Friday, March 09, 2007

Securing the blessings...

Global warming may be melting the resistance to the use of nuclear power plants to supply our energy needs. That was the subject of yesterday's post on the Nuclear Thaw. I was pleasantly surprised the Assemblyman DeVore chose to reply on the blog. It turned the subject from a lecture into a discussion.

The Assemblyman begins with a fundamental questions for which he suggests that nuclear power is the appropriate answer.
How can working class Californians afford low-CO2 power without nuclear being in the mix? Solar is too expensive. Wind is periodic. Nuclear needs to be fully discussed. (emphasis mine).
We could debate the impacts of his two assertions regarding Solar and Wind, but I want to suggest that he is not even asking the right question. While framing this as an issue for the "working class" may be politically expedient, it misses the ecological question, one that I believe to be the political question of the future. I would frame it in the following manner.
What steps should we take now to ensure that we leave a livable planet for our children unto the 7th generation?
Winona LaDuke has long championed the idea of a 7th Generation Amendment and it from her writing that I gather this idea. LaDuke argued on the basis of that fundamental document of America, the Constitution.
The preamble to the US Constitution declares that one of its purposes is to secure "the blessings of liberty, to ourselves and our posterity." Shouldn't those blessings include air fit to breathe, water decent enough to drink and land as beautiful for our descendants as it was for our ancestors?
This leads me to make a different set of assumptions than the good Assemblyman made.
  • The rapid depletion of oil reserves (e.g. ANWR) will sacrifice the future for immediate political gain. It is in the best interest of all (and I mean internationally) to protect current reserves and to extend our ability to call on them as necessary for as long as we can.
  • We are entering a time in which there are three competing uses for natural gas: nitrogen fertilizers for agriculture, the generation of electricity and the manufacture of plastics. We have the ability to affect all three of these if we had the will to do it.
  • The need to expand our electric generation capability in the medium range is driven by the building sector. That uses 48% of total energy (pdf:p.8), much more than transportation. Focusing on transportation as the way to reduce our demand on fossil fuels misses the real target.
  • It does not make sense to say that we have the technology to make nuclear safe but do not have the technologies to make our buildings more energy efficient or to revise agricultural practices to require less nitrogen. If there is a technological answer to a problem, then it is only a question of choosing where we demand that technological solution. I don't think that our government really believes in our ability to innovate new solutions.
The fact that Assemblyman DeVore is looking to the Nuclear Solution now shows that he has not asked the right questions about our future. There are many things that we can do before such a solution might become necessary.


RobC said...

Whence came the notion that we have to choose between energy efficiency and nuclear energy? I don't think we do get to choose, and renewable energy is also part of the solution.

It's going to take decades to build enough nuclear plants to take over electrical generation from fossil fuels. In the meantime, conservation, especially efficiency improvements, and renewable energy can make a big difference. Ultimately, though, there is a limit to what conservation and renewables can accomplish, especially as the world economy grows. That's why it takes all three to head off global warming.

I discuss this in ear-bleeding detail on a web page called Global Warming: A Guide for the Perplexed

Wes said...

Rob, I took at look at your Guide (referenced in your previous comment). While much of the information is good, I really question your conclusions regarding economics.

I believe that government subsidy distorts the economics to the point that we do not have a true cost reported and every "reporter" can pick and choose assumptions to make whatever case they want. Strip the energy subsidies out of the costs for all of the choices and suddenly, nuclear is no longer so cheap.

The argument for that economic value of nuclear is based on two items: (1)the fact that the cost of fuel is low (<20%) in comparison to fossil fuel firing plants and (2) the heavily subsidies received for construction and the assumption of liability responsibility by the tax payer.
It only appears to that way because of policy decisions made by government. In particular, remove the liability protection given to nuclear under current US law.

I am in favor of removing all such economic favoritism from the energy industry; solar, wind, coal, as well as nuclear. Then I would insist that the industries provide for safe operations through the entire cycle including extraction and processing of fuels.

The current structures are so distorted that we can not possibly tell what the real costs to society are.