Nuclear power and its discontents

I’m a tepid fan of thermo-electric nuclear power, Jon. If we can make electricity, we can make lots of other promising stuff, like hydrogen. The questions about nuclear as a way to displace a lot of CO2 releases are mainly three:

(1) Waste disposal. The last time I looked at this, on-site dry-cask storage looked pretty good. In the US, we’ve gone through decades of paralysis trying to decide if we should bury it retrievably, so we can haul it back out if something goes wrong, or unreachably, to make sure someone doesn’t get into it by accident or with evil intent. I like keeping options open, but we need to recognize that nuclear power commits humanity to a very long period of taking care of the waste. Of course, just being alive commits us to remember, every year, to plant our crops and harvest them, but the nuclear waste issue is still sobering. On the whole, I think this is an issue of political education and deliberation, not a technological roadblack.

(2) Cost. Nuclear electricity made in plants that meet reasonable safety standards is expensive, which is why people aren’t lining up to make it at the moment, even though standardized reactor/plant designs and a new generation of practice making the things will reduce the cost. I think it will always be more expensive than the private costs of competitors (wind is closing fast, but it has its own problems of siting and consistency), so until we’re willing to treat the social cost of burning fossil carbon as a real cost, nuclear won’t happen. We would do that by imposing a serious carbon charge, on the order of $100/ton, on all fossil fuels, or by various kinds of government intervention in energy markets. One example of the latter would require coal-fired installations to capture the CO2 from their stack gas and $eque$ter it somehow, perhaps deep underground; another would be a subsidy to nuclear power generation. I like the carbon charge so much better than anything else that the first two slides in any talk I give about energy now read as follows:

…but first, I’d like to say two words about energy policy generally:


This is mainly because I much prefer to get the whole human entrepreneurial and technical enterprise figuring out ways to actually solve the problem and make money at it to having all those smart people trying to figure out ways to tilt a regulatory pinball machine their way.

(3) Security. Events like this (this one does not involve reactor fuel) worry thoughtful people about greatly increasing the amount of radioactive stuff in circulation, whether it’s plutonium (used in reactors and bombs) or just reactor waste (possible dirty bomb ingredient). Satisfactory security will be expensive, and it will not be perfect.

The bottom line for me is that nuclear could be a big contributor to carbon displacement, but not what I desperately want, which is a way out of fossil fuels that doesn’t require any actual change in my life like spending more for energy and less for other things, driving less, living in a smaller house, and like that. For a few more years, at least, we can all desperately want that together, perhaps in public rallies with flags and speeches, and political leaders will leap on the podium to stir this pot with nonsense about corn ethanol saving the planet and the like. In the end, of course, reality will prevail, by putting places like “half of Florida” underwater, or stopping the Gulf Stream and freezing Europe…or by all of us learning to make big, expensive, changes in how we live, and (what may be even harder) the Chinese and Indians giving up the century of Western fossil-fueled lifestyle they certainly deserve. During the period of denial, of course, there’s a fair amount of money to be made in oil and coal, so we shouldn’t be surprised at people like James Inhofe doing everything they can to make it longer.

We’ve received a thoughtful and interesting letter about nuclear prospects from a reader, that Jonathan is editing or extracting into a post; watch the space above for more.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.