It's not looking good for the nuclear industry. Last month, the $50 billion earmark for nuclear energy was removed from Obama's stimulus bill. And today Yucca Mountain, the problematic nuclear waste containment facility that was supposed to finally legitimate the viability of nuclear energy, just had its plug pulled by Steven Chu, head of the D.O.E.
Chu tried to assure jittery senators in the Senate Budget Committee that "Nuclear is going to be part of our energy future," but many were skeptical. A quiet and growing consensus seems to be emerging among energy experts, cleantech investors and the general public that nuclear just does not seem to add up.
When asked about the future of nuclear energy this week at the ECO:nomics summit, Matt C. Rogers stated that nuclear was taken off the table because it didn't meet the key criterion of the stimulus bill -- to get projects underway and create jobs in the next 18 months. That doesn't mean there won't be appropriations for nuclear in the upcoming energy bill, but the focus will likely be on creating "next-gen" nuclear which by some estimates is at least 10 years away from deployment.
Why the slowdown? I wish I could say it is because nuclear's many disconcerting ramifications (both political and environmental) have suddenly become clear. But in reality, the real reason is financial.
Today, NPR hosted a great panel of nuclear experts including Dr. Per Peterson of UC Berkeley and Dan Hirsch of the Committee to Bridge the Gap (Martin Sheen video below). While they presented different viewpoints (Peterson pro, Hirsch con) they both agreed that the nuclear is not yet ready for prime time. Despite 67 years of development, the costs for nuclear have gone up and "no one's buying."
The permitting process alone for a nuclear plant takes years, and there is no such thing as a standardized "kit of parts" which would allow for rapid deployment of the technology. Add to that the scarcity of some key reactor components, one of which is manufactured by a single plant in Japan that according to rumor has a several year back log (driven significantly by demand in China).
Then there is the massive waste problem. There was notably a $6 billion earmark for nuclear waste cleanup in the Stimulus bill, but Chu made it clear that a key to nuclear's viability is "closing the fuel cycle" -- something which has yet to be accomplished in a way that does not fan the fires of nuclear proliferation. That means "downcycling" the waste into a substance that is safe for reuse and subsequent disposal.
Peterson points to the success of France in recycling its nuclear waste into a second generation plutonium substance. But Hirsch points out this type of recycling is extremely expensive and results in weapons-grade product. And if you think the NPT (non proliferation treaty) is going to protect us form the distribution of plutonium, you only have to look to Iran which is part of the NPT.
Peterson then went into the classic coal versus nuclear argument. Coal is responsible for approximately 65,000 deaths per year related while Chernobyl only caused 20,000 casualties. By this creepy calculus, you could have "a couple Chernobyl's per year" (yes I'm actually quoting him) and still be ahead of coal.
Hirsch said this is a false set of choices, and it is exactly where the nuclear industry wants us to go -- into a logic where the (slightly) lesser of two evils. And if you get a $40-$45 price on carbon (according to a recent congressional study), then suddenly nuclear will start making economic sense. This is why the cap and trade system is the greatest hope for the nuclear industry (and my greatest fear).
But as Hirsch says, we only have a very small window to solve global warming. Why would we invest our precious time and money on ANY technology (especially one that has so many unsolved problems) knowing that it relies upon a finite resource -- coal, gas, oil, uranium -- when you could invest in a technology that makes use of fee, infinite and safe resources -- solar, wind, geothermal.
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