Lawrence Solomon: Nuclear power extremes

(April 8, 2011) Lawrence Solomon discusses why support for nuclear power from both the left and the right is misguided.  

It’s becoming increasingly common for environmentalists to be pro-nuclear — the list now includes the U.K.’s James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia concept; the United States’ Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog; Canada’s Patrick Moore, a Greenpeace founder; and Stephen Tindale, former executive director of Greenpeace U.K. Most recently, U.K. green journalist George Monbiot announced his conversion to nuclear power, claiming that the modest harm caused by the Fukushima accident in Japan tipped the balance for him.

Occasional releases of radioactivity from nuclear reactors may well represent acceptable risks, as these environmentalists, the United Nations and other official agencies have come to believe, and as most on the political right have always believed. But even if nuclear accidents cannot inflict death and destruction on a massive scale, as I too believe, this hardly transforms nuclear power into a desirable way to generate electricity. By any reasonable measure, nuclear fails on economic, social, and environmental grounds.

Nuclear reactors have been an uneconomic technology, prematurely brought to market, from the get go. Despite hopes that they would provide power too cheap to meter, the Eisenhower administration learned that nuclear failed the test of the marketplace in 1957, in a report produced for the federal government’s Atomic Energy Commission. France — the most go-hung nuclear electricity country in the world — thought it could overcome nuclear’s economic shortcomings and failed: The financial results of its investments in nuclear were “catastrophic,” according to the president of Électricité de France, the state utility. The U.K.’s British Energy, the only privately owned nuclear generating company to ever operate in a competitive environment, went bankrupt, despite having inherited the best reactors in the U.K. fleet after the country’s state-owned monopoly was broken up and privatized. In fact, no nuclear electricity generating company has ever operated without government subsidy, and given the state of the technology, none will any time soon.

Nuclear power’s champions, mostly those on the right of the political spectrum, argue that nuclear would be competitive, if only those on the left didn’t irrationally burden it with crippling regulations. This is wishful thinking, bereft of any evidence. Clear-eyed assessments, including ones from the right, such as those from the Washington-based think-tank, the Cato Institute, confirm that nuclear power fails the test of the marketplace, regardless of environmental regulations.

Attempts to minimize the economic drawbacks of nuclear by building ever-larger complexes to gain economies of scale led to unintended consequences. Nuclear-dependent jurisdictions are far more vulnerable to blackouts and the disruptions they cause, for example, because a single event can take down a substantial portion of an electricity grid. The Fukushima accident at a complex of six reactors caused rotating blackouts throughout Japan, in part because radioactive emissions from one stricken reactor hampered repair efforts at others, preventing repair crews from containing the accident.

To make nuclear plants and their high capital costs less money-losing, they are designed to run flat out, 24 hours a day, making them unable to efficiently ramp up when needed during peak daylight periods, or to throttle back in the middle of the night. As a result, nuclear systems tend to generate great surpluses in the middle of the night, giving governments cause to remake the the citizenry. In Ontario, one of the world’s most nuclearized jurisdictions, the province’s Procrustean Environmental Commissioner advocates lifestyles changes by setting off-peak rates at one-third to one-fifth the daytime rate, whatever is required to convince people of the need to do their laundry and dishes at times convenient for nuclear power.

Neither is nuclear benign environmentally. As with other forms of generation, mining the ore it uses as fuel degrades the environment. And once the fuel has become highly radioactive, nuclear entails health and safety hazards more severe than those faced by workers at other generating facilities.

Then there is the gravest environmental danger of all — nuclear war. Many of the world’s civilian programs — in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Argentina under the Junta, Romania under Ceausescu, North Korea under the Kims, South Africa under apartheid, and now Iran under Ahmadinejad — have been covers for illicit bomb making. By believing that nuclear power has legitimacy in commercial power applications, as do Monbiot and other recent converts to the pro-nuclear cause, the converts are helping provide cover for tyrannical builders of the ultimate weapon of mass destruction.

But more importantly, the left-leaning converts are destroying the One Great Reason for nuclear power’s survival after a half-century of economic losses — the rock-solid and irrational conviction among those on the right that the anti-nuclear movement is no more than a pinko plot. Once the right sees itself in bed with the left, it will open its eyes, examine the nuclear books afresh, and phase out the subsidy-sucking nuclear power industry. By then the chief reason for the left’s recent embrace of nuclear — its equally irrational conviction that global warming represents a grave threat — will also have subsided.

Financial Post
Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe and the author of The Deniers.


About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .
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4 Responses to Lawrence Solomon: Nuclear power extremes

  1. New China has more nuclear plants under construction than any other nation. Your left vs right perspective doesn’t seem adequate, unless you’re putting communism on the right.

    I’ve been very disappointed at the aid and comfort that big companies in nuclear power industry have been giving to the CO2-climate alarmists. Are the big companies part of the right or left?

    • Lawrence Solomon says:

      By those on the right, I am referring to the U.S. right — commentators like Charles Krauthammer and George Will along with the most Republicans, who would normally espouse a free market perspective.

      I do not consider either China or big business to lie in the free market camp.

  2. Rob Perri says:

    I believe, like you, that a technology should prosper or die on it’s own merits. Having worked in nuclear power, I know that the technology is safe. However, I also know that it is uneconomical.
    I believe the reason that the governments of the world keep piling cash into the sector is because it is a great way to stimulate economic growth (thousands of people are employed directly and indirectly with a mega nuclear construction project). I do believe that in the end, those jobs cost much more than they are worth but to a politician, that is no consequence because he/she is not likely to be around when that data comes to light.
    As well, having worked on the ground in major nuclear projects, it is obvious that the regulations are overly burdensome and costly. Streamlining of regulations would help make the nuclear sector much more feasible on an investment basis. However, with the Daiichi situation, reducing regulations in the nuclear sector is not going to happen. What is likely to happen is that regulations are going to be much more burdensome and costly. In the end, with strange and powerful acts of God, no regulation, even extremely well thought-out regs, are likely to be of much use.

  3. Tom Andersen says:

    We need to go with science and a level playing field. We need power. The only two things that work worldwide are coal and nuclear. Which kills less people? Look at deaths per TWh. It’s easy to say that nuclear has huge subsidies, but most of the money would be spent anyway, and has already been spent.

    Fear of radiation killed 100,000 Americans as coal plants built since 3 mile island spewed poison into the Midwest ( and Ontario). Actual deaths from nuclear power are low – including Chernobyl. Its not an easy choice. Certainly not one governments should make, as governments are the same people bringing us $0.80/kwh solar.

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