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Wasted Energy

Author: Michael A. Levi, David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment and Director of the Maurice R. Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies
April 18, 2006
New Republic Online


A colleague, charged with being anti-nuclear, has always insisted that he is actually “anti-pro-nuclear.” An anti-nuclear activist opposes nuclear energy outright. The anti-pro-nuclear individual, in contrast, is at least ambivalent about, and may actively support, nuclear energy—but he recoils at the overwrought and misleading arguments often issued by those who advocate nuclear power. Sunday’s Washington Postpaean to nuclear energy by Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore is a textbook example of a good pro-nuclear case gone bad. Moore has a strong argument for nuclear power as a tool for controlling greenhouse gas emissions, but he undercuts it with a series of false assertions and slippery arguments. These credibility-damaging tendencies hurt the real case for nuclear power.

Moore claims to refute those who say that nuclear power is expensive, retorting that it “is in fact one of the least expensive energy sources” and noting, to support this point, that “the average cost of producing nuclear energy in the United States [is] less than two cents per kilowatt-hour, comparable with coal and hydroelectric.” While literally true, that’s a specious claim. The marginal cost of producing an additional kilowatt-hour of nuclear power using existing plants is indeed less than two pennies. But that ignores the capital costs involved in building nuclear power plants, which exceed the costs of building coal-fired facilities. Including those expenses, an MIT report (which made an honest argument for nuclear power) prices nuclear at 6.7 cents per kilowatt-hour, in contrast with only 4.2 cents for coal, nearly 40 percent lower. To be logically consistent, Moore would also have to believe that buying a house is always cheaper than renting (because property taxes and maintenance cost less than rent) and that owning a car is always cheaper than riding a bus (because gas costs less than bus fare).

Moore then attempts to rebut the common claim that nuclear waste remains dangerous for thousands of years by noting that, after 40 years, used fuel loses 99.9 percent of its radioactivity—hence, he implies, it becomes safe. But that’s beside the point, since even that reduced radioactivity still makes waste disposal difficult and costly. There is a case to be made for being less cautious about nuclear waste than our current regulations dictate, but Moore doesn’t make it.

He offers another related, and again misleading, claim:

It is incorrect to call [used nuclear fuel] waste, because 95 percent of the potential energy is still contained in the used fuel after the first cycle. Now that the United States has removed the ban on recycling used fuel, it will be possible to use that energy and to greatly reduce the amount of waste that needs treatment and disposal.

That argument ignores two critical things. First, it is cheaper to simply mine and use new uranium than to extract the remaining “95 percent of the potential energy” Moore refers to. More importantly, recycling used fuel does little to cut down the volume of nuclear waste. When the remaining “potential energy”—locked up in uranium and plutonium—is extracted from used nuclear fuel, the bulk of the radioactivity in that nuclear fuel remains. As a result, that material must still be protected in large, radiation-shielding casks—and disposed of, meaning that the waste problem does not disappear.

Moore then turns to terrorist attacks on nuclear reactors, rightly rejecting those who conjure images of nuclear explosions, and noting correctly that it would be nearly impossible to breach the concrete dome surrounding an American reactor. But he weakens his case by completely ignoring the main claim made by serious skeptics: The pools containing spent nuclear fuel, which sit outside the concrete containment domes, may be vulnerable to attack. Without addressing the most credible argument about vulnerability to terrorism, Moore cannot effectively make his point. (A recent study by the National Academies of Science presents a series of sound and sensible steps—still resisted by many who will not admit any flaws in nuclear security—that would address the spent fuel problem.)

Finally, Moore turns to the question of whether nuclear power can be diverted to make nuclear weapons, and to his credit calls it “the most serious issue associated with nuclear energy.” But he then proceeds to treat it unseriously. He notes that “If we banned everything that can be used to kill people, we would never have harnessed fire.” That’s true, but the question here isn’t whether nuclear power is dangerous; it’s whether the dangers associated with it outweigh the benefits it entails. Simply because fire had greater potential for good than harm does not mean that the same is true for nuclear power. The benefits of nuclear power, properly managed, may indeed outweigh the downsides, but by taking on a strawman, Moore fails to make that case.

The recent openness of environmentalists to nuclear power as part of the solution to climate change is to be welcomed; after all, anti-nuclear zealotry does nothing to address the problems we face. But the greatest political barrier to nuclear energy is public skepticism. And so, as the pro-nuclear crowd attempts to build credibility, exaggeration is the last thing it needs.

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