Sunday, May 15, 2005

Will environmentalists embrace the nuclear option?

The New York Times outlines the continuing debate over whether the environmental community should embrace nuclear power as part of a solution to global warming. (Generation of nuclear power creates no carbon emissions although the building and maintenance of the such plants require some release of carbon dioxide from vehicles and manufacturing processes involved in the construction and servicing of the plant and from the mining machinery used to obtain the nuclear fuel.)

Sen. John McCain is pushing legislation that would require curbs on greenhouse gasses in the United States, something environmental groups have long advocated. As an incentive to conservative lawmakers to vote for it, McCain includes a huge subsidy for new nuclear plants. Thus, the dilemma. Naysayers charge that moving toward nuclear is not only too dangerous, but also takes money away for other safer proven technologies such as wind and solar power.

A big question in the minds of many is whether nuclear power plants over their life cycle actually produce net energy. When all energy costs including the long-term storage of waste are tallied, the net energy may be negative. Using nuclear power may provide a temporary advantage while pushing the long-term costs onto our children and grandchildren. For some analysis of this issue, check here and here.

In addition, the amount of uranium available to operate such reactors over the long run is questionable. An estimated 72-year supply at current rates of consumption would shrink to 12 years if nuclear power were expanded by a factor of six. One solution to limited fuel would be to employ so-called breeder reactors which create more nuclear fuel by transforming non-usable uranium in the current fuel (which is the largest part) into usable plutonium. Sounds great until you realize that this is the equivalent of giving everyone with a nuclear reactor the capability to making a nuclear bomb.

(Comments are open to all. See the list of environmental blogs on my sidebar.)

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