The Case for Nuclear Power Revisited

| Thu Jul. 20, 2006 1:32 PM EDT

Jon Gertner recently visited a few nuclear power plants for the New York Times Magazine and came away glowing. Har har. No, his article's quite excellent, but I'm still not convinced that nuclear power will solve all our problems. Gertner's reporting makes the case that reactors are becoming profitable for energy utilities to build. Fair enough. But is nuclear energy an effective way to help the country as a whole wean itself off carbon-based energy sources and avert global warming? That question doesn't really get an answer.

I'll stand by everything I wrote in this post: Rough calculations suggest that it would cost $500 billion, minimum, to build 220 reactors in the United States and achieve a mere one-seventh of the carbon emissions reductions we need to make by 2050 if we want to do our part to stave off global warming. Every little bit helps, and lowering carbon emissions will require a mix of strategies, but there's a real opportunity cost here: For that same $500 billion we could, presumably, fund a variety of renewable sources of energy that don't require a massive security state to safeguard.

In fact, Gar Lipow has made the case that some renewable energy sources, like solar, can already provide electricity more cheaply than nuclear, especially if the federal government were to help steer money that way. I'm willing to believe that Gertner's right and investors will soon be able to make money off of building new nuclear plants. But at a policy level, it's not at all clear that nuclear power is the most cost-effective substitute for carbon-based energy, even if you ignore all the other problems associated with it.

I'd note one other thing. Gertner interviews Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, who says that instead of building new reactors to satisfy our electricity demand, we should just reduce that demand by increasing energy efficiency. Now I'm very much in favor of conserving energy, but I'm also dubious that these schemes work. Check out this graph in the comments to the Oil Drum. Total electricity consumption in the United States has never decreased in the postwar era (except in the industrial sector during the recession in the 1980s), despite the fact that the country continues to become more energy efficient.

Partly that's due to population growth, but my hunch is that even if energy efficiency improves as dramatically as Lovins would like, people will always find ways to use more energy—buying bigger TVs or cranking up the air conditioning—as they get richer. On the other hand, I would have thought the same thing about fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles—namely, that as cars become more fuel-efficient, people just drive more and no energy is saved—but, according to the National Academy of Sciences, CAFE standards really do appear to have helped reduced oil consumption, so Lovins is probably onto something.