[Marxism] Mark Hertsgaard on nuclear power

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Jul 14 11:17:30 MDT 2006


(The article mentions Charlie Komanoff, who I alluded to the other day.)

http://www.thenation.com/doc/20060731/hertsgaard2
The G-8's Risky Nuclear Embrace
by MARK HERTSGAARD

At their summit in St. Petersburg this weekend, leaders of the G-8--the 
world's richest economies--are poised to endorse a major expansion of 
nuclear power as part of the "energy security" agenda proposed by Russian 
president Vladimir Putin. Leaked drafts of the summit's final communique 
mirror a statement released by energy ministers of the eight nations, which 
read, "For those countries that wish, wide-scale development of safe and 
secure nuclear energy is crucial."

Nuclear power is often perceived as a potential counter to climate change 
because nuclear plants release much less carbon dioxide than coal or 
natural gas plants do. But aside from the safety and security risks of 
nuclear power, the fact is that the atom's unfavorable economic performance 
means that going nuclear would actually make climate change worse.

During the lead-up to the summit, Russia and the United States have been 
the strongest pro-nuclear voices. France, which generates nearly 80 percent 
of its electricity in nuclear reactors, is a strong supporter as well. 
Germany and Italy remain opposed, both having passed laws prohibiting 
additional nuclear power plant construction.

But the country to watch is Britain. The pro-nuclear argument got a strong 
push earlier this week when Prime Minister Tony Blair's government endorsed 
nukes as a crucial weapon in the fight against climate change. The 
endorsement came as part of the government's new energy policy. While that 
policy includes increased reliance on wind and other forms of renewable 
energy, nuclear power is expected to make, in the words of Alistair 
Darling, the trade and industry secretary, a "significant contribution" to 
cutting carbon emissions.

The Blair government's announcement triggered a political firestorm in 
Britain. The embrace of nuclear power, which had been rejected by a 
government White Paper on energy in 2003, was widely attacked both by 
environmentalists to Blair's left and the two opposition parties to his right.

But there is a big catch in Blair's nuclear plan--one that could settle the 
question once and for all of whether nuclear power makes sense as a 
response to global warming.

The catch is that Britain will not publicly subsidize nuclear power. 
According to Secretary Darling, private investors alone must pay to 
finance, construct, operate and eventually dismantle any new nuclear 
plants. They also must help pay to dispose of the plants' radioactive 
waste--an activity whose cost is unknown, since scientists remain uncertain 
about how to store the waste safely.

This no-subsidy pledge amounts to a revolution in nuclear economics. There 
are 440 nuclear plants now operating around the world. Not one of them was 
built without sizable public subsidies.

Governments have subsidized nukes both directly--through R&D funding, cheap 
loans and guaranteed insurance--and indirectly, by allowing electric 
companies to pass billion-dollar cost overruns onto consumers. The US 
government has historically spent ten times more on nuclear subsidies than 
it has for solar, wind and other renewable energy sources, according to 
studies by the Renewable Energy Policy Project and the energy policy 
analyst Charles Komanoff. Perhaps the most critical subsidy is the Price- 
Anderson Act, which shifts most of the liability for a major accident at a 
US reactor to the federal government--in other words, the taxpayers. 
Without Price-Anderson's protections, no nuclear plant would remain in 
operation, as pro-nuclear legislators point out every time the act comes up 
for renewal by Congress.

Despite these ongoing subsidies, nuclear power remains forbiddingly 
expensive. A recent MIT study calculated that in the United States, nuclear 
power costs 6.7 cents per kilowatt hour. That's nearly 50 percent higher 
than natural gas, coal or wind, and it is vastly higher than energy 
efficiency, the least polluting form of electricity.

None of this stops nuclear industry flaks from regularly claiming, as one 
did not long ago on public radio, that nuclear power is the cheapest 
electricity around--a statement so deliberately misleading, it qualifies as 
a lie. It's true that nuclear's operating costs--for fuel, labor and 
personnel--are low. But its capital costs--for buying the reactor, concrete 
and other materials and, above all, for borrowing the money needed to 
finance years of construction and permitting--are astronomical.

In short, saying nuclear power is cheap is like saying a Rolls-Royce is 
cheap. It's true, but only if you count just the money you spend on gas and 
repairs, not the price of buying the car in the first place.

Investors know all this. That's why nuclear power survives today only in 
countries like Russia, China and France, where state-controlled electricity 
systems can ignore market forces.

"The financial outlook of nuclear power has always been, and remains today, 
poor," says Brice Smith, an analyst at the Institute for Energy and 
Environment Research and author of Insurmountable Risks: The Dangers of 
Using Nuclear Power to Combat Global Climate Change. "Nuclear is seen as 
such a risk that Standard & Poor's issued a report in January saying that 
despite all the new nuclear subsidies the Bush Administration inserted in 
the 2005 Energy Act, S&P still might downgrade the bond rating of any 
utility company that ordered a nuke."

If G-8 leaders want to honor last year's pledge to fight climate change, 
they need to understand that going nuclear would actually represent a big 
step backward. Because nuclear power is so expensive, it delivers seven 
times fewer greenhouse reductions per dollar invested than boosting energy 
efficiency does.

Tony Blair--like George W. Bush, for that matter--says it's not an 
either/or question; we need energy efficiency and nuclear power and lots of 
other energy sources in the future. But in the real world, capital is 
scarce. To divert capital to nuclear when efficiency can work so much 
faster would delay our transition to a low-carbon economy when in fact we 
need to accelerate it.

It's hard to believe Blair doesn't know this. In any case, he's in for a 
big surprise if he truly expects any nuclear plants will be built anywhere, 
without continued subsidies from the public purse.

--

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