Go nuclear?

GO NUCLEAR?…. When it comes to the nation’s energy future, it’s understandable that nuclear power would, after a generation on the outs, get a second look. In light of the climate crisis, nuclear offers an alternative with very low carbon emissions. There were controversies over safety in years past, but industry engineers are confident that technology has improved greatly. Best of all, the industry says, design improvements have made nuclear power plants easier and cheaper to build. None other than Barack Obama promised to maintain an open mind on the issue during the Democratic primaries, despite opposition from his chief rivals.

Given all of this, you might think it’s a good time to reconsider opposition to nuclear power. In the new issue of the Washington Monthly, editor Mariah Blake explains why that would be a mistake.

In the United States, there are thirty-five reactors on the drawing board, with licensing applications for twenty-six of them already under review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) — the first batch the agency has seen since 1978. These projects enjoy a broad public backing that would have been unthinkable a decade ago: a recent poll by Zogby Interactive found that two-thirds of all Americans support the construction of new reactors on U.S. soil. And this support cuts across political lines, with half of all Democrats favoring more nuclear power. Liberal opinion makers, such as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, have also endorsed the nuclear option. Wired magazine has repeatedly urged readers to “Go Nuclear.” Even a few longtime foes of atomic energy, like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, now argue it “has to be on the table.” As for President Barack Obama, both he and his energy secretary, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu, have offered at least qualified support for expanding the use of nuclear power in the United States.

What’s behind this dramatic reversal? The short answer is that climate change has shuffled priorities. Nuclear power may have some unsavory side effects, like radioactive waste and the risk of meltdowns. But no other energy source can deliver vast quantities of low- or zero-carbon energy at a price that rivals natural gas and coal, as the industry has promised the new breed of reactors will do. With this in mind, many people who once dismissed atomic power out of hand have come to view it as a vital, if imperfect, tool in the struggle to salvage our warming planet.

But as Finland’s experience shows, the reality may be far messier than the industry lets on: a growing body of evidence suggests that new nuclear construction projects are prone to the same setbacks as those undertaken a generation ago, when lengthy delays and multibillion-dollar cost overruns were commonplace. This raises serious questions about the potential of nuclear power as a front-line solution in the battle against climate change.

The issue is guaranteed to be a major part of the energy-policy discussion in the coming years, making Blake’s piece a must-read. Take a look.