We’re only three months into the new Obama Administration and already there is growing uneasiness that the long-anticipated initiative on climate change is headed for rough waters. The first problem is that global warming doesn’t appear to be the world emergency it did ten years ago. 1998 set an all-time record for global temperatures but since then things have cooled noticeably. The trend seems to be down rather than up. The case of the “climate deniers” is becoming harder to ignore.
Second, any attempt to put a price on coal burning is going to meet severe opposition in the Midwest. Climate change is basically an issue whose appeal is on the East and West Coasts, where ample hydropower and an aging fleet of nuclear reactors has kept coal burning at a minimum. From West Virginia to Wyoming, however, coal is king, providing almost 80 percent of the electricity. Any attempt to regulate carbon is going to place a huge, inequitable burden on the industrial heartland.
Third, the fantasy that we are headed for some golden age when the world will run on wind and solar energy is emerging as just that - a fantasy. Wind and solar can play niche roles but they are simply too dilute, too unpredictable and too widely dispersed to run an industrial economy. Already medium-sized solar installations planned for the Mojave Desert are running into opposition from environmental groups who have suddenly discovered that the desert has an environment as well. Wind farms will have to be coupled with huge banks of natural gas turbines ready to stop and start at a moment’s notice to compensate for the wind’s variability. Bringing these intermittent forms of power from remote regions will require a new national grid.
So is there any way we can still move forward on climate change without risking sectional conflict or crippling the whole economy? I think there is. I think the Obama Administration and Congressional Democrats should reconsider their position on nuclear power.
Nuclear has traveled a long, long road since Three Mile Island. The industry has completely revamped its operating procedures. At the time of TMI, many plant operators had only a high school diploma. Now they receive more training than airline pilots. The faulty valve that set off the accident at TMI had filed nine times previously in other reactors yet nobody had done anything about it. Now the whole industry communicates almost daily on safety measures. In the two decades from 1978 to 1997, one-quarter of the nation’s 104 reactors shut down for more than a year because of safety problems. Since 1997 there has been only one year-long shutdown. Reactors now run nearly two years straight before shutting down for refueling. The nation’s entire fleet is up-and-running 90 percent of the time.
The problems with nuclear have been wildly exaggerated. A nuclear reactor is not a bomb that can explode into a mushroom cloud. Fissionable uranium makes up only 3 percent of a fuel rod as opposed to 90 percent of a bomb. (Even then, the fissionable material must be shot together at the speed of a bullet in order to make it explode). At worst, a reactor can overheat, as happened at Three Mile Island. Even then the chances of a radioactive release into the environment are infinitely small. Chernobyl, which did create such a release, was built without a containment structure. It was also a fire-prone design that has long been banned here.
The problem of nuclear waste is also exaggerated - and exists only because we gave up fuel reprocessing in the 1970s. Nearly all the material in a spent fuel rod can be recycled as fuel or useful medical or industrial material. France, which has complete reprocessing, stores all its unusable waste from thirty years of producing 75 percent of its electricity beneath the floor of one room at La Hague.
For all these reasons, I think Congress and the Administration can move forward on climate change by coupling a carbon regime with a nuclear revival. Instead of requiring Midwestern state to pay a huge price or close down their coal plants, let them start building new reactors instead. Japan is now putting up modular reactors in three years. We can do the same. The combination of construction jobs and cheap electricity would set off an industrial revival. We need more carrots than sticks in dealing with climate change. The possibility of having relatively cheap electricity with zero carbon emissions is the biggest carrot of all.
William Tucker is author of Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America’s Long Energy Odyssey.