nearly 850 square miles (or most of Rhode Island) of turbine-covered land to equal the output of a typical two-unit nuclear plant.
The quest for low-cost, carbon-free energy is a cause everyone should be able to agree upon. But it is difficult to take seriously McKibben’s march, or his positions, unless he and his followers are willing to commit themselves to a diverse energy mix that can both reduce carbon emissions and affordably support the economic growth and modern economy we need.
This piece originally appeared in New York Daily News