State of the Planet Conference Puts Nuclear on the Table


Lady Barbara Thomas Judge, chairman of the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority at the State of the Planet Conference in New York City.

The State of the Planet Conference convened at the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York City this past Thursday and Friday. Man, have special interests grabbed the environmental movement like a bulldog by the throat, or what? Perhaps I'm getting increasingly hypersensitive as we continue to slog on, but panelists seemed more divided by the issues this year than in 2006. In short, we all agree that we must do something, but none of us can agree on what that should be.

Can you hear me now?
Of course if you ask a telecommunications person what will solve world poverty, he's going to say, "Telecommunications." Ask an agronomist what will help solve the fuel crisis, and he will emphatically respond, "Agriculture." Ask a buttoned-up economist how he sees the world, and he'll say, "An industrialized free market economy." And give the chairman of the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority the podium on climate change solutions, and she'll talk up nuclear like it's a half-silver bullet solution out of hell.

As for the last of these, a talk given by the Atomic Energy Authority's Lady Barbara Thomas Judge was one of the more egregiously one-sided talks of the afternoon. For a balanced discussion, you can't just give the benefits of an energy (and yes there are benefits to all forms of energy depending on how you slice it), without some of the embedded costs and a look into an alternative, well-informed opinion.

News on Nuclear Power
You can view Babs talk here and see what she has to say. In short, she acknowledges that "nuclear is an issue that divides people [but] the politics are changing." That's a reference to growing interest in energy options to combat greenhouse gases.

"In the U.S., three applications [for new nuclear power plants] are right now going through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the chairman, Dale Klein, told me that those three nuclear applications will be approved," she confidently said at the State of the Planet Conference.

According to a March 28 article in Scientific American, those three pending applications include two reactors at the South Texas Project power plant near Houston, new reactors at Calvert Cliffs in Maryland, and the Shearon Harris nuclear plant outside Raleigh, North Carolina. However, none of those plants "have completed the NRC's long design safety and feasibility evaluation, which could take years to complete."

As for the benefits of nuclear, Judge reiterated that "new nuclear is not old nuclear," citing the fact that newer plants have 10 percent of the waste compared to older, ailing technologies; nuclear energy is a base-low generator that keeps on generating energy at a reasonable cost; and the infrastructure and job benefits around nuclear power plant communities. "Of course," she said, "It is not the answer, but an answer."

I still found it to be highly disconcerting that the State of the Planet didn't have an alternative point lined up to approach the podium, which made the day reek even more of special interest groups. Quite frankly as far as I am concerned, that only time that "special interests" should come before "sustainable development" is in the dictionary. They shouldn't preclude multi-faceted, balanced solutions with healthy room for debate. Judge's keynote left no room for a Q&A; session and was immediately followed by a panel on "Identifying Energy Solutions for Sustainable Development." I went up after the panel anyway in order to squeak out a question. Perhaps I pontificated too much, since Edward McBride, the moderator of the panel and energy writer for The Economist cut me off. One of the panelists answered a third of the question, without even addressing my last two points.

The question on the tip of my tongue was about the true economics of nuclear. Without even arguing ailing nuclear power plants or health issues of toxic waste, I wanted to hit on these three areas:
1. Storage Costs. The cost of storage of the waste, which includes deep geological storage, which was discussed at State of the Planet.
2. Insurance Costs. If nuclear is so safe, why are insurance companies, the great risk arbiters of our market system, unwilling to insure homeowners and families in a nuclear power plant accident? Instead, families are at the mercy of the Price-Andersen Act, which caps the loss potential to a pittance per family in case of an accident with U.S. taxpayers having to pick up the rest. This is something we have to revisit, especially considering that some of our nuclear power plants across the U.S. are ailing or are up for decommissioning.
3. Investment Banks. During the last 60 years or so, nuclear has seen billions of dollars worth of subsidies (reports show anywhere from $70 billion to $150 billion). Without these huge sums of money, large investment banks are unwilling to lend money to build nuclear reactors—whether it's using "new" or "old" technologies.

As far as I am concerned, these are some of the embedded costs and important questions that we must address before embracing such technology. Judge urged the press to shed a positive light to nuclear, but how can you ask us to do that especially when you come off like a used car saleswoman pushing a Pinto? And mind you, we haven't even touched upon the idea of putting highly radioactive material in lead-lined basins in our mountains or deep under the ocean in hopes that science will eventually take care of them. Perhaps when we develop an advanced, cost-effective, large-scale, plutonium-free reprocessing system, widespread acceptance of nuclear will begin to make a little more sense.

Tags: Alternative Energy | Nuclear Power

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