Comment: In support of alternative energy

July 2003

by Jon Entine

Jon Entine argues that progressives should support the nuclear option.

The environmentally-friendly option? What passes as today's progressive community has long been uncomfortable with industrialisation because it entails increased energy consumption. Making energy, goes the reasoning, is dirty business. Moreover, burning fossil fuels like coal and oil results in carbon dioxide emissions, which many scientists believe contribute to global warming. The United States and other industrial nations are cast as wicked and decadent. While Rome burns, energy gluttons fiddle and provide cover for greedy natural resource companies.

Let's grant for discussion's sake the doomsday scenario that rising world temperatures are caused by humans and may result in environmental problems. Since energy is literally the fuel of modernity ­ higher wages and standards of living depend on industrialisation ­ what should the business ethics community do?

Social investors offer a plan without a solution. According to the Investor Responsibility Research Center in Washington, the number of global warming resolutions filed with US companies tripled between 2001 and 2002, and is rising even faster than global temperatures this year. They demand that industrial firms cut greenhouse emissions and that companies invest more money in renewable energy research.

Now cutting energy use on the margins is a genuinely nice cause, and should be supported, politically and financially, but it won't begin to deal with the global warming crisis, if it is indeed real. After all, the fastest-growing polluters are the fastest-growing economies, China most notably. The fact is, coal and oil are cheap, which means they will be the energy choice for the West and even more so for the developing world unless something economically competitive can be substituted.

Nurturing renewable energy is a nice gesture, and should be encouraged in the West, which can afford such dabbling, but that is a utopian response to an immediate problem. We need alternative energy, and it's not solar. There is only one rational choice to meet growing energy needs, particularly in the developing world: nuclear energy. This issue is now in play as the Bush Administration has broached the once taboo subject of building new nuclear plants in the US. Nuclear energy supplies one-fifth of the US electricity supply, 75 percent in France, and one-sixth of the world's.

Aargh! I can hear the cries from those who still equate nuclear energy with Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.

The anathema of social investors, cost-benefit analysis, is in order. The benefits of nuclear in lowering greenhouse gases are unassailable. In contrast to coal, oil and so-called "clean" natural gas, nuclear produces no carbon dioxide. Nuclear energy has perhaps the lowest impact on the environment ­ including air, land, water, and wildlife ­ of any energy source. Yet scare tactics have forced the US into increasing its reliance on coal and Middle East oil, the principal sources of our greenhouse gases.

All things nuclear have long been litmus issues for the left. Anti-nuclear weapons activists from the 1960s morphed into anti-nuclear energy protesters. The Rocky Mountain Institute, a leftist think tank based on a ski mountain in Colorado, often trots out feckless quotes about "the risks of a technology so unforgiving that, as Nobel physicist Hannes Alfvén wrote, 'No acts of God can be permitted'." This scientifically absurd conflation of weapons with energy has now escalated into an attack on energy consumption itself. Nuclear energy remains one of the most fashionable "negative" screens used by social investors, who cite concerns over reactor safety, radiation exposure and nuclear waste disposal.

What is today's reality?

Electricity from nuclear energy is made by steam generated when fuel rods are immersed in water. Spent fuel rods contain some plutonium and leftover uranium, which can be separated in a reprocessing plant and used as reactor fuel. Certainly, there are risks as Chernobyl showed. But in context, the safety record of the nuclear industry is superb. The explosion at the ill-designed Soviet plant directly resulted in 31 deaths, a tragedy. But that¹s fewer deaths than occur every year in coal accidents in any major industrial country.

Nuclear power plants are not without hazards, but no industry is. Nothing as bad as Chernobyl is likely to occur in the West. Even at TMI, which was built with standards lower than today's, the accident destroyed the reactor, but the core itself remained confined. Radioactive gases were vented, but there is no evidence that this harmed the public.

What about nuclear wastes? The problem of disposal, particularly the political battles over storage sites, hasn't been solved. About one cubic meter of dangerous waste per year is generated by a power plant. After ten years, the fission products are 1,000 times less radioactive, and after 500 years, the products will be less radioactive than the uranium ore they are originally derived from.

The US reprocessing and storage plan is caught in a political no-man's land over whether to store the waste in Nevada in the same area as has been used for underground nuclear tests. The US shut down its reprocessing plant during the 1970s and hasn't replaced it. The Carter Administration decided not to reprocess on the grounds that if other countries could be persuaded to follow suit, the likelihood of nuclear proliferation would be reduced. It didn't work. Belgium, France, Russia and the UK operate lucrative reprocessing facilities, and the Japanese are building their own.

Is nuclear energy uneconomical as critics, such as the Rocky Mountain Institute, allege? Political protests and extended litigation certainly up the costs. But with many countries such as the cost-conscious French and Japanese building new plants and developing countries such as China and Indonesia jumping on board, it's a difficult argument to sustain on a worldwide basis.

There is an intriguing design, the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), which could resolve the waste disposal concern. The IFR burns all the plutonium it produces. However, the project, formerly in development at Argonne National Laboratory, was cancelled at the start of the Clinton administration as a gesture to anti-nuclear environmentalists.

The fact is, even without IFR, the present types of nuclear reactor have been improved incrementally and are entirely adequate for the future. Obviously, these facts are not likely to assuage the concerns of dedicated anti-nuclear ideologues. To the most extreme, any involuntary risk is unacceptable, even one that is relatively minor and will result in documentable benefits ­ including a reduction in greenhouse gases.

There is no silver bullet for expanding carbon-free energy supply. Nuclear energy should be one option. It's disturbing when so-called progressives recklessly invoke the precautionary principle in the name of health and safety, when in reality they are preserving the status quo, retarding development in less prosperous countries ­ and hurting the environment they piously pledge to protect.

Jon Entine is scholar-in-residence at Miami University (Ohio) and adjunct fellow with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. Jon is also an award-winning freelance journalist.

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