Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Left-leaning economic columnist Eduardo Porter swallows nuclear power Kool-Aid

By Marc Jampole

Eduardo Porter usually gives a reasoned argument on economic problems and it usually leads to a left-leaning solution such as raising taxes on the wealthy or more government investment. He generally approaches the myths of mainstream and conservative economic writers with a clear head.

It was therefore surprising to read Porter on the front page of The New York Times business section advocating for the increased use of nuclear generated electricity as the solution to the twin challenges of human-induced global warming and resource shortages.  

Porter effortlessly runs through all the usual facts about the absolute need to reduce carbon emissions even in the face of rapidly increasing global demand for energy. But his argument hinges on a study that he says was conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and the International Energy Agency that found that a nuclear generator could produce power at $50-$75 per megawatt/hour, compared to $70 to $90 for coal-generated electricity and in the hundreds of dollars for solar.  Porter conveniently forgets to tell us that Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) was also involved in the study, but a link thankfully provided by the New York Times gives us that information. By the way, NEA is an international organization whose mission is to “assist its member countries in maintaining and further developing, through international co-operation, the scientific, technological and legal bases required for the safe, environmentally friendly and economical use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.” In other words, it’s a shill for the nuclear industry.  It is shocking and disappointing to see a reporter I respect stoop to concealing the source of the statistics he uses!

There is so much wrong with his analysis and his use of these statistics that I don’t know where to begin.  The study itself is open to question because it uses very favorable assumptions for nuclear when it comes to construction costs and interest rates. These assumptions don’t take into account the fact that the world has still not developed a viable way to store or neutralize spent nuclear fuel, which will spew radioactive poisons into the environment for thousands of years.

Beyond these figures which aren’t quite facts, Porter makes a number of assumptions that are questionable:
  • Like so many conservatives, he acts as if electricity delivered on a national grid is the only kind of energy that matters. Not true. For example, solar energy can heat the rooms, food and water house by house for much of the year in much of the world. Solar energy could also be used in neighborhood units that supply electricity to blocks or neighborhoods (and are connected to the holy grid).
  • He assumes that tax and regulation cannot be used to “level the playing field.”  Again quoting the Nuclear Energy Agency study, Porter says that even if a tax of $30 per metric ton of carbon dioxide were placed on coal and natural gas, it would still be cheaper than wind and solar. Why that arbitrary number? Why couldn’t we tax carbon emissions as much as necessary to make solar and wind competitive?  Right now society and every individual that suffers from a pollution-related disease or a weather disaster are paying the social cost of keeping coal-generated electricity cheap. That’s the way it used to be with cigarettes, too, with society paying the cost of lost productivity and increased illness among smokers. Now we tax the hell out of cigarettes and there is no reason why couldn’t do the same with carbon emissions.
  • Porter doesn’t even discuss the possibility of catastrophic nuclear accidents such as what happened at Kyshtym (in 1957), Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. What he says is that younger environmentalists “don’t associate nuclear power with Chernobyl and the cold war.”  I’m not sure what the cold war has to do with anything (except that the original reason that Truman selected nuclear over the solar option in the early '50s may have been that he was enamored with dropping bombs). But anyone who doesn’t associate nuclear power with Chernobyl is an idiot, and in Porter’s world, probably a fictional character.  Porter underestimates the justifiable fear of a nuclear accident that people feel.
Porter ends his radioactive polemic with a cry that we have to get started approving nuclear power plants now if we want nuclear power to play a leading role in combating climate change, because it takes 10 years and $5 billion to build each plant. It would be far better if that money were spent on perfecting solar and wind technologies and in priming the market for these alternative technologies with tax breaks and government purchases.

Coincidentally, this week also brought word that Fukushima is leaking poisoned water again. The many nuclear accidents, the one major catastrophe about every 10-15 years and the lack of a place to store all the poisonous byproducts makes nuclear generation of electricity a failed technology. It replaces one environmental horror story with another.  Instead of pouring more money into the nuclear cesspool, we should launch a major effort to accelerate development of alternative energy and technologies that use less energy, while promoting conservation and making the changes to our infrastructure that will reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, e.g., increase mass transit.

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