UPI: Analysis: Report, nuke reality don't mesh
United Press International - Energy - Analysis
Published: April 23, 2007 at 6:55 PM
By BEN LANDO UPI Energy Correspondent

WASHINGTON April 23 (UPI) -- A new report by the Council on Foreign
Relations makes broad characterizations about humanity as a whole
and those who want to increase the amount of nuclear energy for
electricity generation, purportedly as a way to halt and reverse
global climate change.
"According to a prevailing belief, humanity confronts two stark
risks: catastrophes caused by climate change and annihilation by
nuclear war," begins the report, "Nuclear Energy at a Crossroads,"
released last week.
The climate-change issue has momentum; U.S. media, the White House
and Congress all talk it up regularly. But the CFR report says
proponents "advocate a major expansion of nuclear energy" that
"oversells the contribution nuclear energy can make to reduce global
warming and strengthen energy security while downplaying the dangers
associated with this energy source."
"To realistically address global warming, the nuclear industry would
have to expand at such a rapid rate as to pose serious concerns for
how the industry would ensure an adequate supply of reasonably
inexpensive reactor-grade construction materials, well-trained
technicians, and rigorous safety and security measures."
That's true, the nuclear industry says. Its main goal is to maintain
nuclear's electricity share.
"Nuclear energy is not a silver bullet," said Mitch Singer,
spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the U.S. nuclear
industry's trade group. Rather, Singer said, it is one piece of the
overall picture, which includes renewable energy, clean-coal
technology and energy conservation and efficiency. (Two top NEI
officials served on the advisory committee for the CFR report, but
not all of their comments were included in the final draft, the
Brookings Institution's Susan Rice wrote.)
While nuclear-power proponents are trying to make talk of the
"nuclear renaissance" in this country a reality, after a nearly
30-year absence of new nuclear activity, the industry is merely
trying to maintain.
"To be able to do that, we have to build 35 new reactors by 2030,"
said Adrian Heymer, senior director of new plant deployment at NEI.
Nuclear energy feeds about 20 percent of U.S. electricity demand and
16 percent of worldwide demand, which is expected to triple by 2050.
No nuclear plant has been licensed since 1978, before a chill
brought on by accidents at Chernobyl in Ukraine and Three Mile
Island in Pennsylvania, and a move to coal and natural-gas plants,
the latter which, at the time, had low fuel costs.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission expects applications for at
least 30 new reactors in the next few years, pushed largely because
of a new -- though untested -- streamlined application process and
various subsidies and tax breaks in energy legislation passed in
2005. There are 103 reactors operating now.
The NEI and other nuclear proponents are keen to point out nuclear's
near zero carbon dioxide emissions -- "clean-air energy" -- which is
true compared to standard coal, oil and natural-gas operations.
Nuclear power does emit, however, if you take into account its
entire cycle, which includes mining and enriching the uranium to
fuel the reactor, as well as construction of the plants.
Most of the climate-change-causing toxins are related to
transportation. The United States imports more than 60 percent of
the oil it uses, the vast majority of it being used for
transportation. Nuclear power can't replace that.
There is much in the CFR report that the nuclear industry echoes,
and vice versa. It costs $3 billion to $4 billion to build a plant,
much more than other electricity sources, though nuclear plants are
big baseload generators that have, in the United States, operated at
more than 90 percent capacity.
An already tight supply of material and labor would squeeze further,
and costs would go up if there was an all-out blitz -- either in the
United States or worldwide -- to replace fossil-fuel electricity
generation with nuclear. Other issues would be exacerbated as well:
There is no general consensus on what to do with the nuclear waste
created by nuclear plants; the additional spent fuel is a risk for
weapons proliferation, as is the enrichment needed to get the fuel
reactor ready; and if, in the midst of the expansion, another
Chernobyl were to happen, the boom would immediately stall and
possibly bust.
Instead of relying on nuclear power to address global warming, the
CFR report recommends the U.S. government "should shift from
providing subsidies to holding all energy sectors equally
accountable for their external costs. ... The costs incurred through
carbon pollution are a debt unpaid."
Polluters should be charged for polluting, which "would act to level
the economic playing field among high-carbon emitters such as
traditional coal-fired plants and no- and low-carbon emitters such
as highly efficient natural gas plants, nuclear plants and wind- and
solar-generated electricity."
The CFR's nuclear energy report appears, rather, to be advocacy for
creating a more equal footing for energy sources to compete for
their place in the mix. As the report puts it: "Nuclear power will
remain part of this mix for the foreseeable future."
(e-mail: energy@upi.com)
© Copyright 2007 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.