What role for nuclear energy?

In a recent post, I suggested that the Administration’s attention to nuclear power might be misplaced, because nuclear power could actually cost more energy than it produces, given the costs of mining it, delivering it, and storing the waste.

A reader writes:

This is one of the many misconceptions about nuclear power that I’ve been trying to correct for many years now. The truth is that a modern nuclear power plant produces about 90 times more energy than it consumes, taking into account the energy required to build the plant, operate it, and eventually decommision it; as well as the energy to mine and enrich the required quantities of uranium, and eventually dispose of the radioactive waste.

No activity on this planet is as energy-positive as uranium mining. The energy consumed in a uranium-mining operation is typically much less than 1% of the energy available in the uranium that is produced. No other form of mining (including oil production) even comes close to such a return. For that matter, the growing of corn or cane sugar for ethanol production is also far less efficient than uranium mining. I wonder if you actually had ethanol in mind when you wrote the sentence above, since ethanol production is so close to being a drain that it is only within the past couple years that scientists had enough data to conclude that ethanol is, in fact, slightly energetically positive. There was never any doubt about uranium.

He continues:

I am pro-nuclear energy, but not rabidly so. I acknowledge that the issues of safety (particularly from terrorist attack) and disposal of nuclear waste are serious. But the claim that nuclear energy is

*energetically* inefficient is egregious. Uranium is the most potent energy source in the world, as scientists have understood for over 60 years.

The reader raises the proper threshold question, viz. what is the cost-benefit analysis of nuclear energy, given the problems of fossil fuels, and technological feasibility (or lack thereof) of non-nuclear renewables? He distinguishes between the energy cost-benefit analysis and the extra negative one would have to add for the dangers of disposal (and physical safety), but the question is valid nonetheless.

Last year, Mark raised the same issue, which prompted an interesting debate in the comments section (of blessed memory). If readers have further opinions, I would be happy to post thoughtful ones. Figuring out the appropriate role of nuclear energy in a post-fossil fuel era is a critical policy question, and one that has, well, generated more heat than light.

And by the way, Mike has forgotten more about this than I am ever going to know. Mike?

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.