New View on Nuclear Power

As a long time environmentalist, I have for many years opposed the expansion of nuclear power as a source of energy production. I had a couple of reasons:
1) the long term risks associated with radioactive fuel and fuel waste were too uncertain and very long lasting--potentially thousands of years of possible harm.
2) it doesn't usually make economic sense without significant government subsidies--either direct subsidies or hidden subsidies in the form of government assuming significant risk.

Over the last couple of years, my thinking has evolved on this, and I am now in favor of giving nuclear power another chance. Here's why: climate change. Climate change makes the first issue balance out--unmitigated climate change results in environmental outcomes that last for thousands of years--the same timeframe as nuclear power (although different issues). On the second issue, the truth is time is running short, and we need to throw everything we have at climate change. That means some of the things we do will be "less economic" or "more economic" than others. The more we piddle around trying to find the perfect response, the longer we keep ourselves parked in the path of the climate-change freight train coming at us.

We need to do it all: renewable energy, international agreements, cap and trade, carbon taxes, energy efficiency, conservation, technology development, technology transfer, forest protection, forest replacement, land-use changes, biofuels, agricultural transformation, carbon capture, transportation system redesign, behavior changes, and everything else. Nuclear power is one of the things we have to have on the table along with all these others, too. The new DOE Secretary, Steven Chu, agrees; many others do not (Kessler, Joel Makower, Amory Lovins [yow! I shouldn't be arguing with him!]). In the long run, as we transform our energy system, then I strongly advocate phasing out nuclear in favor of less risky energy generation technologies. Even in the shorter run, by putting a price not only on carbon but on other externalities, it may become apparent that nuclear will only play small role. But for now, we have to pursue every option and move forward aggressively on reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, including developing more nuclear power.
photo attributions: / CC BY-NC 2.0

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