Wednesday, April 1, 2009

So It Glows: Nuclear Power in America (Pt. 1)

It looks like the Obama administration is moving in the direction of an economic carbon policy for our fair country. Europe already has "cap and trade" in place, and it's been the recommended course of action from a number of intelligent minds and publications. The Economist eschews subsidies and regulations saying, "The alternative is to let markets to find the way forward, through a carbon-trading scheme or a carbon tax. At least in theory, the profit motive should help entrepreneurs figure out the cheapest ways of cutting emissions, and thus save us all money. Clearly, The Economist is keener on the latter strategy, as Mr Obama and the EU seem to be."

The WSJ recently ran an interview with J. Wayne Leonard, chairman and CEO of Entergy Corp., which the Journal says is "one of the largest U.S. energy companies and the No. 2 generator of nuclear power." Leonard poses an interesting example of an energy company CEO who is in favor of both cap-and-trade (with some caveats) and the politically unpopular carbon tax. . While both the publication and Leonard himself are straight forward with the benefits such a system may have for a company whose portfolio is primarily nuclear, I think the subject of nuclear merits some further digging.

Given the City of Austin's recent debate between solar and nuclear power, and the resultant approval of a 30 MW solar station rather than a 438 MW nuke plant investment, I figured my own experience, interests and sleuthing could provide some insight into the role that nuclear energy will play in our nation's future. It also provides me an opportunity to explore this question a bit further (plan on this being an installment piece). Consider this, Part One, a background on nuclear energy.

The first nuclear power plant was constructed in Obninsk, Russia in 1954 . By splitting atoms in a controlled environment, scientists are able to trap the heat generated by the atomic decay and use it for giant steam boilers. The steam then powers electrical turbines generating electricity. If you need slightly more details, a friendly Canadian will tell you about it below.

Since then, a 435 nuke plants have sprung up around the globe. In that time, several bits of conventional wisdom have seeped into the American popular and media consciousness. These would be: a) Americans are fearful and/or wary of nuclear power, despite the French loving it, b) nuclear power generates clean energy, c) it is cheaper than solar and wind power.

As it turns out, the French supply 76% of their power through nuclear plants. America gets a measly 20%. Yet, despite the grumbling of cultural conservatives who tend to malign the environmentalists as 'fraidy cats who stymie America's construction of nuke plants, (see 5th comment down) the USA actually has more nuclear power plants and generates more nuclear power than anyone in the world. And, going back to that Frontline piece I linked to above, the French in fact use American technology for their own plants, courtesy of Westinghouse. France has 59 nuclear power plants generating 63,260 MW while the US has 104 plants cranking out more than 100,000MW, more than 27% of the world’s nuclear energy, far beyond #2 France.

So why is it then, that Americans (and especially the left-leaning, presumably French appreciating environmentalists) are characterized as reluctant to embrace nukes? My research points to three main reasons: Hollywood, the timing of nuclear accidents, and the real problem of waste disposal. The later could also include concentration of nuclear energy, as opposed to simply the effects of a single plant. I'm also inclined to look into the financing and capital costs of nuclear plants. Scalability issues and financing were cited as one of the reasons Austin didn't spring for nuclear power recently. It's also one of the reasons no nuclear plants have come online since 1996, and no new orders since 1973.

Freakanomics authors Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt wrote an insightful piece about the media aspect of nuclear power. The China Syndrome opened on March 16, 1979. With the no-nukes protest movement in full swing, the movie was attacked by the nuclear industry as an irresponsible act of leftist fear-mongering. Twelve days later, an accident occurred at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in south-central Pennsylvania. Befitting the critically acclaimed thinkers, they string this analysis out to a showdown between risk and uncertainty. How do people weigh risk versus uncertainty? Consider a famous experiment that illustrates what is known as the Ellsberg Paradox. There are two urns. The first urn, you are told, contains 50 red balls and 50 black balls. The second one also contains 100 red and black balls, but the number of each color is unknown. If your task is to pick a red ball out of either urn, which urn do you choose? Most people pick the first urn, which suggests that they prefer a measurable risk to an immeasurable uncertainty. (This condition is known to economists as ambiguity aversion.) Could it be that nuclear energy, risks and all, is now seen as preferable to the uncertainties of global warming?"

Of course, the other accident was Chernobyl. According to National Geographic “The fallout, 400 times more radioactivity than was released at Hiroshima, drove a third of a million people from their homes and triggered an epidemic of thyroid cancer in children. Over the years, the economic losses—health and cleanup costs, compensation, lost productivity—have mounted into the hundreds of billions of dollars. As evidence of government bungling and secrecy emerged in its wake, Chernobyl (or Chornobyl, as it is now known in independent Ukraine) even sped the breakup of the Soviet Union.” Pretty powerful stuff.

I’m not exactly inclined to extrapolate an entire history of the Cold War and America’s defeat of Japan, but having conducted an extensive literary critique of John Hersey’s Hiroshima and watched plenty of 1980s propaganda I do know that the heroic power of atomic energy (wielded destructively) was exalted after V-J day, complete with re-enactments in California stadiums.

Once the Reds got the H-Bomb, and a full global armegaddeon was suddenly the psychological white noise of two generations, Americans were primed for the Ukranian meltdown. Without having gone back to review news footage of the event, I’m going to make a leap and say that the devastating power of the nuclear weapon’s grasp on the American subconscious essentially was depicted as an own-goal with the Russians disaster. It could simultaneously depict both the power of nuclear energy (read: weapons) and the folly of our enemy, the hated Commie Bastards. I just imagine the effect on the collective unconscious as being similar to a younger brother stealing your Porsche and running it into a pole.

Next up… waste. I’ll look into the relative cleanliness of nukes, costs and drawbacks. Mostly I want to find out if the economic impact (derived from political conditions or environmental ones)of waste is factored into the price per Megawatt. I’m going to save the funding and economics for part three I think.

1 comment:

Patrick Rodgers said...

On the subject of nuclear energy, check out this photo series of the towns surrounding Chernobyl today. Talk about post-apocalyptic: