Debating Nuclear

A reader writes:

You write:

"an energy policy without nuclear power cannot do anything to stop global warming"

This is simply not true.

I'm a huge proponent of nuclear power -- it's carbon free energy and a complete no brainer -- but saying that tackling global warming (well, CO2 emissions) requires nuclear power implies that it's remotely feasible to generate a large fraction of the United States' energy (let alone the rest of the world) using nuclear power.  Not only is this physically impossible, but even if you imagine that there's enough fissionable material out there (there isn't), it would be impossible to build and commission enough reactors fast enough to prevent an irreversible increase (on the centuries timescale, anyway) in atmospheric CO2 - here's an open-access article at PNAS that gets this point across.

During the campaign, John McCain proposed building 50 nuclear reactors by 2013.  Good idea!  It's nearly impossible to do so, but I'm all for trying.  However, those would generate less than 5% of current electricity demand, let alone the future increased electricity demand, or the very much increased demand you'll see if we ever get this promised hydrogen economy going and quit oil and coal.

The fact is that it's simply not an effective expenditure of resources to spend money decreasing CO2 emissions with nuclear power.  I'm for modernizing nuclear regulations and hope that cap-and-trade will make nuclear more profitable, but the government's money will go much, much further towards lowering emissions if it's put towards increased efficiency.  Check out this 2007 report (pdf) from McKinsey - look at the chart in Exhibit B.  In the best feasible case nuclear power offsets less than 100 megatons of CO2 emissions by 2030. That's less than 2% of our emissions today, and it'd take a decade for new reactors to come online.  The report also notes that most nuclear plants currently in operation are going to have to be retired soon; so you've got to rebuild plants on existing sites in addition to finding new ones.

If you're going to demand honesty from politicians you shouldn't help spread McCain's canard that we'll be just fine if we cut the red tape around nuclear power.  Folks on the left and the right are equally responsible for downplaying the potential consequences of global warming and the real sacrifices required to limit its effects.

Consumption is far and away the number one target, and essentially no one's talking about it.