Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Return of Nuclear Power

Nuclear power has been one of the environmentalists' main enemies for as long as there has been a modern environmental movement. The infamous movie The China Syndrome by uber-activist Jane Fonda was a dramatization intended to sway the American people (and as much of the world as they could) into an hard opposition to anything nuclear. And it worked in the United States, where no new nuclear plant has been built in over thirty years.

But the same is not true in Europe. Because in western Europe, nuclear power has long been used to create energy and there has been not so much as a single mishap. But in the United States, the environmental activists have been able to use the courts and their ignorant friends in the media to shut down plant after plant, forcing us to rely ever more on imported oil. Europe long ago figured out that nuclear power was a help much more than a hindrance. Could that view finally be coming about in the United States as well?

In an article published in the Wall Street Journal online edition on July 21, William Tucker argues that the American public's attitudes toward nuclear power may be shifting, and that for nuclear power to succeed in the US as it has in Europe, such a shift is vital, since in this country, government does not invest in such things- they are all done by private development. Writes Tucker about the future of nuclear power,
All over the world, nuclear power is making a comeback. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has just commissioned eight new reactors, and says there's "no upper limit" to the number Britain will build in the future. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has challenged her country's program to phase out 17 nuclear reactors by 2020, saying it will be impossible to deal with climate change without them. China and India are building nuclear power plants; France and Russia, both of whom have embraced the technology, are fiercely competing to sell them the hardware.

And just last month John McCain called for the construction of 45 new reactors by 2030. Barack Obama is less enthusiastic about nuclear energy, but he seems to be moving toward tacit approval.

In the U.S. at present, 104 nuclear plants generate about 21% of our electric power. Last November, NRG Energy, of Princeton, N.J., became the first company to file for a license to build a new nuclear plant since the 1970s. Almost a dozen more applications have now also been filed.

But the United States has a unique difficulty in moving forward in the pursuit of nuclear power- the question of cost. As Tucker points out, most developed countries that use nuclear power- the French, the Brit8ish, the Japanese- all rely on investment and development from their respective governments. As a result, the environmentalists cannot stop them from pursuing as the government has a great deal more power to carry out its directives- and judges are not nearly as independent.

None of this is true in the United States. Government neither invests nor directs power projects, and the judiciary is frequently at odds both with the best interests of the nation and with the objectives of the elected government. Therefore most of the heavy lifting has to be carried out by corporate entities- and they are vulnerable both to legal challenges and local government obstacles. So if nuclear power is to succeed in this country, argues Tucker, then the people must be brought around to believe that nuclear power is not an evil, but rather a force for good. On the positive side, the current high price of oil, coupled with the fact that a great deal of it resides in the hands of declared enemies to the United States, has provided a boost for alternate energy sources. And there is no single source that can match the potential of nuclear energy.

But what about safety? Americans still remember the Three Mile Island incident, which although there were absolutely no casualties- no one was even injured or diagnosed with radiation poisoning- still has an effect on how Americans view nuclear power. This despite the fact that the US NAvy, which operates one of the most extensive collection of nuclear-powered facilities in the world has virtually spotless safety receord when comes to handling nuclear power. And no American nucelar pwoer plant has ever been built along the lines of the deadly Chernobyl plant in the former Soviet Union. Even at Three Mile Island, where the plant experienced a partial core meltdown, the entire damage was contained within the reactor, and no one was injured.

But reality has always had a hard time competing with the meme favored by the media of the time. And for a long time, the media was one of the biggest enemies of any new nuclear power plant. Recall how the media did their best to encourage the forces trying to shut down Diablo Canyon in California. However, as Tucker writes, this is finally beginning to change. In the past year, there were "almost a dozen" applications to build new nuclear plants filed in the United States.

I believe that nuclear power is the best solution for all of us. Most alternative power sources are too costly to be efficient and few of them are as reliable and robust as nuclear power plants. Wind is dependent on the atmospheric conditions, as is solar. And both can be easily disrupted and require enormous amounts of real estate. Nuclear on the other hand, currently generates roughly 75 percent of France's electricity, according to Tucker. He writes, "With a fully developed nuclear cycle, the French now store all the waste from 30 years of producing 75% of its electricity beneath the floor of one room at La Hague in Normandy." So much for the waste problem.

If nuclear power is indeed on the way back, we will finally have the trump card in our oil dependency problem. If we can generate most of our electricity from nuclear, we can put our public transport on electricity as they do in Japan and Europe and release ourselves from our need for foreign oil. And for us to be truly safe (and to devalue the Middle East once again into the backwater it richly deserves to be relegated) we desperately need to find an answer to our energy problem. Perhaps we may have finally found that answer- an answer that was before us the entire time.

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