Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, April 29, 2005

The Nucular Option

Cowboy George fell off the chuckwagon a couple of days ago long enough to talk to some small business persons about his "thoughts" on energy policy. He called "our nation's growing dependence on foreign sources of energy" a problem. Astonishingly, this statement was actually true! That was the end of the facts and logic, not to mention the syntax, for the day.

He said, "See, we got a fundamental problem we got to face here in America."* (That's how they teach people to talk at Andover and Yale, of course.) His number one solution? Nucular power, of course! That's why he launched his nucular power initiative, a "seven year, $1.1 billion dollar effort to by government and industry to start building new nucular power plants by the end of this decade." The major components of this "effort" are a $6 billion tax subsidy for new nucular power plants, and federal "risk insurance" to nucular plant builders, which means that the taxpayers would hand them free money if their plants went over budget or didn't get built on time because they couldn't meet regulatory requirements.

Unfortunately, as with the Level 4 biosafety lab proposals, the public debate on this question is likely to focus almost exclusively on the risk of a catastrophe. If you spend enough money on the bioterrorism lab, or the nucular plant, you can make it extremely unlikely that ebola virus or radionuclides are going to blow out the stack and wipe out Boston or Detroit. But that is not, in fact, the issue. The biolab is going to create novel pathogens that otherwise would not exist, which will make us less safe. Cowboy George's nucular plants are going to make us poorer and very definitely much less independent.

If nucular power really was economically beneficial, why would the industry require massive subsidies? In case you didn't know, their liability for a major accident is already capped -- the taxpayers will foot the bill for a disaster. It takes from 10 to 18 years for a nucular power plant to produce as much energy as it takes to build it, and to mine and process the uranium it consumes -- all of which requires burning fossil fuels. That means that investing in nucular power will create a net increase in consumption of fossil fuel, for decades. The plants might repay the fossil fuel burden eventually, but not if they operate unreliably or have to be shut down because of safety or security problems after less than 20 years of operation. Reactors generate 20 to 30 tons of high level radioactive waste every year, and we still don't know what we're going to do with it. The industry has already produced hundreds of thousands of tons of "low level" waste, which it doesn't know what to do with. They're asking to be allowed to recycle it into consumer products.

The social implications of a nucular-based energy economy are terrifying. The security requirements would turn the country into a police state (if it isn't one anyway); the unparalleled capital intensity of nucular power production means that social and economic power would be increasingly concentrated, in the hands of people who also controlled much of that vast security apparatus. There is a great deal more to be said about this complex subject, but it is virtually certain that you will not hear an insightful, informed or honest discussion in the corporate media.

The energy path we take is really the most crucial technological and investment choice facing humanity. But we aren't really talking about it.

Check out: Critical Mass Energy Project (yeah, fuck Ralph Nader but decent people still work for him.)

Also: Rocky Mountain Institute

*Taken verbatim from the transcript at Whitehouse.gov. We fact check.

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