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The end of the nuclear renaissance

March 14th, 2011

For the last few weeks, I’ve been planning a Slate-style contrarian post, arguing that the US and maybe other countries should increase the subsidies for nuclear power associated with the attempt to launch a ‘nuclear renaissance’. My argument would have been two-fold. First, the straightforward point that it’s desirable to explore all options for non-carbon based electricity, and that the existing subsidies (combined with the absence of a carbon price) were not sufficient to make this happen (a decade after Bush launched the program, there are only a handful of starters, and most of the early proposals have been abandoned).

The second was political – for a substantial group (mostly on the political right), the desirability of nuclear power is an article of faith, and their (outdated) view that environmentalists resolutely oppose it forms part of the reason for adopting anti-science views and do-nothing policy positions on climate change. More funding for attempts to develop the nuclear option might convert some of them, and embarrass some others into dropping this particular talking point.

But after the disaster in Japan, and the failure of cooling systems at nuclear plants there, it’s most unlikely that anything along these lines will happen.

We have yet to see how bad the outcome will be, but it’s already apparent that two plants have suffered partial meltdowns or something close enough that they will never operate again. As cooling systems continue to fail, more are being affected. It’s likely, based on past experience, that plants in the same complex will be offline for a long period. So, even in the best case, the economic effects will be severe. The worst case could be disastrous.

The economics of building a new nuclear plant in the developed world were marginal at best before this disaster. The political climate was much more favorable than it had been, but still fragile. In the best possible case, the response to the failures will involve new, and expensive safety equipment, and more restrictions on the location of new plants. But that will almost certainly be enough to stop any new projects, and maybe even the handful (two sites in the US, and one in Finland) currently under way in developed countries other than Japan.

In Japan itself, political support for nuclear power has been fairly solid until now, but construction of new plants was already slowing down. In the wake of the disaster, it seems likely (if only because of the need for diversification) that the replacements for the plants destroyed or taken off-line will be non-nuclear, probably either gas-fired or renewable.

That leaves China (and perhaps India) as the only real hope for large-scale construction of new nuclear plants. It remains to be seen how that will play out.

Having said all that, the risks from the nuclear plants are insignificant when compared to the catastrophic loss of life and economic destruction caused by the earthquake and tsunami. It’s hard to know what can be done in the face of such destructive force, other than to help the survivors as best we can.

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  1. Sam
    March 17th, 2011 at 16:07 | #1

    @Fran Barlow
    Ok, you seem to be immune to evidence. I am going to stop arguing with you now.

  2. Fran Barlow
    March 17th, 2011 at 17:46 | #2

    @Sam

    You seem to be the perfect mark for a snake oil salesperson. Why should anyone listen to your “argument” anyway?

  3. iain
    March 17th, 2011 at 18:25 | #3

    @Fran Barlow

    Fran, conservatively, well over 100,000 people have died from Chernobyl and the figure is still rising. The true figure is probably closer to 250,000. To keep restating the discredited Atomic Energy Agency figure of 4,000 doesn’t show a lot of engagement with critical thinking, nor much engagement with the latest epidemiological data from Belarus, Ukraine and Russia..

    Chernobyl-like fatalities can easily happen again from the nuclear industry. Either at Chernobyl (which you pronuclear advocates still haven’t cleaned up after 20+years), or at Fukushima or elsewhere.

    Can you personally guarantee to me that the waste from the nuclear industry will be safely managed in 10,000 years time? How can you make this guarantee and maintain any credibility?

  4. Alice
    March 17th, 2011 at 19:31 | #4

    @Fran Barlow
    says “Much as it might seem otherwise, I am not fixated on nuclear power.”
    For someone supposedly not fixated on pro nuclear energy advocacy you are doing a pretty good impersonation of a fervent advocate Fran. I think most people here are really over the bravenewclimate pro nuclear blog warriors such as yourself.
    You say when a solution “ticks the boxes better” than nuclear, Im for that.
    Does anything cross the nuclear box for you ever Fran (?ever – even a piddling small doubt??). How about a city like Tokyo potentially contaminated (hypothetical which is actually on peoples minds, judging by the exodus and firms sending their foreign employees home and travel warnings by many countries etc etc etc). Plus the people that still cant get petrol to get out of the evacuation zone.

    Fran – continue the suspension of your pro nuclear discussion that your husband has decided is best at home only give us the same relief. You are in here talking about 50c drops in costs and about storage costs but you cannot discuss the Meltdown happening in front of us all and you cannot cost that.

    Some might see that as incredibly bizarre and some might see it as totally and utterly insensitive. Its hard not to.

  5. Fran Barlow
    March 17th, 2011 at 20:05 | #5

    @iain

    Fran, conservatively, well over 100,000 people have died from Chernobyl and the figure is still rising.

