Friday, January 11, 2008

Nuclear Power in the UK: Still the Wrong Way to Reduce Carbon Emissions

In the latest stage of the so-called "nuclear renaissance," the British government today approved the construction of a new generation of nuclear power plants. This move reverses the previous UK policy on nuclear power, which (as stated in 2003) was that "its current economics make it an unattractive option for new, carbon-free generating capacity."

The decision to build new nuclear power plants has been met with ardent opposition from the British environmentalist movement, but UK Business Secretary John Hutton defended the new policy as a response to global warming: "Set against the challenges of climate change and security of supply, the evidence in support of new nuclear power stations is compelling." However, as the previous British policy explicitly recognized, nuclear power is economically a decidedly "unattractive option" for reducing carbon emissions.

The chart below demonstrates that as far as investments in clean energy go, nuclear power is decidedly sub-prime. We can most efficiently reduce the carbon output associated with energy production by improving efficiency (and thereby reducing the amount of energy that needs to be produced) and by implementing alternative, non-nuclear energy technologies.

(Based on data from the National Resources Defense Council)

Moreover, nuclear power plants pose significant terrorism risks, both as targets for attacks and as potential sources of material for nuclear devices. While the United Kingdom almost certainly has the resources to prevent theft of its nuclear material, this cannot be said for countries like Indonesia, which recently announced plans to develop nuclear power despite what ABC News called a "dubious safety record." By propagating the fiscal myth of nuclear power as a solution to global warming, the UK (and other industrialized nations) are founding a nuclear renaissance on faulty principles.

Nuclear power may be profitable given today's high oil and gas prices, and in the future it could play an important role in (or transitioning to) a global post-carbon economy. But if the British government's goal really is to address the urgent threat of global warming by reducing carbon emissions, nuclear power is a bad investment.


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J. said...

"Moreover, nuclear power plants pose significant terrorism risks, both as targets for attacks and as potential sources of material for nuclear devices."

Based on... what incidents exactly? Should we turn all chemical production facilities and nuclear power plants into mini-fortresses based on fears and suppositions? Or maybe we can focus more on interdicting the terrorist groups and relying on a moderate level of physical security to keep the very low probability of a terrorist attack away?

just saying, you ought not use the boogeyman of nuclear terrorism to beat off the advantages of nuclear energy. It's coming faster now that the $100/drum costs are becoming regular.

Max Postman said...

As David Albright, President of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) observed, "Documents found in Afghanistan and other information suggest that al Qaeda was considering attacks on nuclear power plants in Europe or the United States." While an attack has (thankfully) not been conducted to date, I think we can all agree that a sensible counterterrorism strategy would be responsive to terrorist plans, not just past "incidents."

As for the idea that we should "focus more on interdicitng the terrorist groups," I'm not sure how limiting the number of nuclear power plants would make it harder to interdict terrorist groups. If anything, a smaller number of power plants would reduce the amount of resources needed for defense and increase those available to "bring the fight to the terrorists," as Bush likes to say.

Finally, I agree that the security risks of nuclear power must be balanced against its putative financial benefits. The main point of the post was that, in terms of carbon reductions, nuclear power is actually financially disadvantageous by a wide margin. Thus, purely in terms of carbon reductions, nuclear power does not actually offer any financial advantages for me to "use the boogeyman of nuclear terrorism" to outweigh.