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Why Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer to Global Warming

There is no "nuclear renaissance” and there won't be: it just doesn't make sense economically.

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The other EPR under construction is in Flamanville, France. It began in 2007 and is now two years late and at least 50 percent over budget. In the best case scenario, it will open in 2012, also massively over cost.

China has also cut back its nuke program, based almost entirely on the old generation two style plants. If the Chinese nuke program is fully built out the share of nukes in their overall power mix will go from less than 2 percent to less than 5 percent of all Chinese power.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Energy gives 2021 as the earliest possible date for a fourth-generation nuclear plant to open. No American nuclear plant has yet been built on time or within budget, so the forecast may be rather optimistic.

An authoritative study by the investment bank Lazard Ltd. found that wind beat nuclear and that nuclear essentially tied with solar. But wind and solar, being simple and safe, are coming on line faster. Another advantage wind and solar have is that capacity can be added bit by bit; a wind farm can have more or less turbines without scuttling the whole project. As economies of scale are created within the alternative energy supply chains and the construction process becomes more efficient, prices continue to drop. Meanwhile, the cost of stalled nukes moves upward.

The World Watch Institute reports that between 2004 and 2009, global electricity from wind (not capacity, but actual power output) grew by 27 percent, while solar grew by 54 percent. Over the same time, nuclear power output actually declined by half a percent.

What would a nuke build out really cost? Mark Cooper, senior fellow for economic analysis at the Vermont Law School, has found that adding 100 new reactors to the U.S. power grid would cost $1.9 to $4.1 trillion, and that would take at least a decade to do.

In a comparative analysis of U.S. states, Cooper found that the states that invested heavily in nuclear power had worse track records on efficiency and developing renewables than those that did not have large nuclear programs. In other words, investing in nuclear technology crowded out developing clean energy.

Only when clean technologies—like wind, solar, hydropower, and electric vehicles—are cheaper than other options will the world economy make the switch away from fossil fuels. Right now, alternatives are slightly cheaper than nukes, come on line faster, and are growing robustly.

Nuclear power is not only physically dangerous—it is also economically wasteful. If the nuke huggers are so brave and serious they must begin to explain why, after a decade of billions in subsidies being on offer, there is no wave of construction underway. If the nuke renaissance is to begin, who will fund it? And who will build it in time to stave off climate tipping points? How long will it take? Thus the quip “Atomic power is the fuel of the future”—and always will be.

We have already wasted a decade on this blather and hype. Being manly is not enough. Realism is also required.

Christian Parenti is the author of "The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq" (New Press) and a visiting fellow at CUNY's Center for Place, Culture and Politics.

 
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