    Conservatively, 53 people have died from it of which 31 were first responders. From memory, Greenpeace (extravagantly) claims 90,000 will eventually die from Chernobyl related causes. Their modelling is implausible. 4000 is a figure that might well turn out to be about right.

    Can you personally guarantee to me that the waste from the nuclear industry will be safely managed in 10,000 years time?

    It will be taking care of itself well before then — possibly in as few as 300 years. Luckily, simple physics tells us that.

    Extra CO2 on the other hand is guranteed to be causing trouble in 50,000 years, unless we find a way of removing it before then.

    @Alice

    Does anything cross the nuclear box for you ever Fran?

    Yes. I’m troubled that people fear it as they do, and I’d prefer it if we could allay their unreasoning fears. That will be hard. If there were some other source as good as nuclear power but which people didn’t fear that would be good.

    It’s also fairly expensive. It would be good if it were no more expensive than coal combustion (even allowing for the fact that coal is embezzling the commons by using it as a tip).

    How about a city like Tokyo potentially contaminated (hypothetical which is actually on peoples minds, judging by the exodus and firms sending their foreign employees home and travel warnings by many countries etc etc etc). Plus the people that still cant get petrol to get out of the evacuation zone.

    Unreasoning fear is a terrible thing. People are already dying from causes unrelated to nuclear power in the evacuation centres and that is tragic.

  6. Alice
    March 17th, 2011 at 20:33 | #6

    @Fran Barlow
    says “Unreasoning fear is a terrible thing.”

    Unreasonable optimism and unreasonable numbers are far more terrible thing Fran.

  7. jakerman
    March 18th, 2011 at 07:22 | #7
  8. Fran Barlow
    March 18th, 2011 at 14:38 | #8

    @jakerman

    Thanks for giving the Mackay link. He is a serious analyst and I’ve often cited him myself. What he gives is a summary of how, in theory, renewables could work to support current energy demand. What he doesn’t show however, is what the cost of these measures in practice would be, or the build timeline, or the provision for energy storage needed and a range of other matters.

    Plainly, if cost is not a constraining factor, nor geo-politics — blanketing large parts of the Sahara and elsewhere with renewables and hoping that these states remain stable and of friendly disposition to Europe, and the people of Europe think this very expensive idea is also a good idea and feel not the least bit nervous about so much of their energy being imported from North Africa and the middle east … maybe this might work. I fancy it would be a hard sell.

    As to the Greenpeace document about Australia, it says nothing about the world as a whole and merely outlines a wishlist for projects, accomplished by regulatory fiat. It’s a feelgood document rather than a clear proposal with costs, timelines, assumptions etc … It doesn’t even mention carbon pricing.

    It’s like eating fairy floss: very sweet, but when you’re finished you wonder why you bothered.

  9. jakerman
    March 18th, 2011 at 15:11 | #9

    @Fran Barlow

    “As to the Greenpeace document about Australia, it says nothing about the world as a whole”

    Ask and you shall receive: http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/news/features/energy-revolution-now271008/

    Fran continues:

    “It’s a feelgood document rather than a clear proposal with costs, timelines, assumptions etc … It doesn’t even mention carbon pricing.”

    Except for all the cost, time lines and assumptions that it is filled with, including:

    “For this scenario we have assumed CO2 costs of $50/tCO2 in 2050, which is twice as high as the IEA’s projection, but still conservative compared with other studies and certainly below the $85 per tonne found by the Stern Review to be the cost of climate damage caused by greenhouse gas emissions.We assume that CO2 emission costs will be accounted for in Non-Annex B countries only after 2020.”

  10. jakerman
    March 18th, 2011 at 15:34 | #10

    And lets not forget the clear proposals for policy to drive the transition:

    1. Legislate a greenhouse gas reduction target…

    2. Legislate a mandatory renewable energy (electricity) target…

    3. Establish an immediate moratorium on new coalfired power
    4. An Emissions Trading Scheme must reduce emissions in line with legislated interim targets and should be reviewed periodically to ensure appropriate response to scientific and technological changes…

    5. Set a target of 2% per year to reduce Australia’s primary energy demand…

    6. Redirect Government funding and strategic direction towards environmentally sustainable transport planning that reduces Australia’s emissions…

    7. Redirect all public subsidies that encourage the use and production of fossil fuels towards implementing energy efficiency programs, deploying renewable energy and supporting the upgrading of public transport infrastructure…

    8. Support workers and communities affected by the move away from coal towards a clean energy economy to minimising social and economic impacts and maximise opportunities in investment and employment – a Just Transition…

    9. Develop a highly trained “green” workforce through …

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