Monday, January 21, 2008

Politics Slowing Down Nuclear Power Expansion

USA Today had a great article last Friday regarding the politics surrounding the proposed nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain. As I'm sure most of you know, Harry Reid is a U.S. Senator from Nevada who became Senate Majority Leader when the Democrats gained power. As majority leader, Reid essentially has the power to determine which bills make it to a vote on the floor and which don't. Reid has publicly stated that Yucca Mountain "is dead. It'll never happen." As long as he is in office I tend to believe him. To his credit, Senator Reid is working on legislation will take money from current oil and gas tax subsidies and use that money to sponsor renewable energy technology development. However, I think it is short-sided to so pointedly eliminate a major alternative available to the U.S. because of one man's political position.

Now, another example of politics is getting in the way of the Yucca Mountain project. All three of the top Democrat presidential candidates (Obama, Clinton, and Edwards), aggressively spoke out against the Yucca Mountain project during their campaigning for the Nevada primary election. Edwards had previously voted in favor of the project twice. As with their collective support of farming subsidies for corn-based ethanol during the Iowa primary campaigns, these candidates are sacrificing good national policy in order to make promises to small constituencies in attempts to get elected.


Ross Tomlin said...

While tunneling into the Yucca Mountains and depositing nuclear waste doesn't sound very appealing from an environmental standpoint, you are right that it shouldn't be removed from the table as a nuclear power option. I can't say I'm surprised that political candidates are whistling the same tune as Reid, not unlike telling voters what they want to hear about ethanol. My hope is that they are simply "talking the talk," which of course is nothing new to political campaigns. The post-election world will be much different, and it is hoped that whoever wins will wisen up to the fact (if he/she doesn't know this already) that, as we are learning in class, no energy source is without its demerits. (The irony of comments made by Edwards and the other candidates is, as we discussed in class today, the US is currently the global leader in nuclear energy.)

The Three Mile Island accident, largely responsible for stalled development of new nuclear plants in the last few decades (even though no major accidents have occurred at existing nuclear plants in the interim), was more the result of human error than mechanical mishap. While there is always the danger of reactor leaks, the principal obstacle (including political and environmental varieties) appears to be the extravagant start-up costs and enormous amount of time between groundbreaking and going online. Designs for these things are insanely complex in addition to costing an arm and a leg (in some cases, twice as expensive as coal plants, and even more so than gas plants). There is also the issue of Westinghouse's new design (AP1000) which, however promising in theory, remains untested in reality. A sobering final thought is that the current fleet of nuclear plants will cease to be operational in 80 years. (see link #1 below) What happens then if no/few new nuclear plants are built by then? How would the void in energy supply be filled?

As the Freakonomics duo explains (see link #2 below), pursuing nuclear energy boils down to the measurable risk of building these plants vs. the immeasurable uncertainty of global warming (and, I would add, looming energy crises). Whatever the true numbers, they are steep in both cases.

Some of this information is taken from two New York Times Magazine articles:



Ross Tomlin said...

Roger Cohen had a column in NYT earlier this week about the merits of adopting a more pro-nuclear energy policy (a la the French) and how the current crop of presidential candidates would be wise to be a tad more open-minded about nuclear energy. As Cohen points out -- and I forgot to mention in my post above -- no commercial-related accidents have resulted from reactor leaks in the US -- ever. Concerns over NIMBYism regarding storage of radioactive waste are a distant concern in my mind to achieving oil independence and mitigating CO2 emissions (although, as a fellow blogger points out in a more recent post, there may be CO2 emissions associated with uranium enrichment processes). Concern over "more nuclear facilities = more targets for terrorists" should also be checked: ports, refineries, government buildings, and many, many other sites represent at least as great a risk of terrorist attack -- and these risks are vastly overblown in the first place.

Cohen's column: