from Energy, Security, and Climate and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

Nuclear Energy and Oil Dependence

March 18, 2011

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Nuclear Energy

I have a new essay up at the Washington Post that challenges five myths about nuclear power and provides some basic facts. (It will be published in print on Sunday.) I discussed it in an online chat on Tuesday; you can find the transcript here.

The myth that seems to attract the most pushback is this one: “Nuclear power is the key to energy independence”. I argued that oil is largely for transport while nuclear is for electricity. A large number of people have responded by insisting that electric vehicles change that equation. Once we can plug our cars in, they argue, we can fuel them with nuclear power. Let me explain quickly why that logic is wrong.

Imagine three worlds. In the first, we have affordable electric vehicles, but don’t generate nuclear power. In the second, we generate acceptable and affordable nuclear power, but we don’t have electric vehicles. In the third, we have both.

The first and third cases would lead to lower oil consumption. The second? It’s hard to see why. It’s the electric car that’s the key element of the equation here, not the place that it gets its power from.

I guess if I push myself I can see two other arguments against my bottom line. One might argue that nuclear plants could be used to make hydrogen for fuel cells (a point that has been around for decades). One might also claim that nuclear can back out natural gas in the power sector, freeing it up for use in transportation. I think that these are both big stretches, but it’s worth flagging them.

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