February 22, 2010

This Weekend’s News: Fun with Nuclear Reactors

I’m going to reach back into last week on this one, as President Obama teed up the topic last Tuesday with his announcement of over $8 billion in loan guarantees for new nuclear power plants. Perhaps the best back-and-forth outlining the pluses and minuses of guaranteeing loans for new nuclear plants was in an exchange between Robert Kennedy, Jr. and Christine Todd Whitman on CNN last Wednesday. One can surely guess the positions of each, but the commentary is worth reading.

The question they are hinting toward in this debate but somewhat skirting is important: would building more nuclear plants in the United States be offsetting the installation of more coal-fired power, wind or solar power, or power generated from natural gas? If we’re comparing the investment in nuclear against other energy sources rather than on its own merits isolated from other options, this is an important distinction. In reality, any new nuclear capacity expansion in the near future might simply be gearing up to replace the nuclear generation that’s going offline from aging plants in the coming decades, depending on the specifics. But if the question is cost of nuclear plus energy security benefits plus carbon benefits versus cost of something else plus its energy security and carbon benefits, I think it’s worth framing the conversation directly on those points explicitly.

Regardless, what I don’t like about the debate sparked over nuclear last week is that too many experts and commentators assumed in their various assessments that the technology (and thus related economics) are static. Renewables of all stripes have come a long way in recent years, yet too often the arguments that non-fossil fuel options are not to scale, cheap, or ubiquitous today are used as reasoning against adopting policies that would address those (legitimate) concerns for the longer term.

Luckily, last week’s vibrant nuclear debate also included some good reporting on nuclear technologies. This Scientific American article focused on the renewed debate over such nuclear energy tech things as fast-neutron reactors, traveling-wave reactors, reprocessing and thorium-based reactors. Three U.S. utilities are also pushing for approval of a small, 125 to 140 MW reactor design by a supplier to Navy carriers and submarines, according to a detailed WSJ article Thursday, and other small reactor designers are providing hope to utilities that installing new nuclear power for the first time in decades may be a growing possibility.

While these stories of technical progress and R&D developments are indeed hopeful, they also tee up questions of where and from whom. Other countries that have been working hard to improve nuclear energy technology in the past decades are actively advocating their products for the U.S. market. On siting reactors, the NIMBY problem is of course perennial, but Forbes also pointed out last week that the south is an ideal region for reasons of a more positive public opinion and fewer other good low-carbon energy options today.

Beyond what we do and where in our own country, we can’t completely ignore what other countries are doing as well. In a good thread on National Journal’s Energy & Environment blog last week (disclaimer: that I contributed to as well), Competitive Enterprise Institute Senior Fellow Marlo Lewis wrote that increasing nuclear energy generation would have the following effect:

“If developing countries are denied access to coal-fired power plants, what are they going to use to generate base-load electricity? It is difficult to imagine developing countries consenting to a moratorium on new coal power plants unless industrial countries agree to share nuclear technology with them, and pay for it to boot. At a minimum, DOD should acknowledge that increased proliferation risk is a potential consequence of the global warming crusade.”

This assumes quite a lot of things, foremost that a “global warming crusade” is the only thing driving an interest in building new nuclear reactors. Proliferation risk also involves intent, not just capabilities – and this sweeping statement assumes that all reactors and fuel (not to mention whether countries enrich their own fuel or not, and how) are equal on the nonproliferation front. The NPT also has us promising to spread peaceful nuclear technology, and how we adhere to thank can take many forms. However, I’m quite grateful that Lewis teed up the question of nuclear energy and its sister topic nuclear proliferation in terms of what the future may look like – one of my favorites, and natural security in its essence.

The Week Ahead
On Tuesday look out for South Caucus Fault Lines: Security, Energy and U.S. Interests held at CSIS from 8:30am to 2:00pm, with keynote Vitaliy Baylarbayo from the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR). On Wednesday the 24th the Heritage Foundation will discuss How Offshore Oil and Gas Production Benefits the Economy and the Environment beginning at noon. Thursday will wrap up major natural security events of the week. First from 9:30 to 11:30am, the United States Institute of Peace will evaluate Haiti: Six Weeks Later with a focus on the future role of America in sustainable development in the coming weeks, months and even years. Later in the day, the American Enterprise Institute will host Evaluating the Geoengineering Option from 1:30 to 4:00pm.