Green energy requires nuclear-power plants, too
Posted on November 11, 2010
By Mackubin Thomas Owens
In its quest for a "green" future, the Obama administration proposes to rely on wind power to generate 20 percent of U.S. electrical power by 2030. There are a number of problems with this proposal.
First, the European experience illustrates that the hidden costs of wind-power generation require massive subsidies that are borne by taxpayers. Second, wind power is unsuitable for meeting "base load" power demand (as opposed to helping to meet peak power demand).
Third, as Texas has discovered, the cost of transmitting electricity from windy areas to the urban areas that constitute the bulk of electricity demand are staggering. Finally, as Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican and a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has observed, the Obama plan would require the construction of 186,000 1.5-megawatt, 50-story wind turbines occupying an area the size of West Virginia, as well as 19,000 miles of transmission lines.
There is a better "green" option: nuclear power. The requirement for energy diversity and clean air would seem to support expansion of nuclear-generated electricity. Indeed, nuclear power accounts for about 70 percent of the nation's carbon-free electricity generation, and is the only base-load energy source that can make a decisive contribution toward reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.
Nuclear energy is also efficient and safe. The efficiency of nuclear power has improved by 36 percent since 1990, the equivalent of adding more than 231 1,000-megawatt power plants. France gets 75 percent of its electrical power from nuclear energy. As for safety, data compiled by the World Association of Nuclear Operators indicates that all of the key indicators of nuclear plant performance - from unplanned reactor shutdowns to radiation exposure - have shown high levels of safety at U.S. nuclear power plants during the past decade.
However, the United States has not ordered a new nuclear plant since 1979 or begun construction of a new reactor for 30 years. And the recent decision by Constellation Energy to terminate the Calvert Cliffs project in Maryland for lack of loan guarantees and the fate of two Texas nuclear projects stalled for the same reason bodes ill for the prospects of a revival of nuclear power.
Ironically, oil-producing countries in the Middle East and beyond are turning to nuclear power. It seems clear that this trend is influenced by their desire to export oil and gas rather than burning it in power plants, but perhaps they foresee reduced Western demand owing to probable carbon-mitigation measures. Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are considering going nuclear. The United Arab Emirates already has. So while plans are underway in the Middle East for construction of as many as 15 nuclear plants by 2015, the United States remains idle on the nuclear power front.
Much of the opposition to the expansion of nuclear power comes from environmentalists, who logically ought to embrace a carbon-free means of generating electric power. But not only have environmental activists obstructed the construction of new nuclear-power plants, they also have opposed renewing the licenses of nuclear-power plants currently in operation.
But government policy and economics also play a role in retarding the expansion of nuclear power. The U.S. government can improve the prospects for this carbon-free method of producing electricity by increasing its level of support to include changing the formula for loan guarantees; by turning the nuclear-waste program over to a quasi-government corporation; and by providing incentives for the construction of factory-built small modular reactors that can be fabricated at a fraction of the cost of large nuclear plants.
For economic and environmental reasons, we can't turn our backs on nuclear power.
Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and editor of Orbis, the quarterly journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.