The first time I learned that something widely accepted as a core piece of liberal dogma could be flat-out wrong involved the topic of nuclear power. (That’s also when I learned to fear and loathe St. Ralph and all his works, but that’s a longer story. If you doubt how dogmatically the anti-nuclear view was held, just remember how Jerry Brown put down Paul Tsongas, who made a cogent environmental case for nuclear power production: “Ladies and gentlemen, you have just seen the world’s first radioactive environmentalist.”)
Nukes, if run right, are fully competitive with coal, and a hell of a lot cleaner. (Modern coal plants are much cleaner than they used to be, but that’s not saying much. In addition to all that greenhousing carbon dioxide, coal makes particles, and particles are BAD. As for all the old coal plants still running — the ones whose lives the Bush Administration just extended to infinity by changing the New Source Review standards — fuhgettabadit.)
So what’s wrong with nukes? Three things.
1. The idiotic regulatory process in the U.S., combined with the decentralized nature of power generation, makes it almost impossible to site a new nuke, and makes nuclear power much more expensive than it needs to be.
In France, with a single electic utility (Electricite de France) that has built and runs 58 nuclear plants, the contractors know they’re dealing with a repeat customer that knows what it’s doing. And it EdF know what it’s doing, so the regulators trust it and the plants have excellent up-time and safety records.
All U.S. nuclear plants are run by companies that are basically amateurs in the nuclear business. (I haven’t looked it up, but if memory serves we have 106 running nuclear power plants operated by something like 40 different utilities.) The regulators knew the power companies had to be watched like hawks to keep them from doing something stupid. The contractors knew (this was back before the utilities gave up on nukes) that a big cost overrun on the current job wouldn’t come back to haunt them on the next job for a different company. And since every plant was custom-designed for its site, the engineering costs were enormous. (EdF builds basically the same plant every time. Learning curve, you know.)
2. The Naderites are experts at stirring up terror among the locals.
3. Nuclear waste. This is a problem only if you think that we need to plan waste disposal that will (no, I’m not making this up) survive the end of civilization and be safe for the ignorant primitive nomads who will wander the earth 10,000 years from now. Actually, the solution isn’t technically very hard.
Current plans are to deal with all the waste, high-level and low-level, together. The idea is bury the stuff in deep salt caves and pray the water table doesn’t rise. And of course no one wants to have the burial site nearby; that fact just might cost George Bush, who broke a campaign promise and did the right thing, Nevada’s electoral votes.
The alternative is to deal with the small volume of “high-level” (highly radioactive, short-half-life) stuff separately from the big volume of “low-level” (slightly radioactive, long half-life) waste.
The key fact is that the really dangerous “high-level” stuff is very small in volume. An Olympic-sized swimming pool would hold everything we’re ever likely to produce, and the water will absorb just about all of the radition. So take the spent fuel rods, “reprocess” them to separate out the high-level waste, build the swimming pool, put the waste (suitably wrapped up) in the swimming pool, and guard the swimming pool. You don’t have to guard it forever, of course, since things with short half-lives remain hazardous for only short periods (years or decades).
That leaves a large volume of low-level, long-half-life material. It will remain “hot,” though not very hot, for a long, long time. Again, you could bury it and hope that there were no geological changes on the way. Or you could buy some extra insurance by vitrifying it: i.e., mixing it with sand and heating it to make glass bricks. Then you can bury the glass bricks (again, praying that the water table doesn’t rise or that, if it does, the bad stuff won’t leach out into somebody’s water supply).
Alternatively, you could build an above-ground structure known to be stable over thousands of years. Can anyone in the class think of one? Yes, in the back. “A pyramid,” you say? Why, what a clever idea!
Find a military base out in the desert (say, Edwards AFB) and build there a pyramid or two out of glass bricks, maybe facing it with limestone just for decoration and to discourage souvenir-hunting, and then put a great big fence around the pyramids. As long as no one insists on climbing them, the radioactive stuff inside won’t do anyone any harm.
I remember my Naderite friends in the early seventies announcing as if it were scientific fact that the risk of a meltdown from a nuclear power plant was on the order of one per hundred reactor-years. Four thousand or so reactor-years later, without a single signficant accident (no, what those idiots did at Chernobyl isn’t relevant to the discussion) that estimate is looking pretty silly.
Could something bad happen someday at properly designed nuclear reactor? Sure, it could. But the damage from coal-fired plants isn’t a “maybe;” I’m breathing it right now.
Spent nuclear fuel in North Korea or the FSU is potentially a big problem: reprocess the plutonium out of it, and you’ve got fissile material without going through isotope separation. But we can’t make that problem go away by either building or not building nuclear power reactors here, and spent nuclear fuel here isn’t going to be made into bombs.
So I’m with Matt Yglesias. Let’s use the impending energy price crunch to free ourselves of the anti-nuclear superstition that has cost so many lives and added so many thousands of tons of carbon dioxide and particulate matter to the atmosphere.
[Note: Thirty years ago, I was pretty current on this stuff. I had to take the engineering on faith, but I knew the policy problem just about as well as anyone did. (I think I was the original author of the pyramid idea, which didn’t pass the giggle test but which no one, as far as I’m aware, actually refuted.) But that was thirty years ago, and it’s more than possible that my memory is faulty or that the world has changed so that some important detail above is imprecisely stated or flat wrong. Corrections invited.]
Update See the more expert and nuanced, and less enthusiastic, take on nuclear power at Corpus Callosum. That essay assumes, however, that the advantage of nuclear power over coal is primarily in producing less carbon dioxide. I’d put more stress on particulates and mercury.