The Atlanticist

William Tucker’s “The Case for Terrestrial (a.k.a. Nuclear) Energy” is a thoughtful discussion of our energy alternatives and powerful case for: (1) taking a cue from the French, and aggressively adopting clean, reliable nuclear power, and (2) using sustainable, fast-breeder reactor technology. To my great surprise and delight Tucker is an alumnus of my doctrinaire “liberal*” and politically correct alma mater.

Many Western governments subsidize and from a regulatory standpoint advantage so-called alternative energy, by which is meant wind mills, solar radiation and a range of biofuels. In his 2006 and 2007 State of the Union addresses President Bush, pandering to environmentalists who didn’t vote for him and indulging Green fashion rather than leading, touted wood chips. While they may have niche applications, none of the much ballyhooed alternative energy sources will power modern 21st century economies. It is high-time to stop indulging in reckless fanciful romanticism. No energy is cost free. One can, indeed must, make rationale rather than sentimental choices. The world will rely upon some mix of nuclear, coal and oil for the remainder of the century. Public policy will affect the mix and cost, which have a huge impact on the prosperity and health of mankind.

If public policy –notably in America, Great Britain and Germany, does not do a 180° on nuclear energy, coal, which is abundant, will be the de facto choice. Coal however comes
at a much higher cost in human lives, pollution and carbon emissions. It is time for public policy makers concerned about the economic welfare and health of their citizens to act responsibly and champion nuclear power.

*In the current US rather than European or classical sense of the word.

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  1. I think that nuclear energy is only part of the solution. Nuclear power plants take a very long time to plan and build, especially if you want to have a safe waste management. My country, Hungary relies 40% on domestic nuclear energy (as a share of electricity and not energy) and at the time being there is a political consensus that we will continue to maintain this level. However, it takes about 12 years to build a new or replacement plant. Seeing the development of solar energy by 2020 I think it will be a viable part of the energy mix, too.

    There has been a long debate in Europe if nuclear energy counts as ‘renewable’ and the conclusion is that it is not. The consensus in the EU was that it is up to the member states if they rely on nuclear energy as a tool to reduce their carbon emissions but nuclear energy does not count into their renewable quotas. I think this is a balanced opinion. Should the EU and US impose a high-enough carbon tax I think this would solve the dilemma because nuclear and solar plants (and in some countries, highland water plants) would become competitive.

  2. Adaniel,

    Except perhaps in very niche applications solar-radiation power is not cost competitive. It will not be a primary element of powering developed economies in our lifetimes. Public policy catering to solar – making Green activists feel good, will come at a high-cost in term terms of foregone economic growth and reduced quality of life.

    Nuclear power’s challenge is not economic, but political.

    While indeed it does take many years to bring new nuclear power plants on line, certainly the time can be reduced. And once they are online, they deliver clean, reliable and cheap power. Responsible energy policy on both sides of the Atlantic and in the emerging giants China and India should forthrightly champion nuclear power.


  3. Egrover,

    I think that this is not a real contoversy. As far as I know you cannot have 100% nuclear share in the energy supply mix due to the volatility of the demand. Also transmission can be very costly in sparsely populated areas. We still have rural areas in Hungary where it is cheaper to generate electricity locally than to integrate them into the national grid. In this places I think solar energy will be a very desirable source, although due to its volatile supply it will never reach 100%. I saw calculations of my countries energy regulator that claims that the cost of generating solar energy may reach the average cost level of the Hungarian energy mix – that is still far higher than the nuclear option but already cheaper than hydroelectric or coal. I agree with you on the feel-good factor and also see that nuclear power is a political challenge but I believe that you always have to have a diversified portfolio. It is not only the spot price that matters.

  4. ADaniel,

    I would agree.

    Nobody I’m aware of has proposed that any country rely entirely on nuclear energy. Even France which generates close to 80% of its electricity from nuclear power and has among the lowest electricity costs in Europe, remains enormously dependent on fossil fuels to power its economy.

  5. Dear ADaniel and EGrover,

    As the person who started this discussion (with my February Imprimus article), I would like to say that you’re both exactly on the right track. Nuclear can and should be made much easier to construct but it will not solve everything. France’s 80 percent is probably the limit because nuclear is not at all good for load following. The French use some hydro, a little coal oil and gas. The Swedes only need 50 percent nuclear because they have so much hydro resources. Finland seems to be in the same position. Rooftop solar will be great for load following because it peaks at the hottest part of the day. I think we should develop as much solar as possible. The big question mark is wind. Windmills can’t be predicted for any particular time and don’t follow loads. (The wind does peak in spring and fall and at night, when it’s needed least.) With Boone Pickens now telling us we can reduce our foreign oil by putting up windmills, some skepticism is needed.

    The most important thing is that “nuclear be treated like any other resource.” That’s what I constantly hear from nuclear people. “If we could just be on the same level ground as everyone else, we’d do well.” But nuclear is subject to all kinds of special attention and still serves as an emotional lightening rod. Although coal does 100 times the environmental damage as nuclear, nobody is picketing to shut down coal plants.

    My book, “Terrestrial Energy,” which will be out in September, does just that – tries to show that nuclear is just a natural process, the result of the great scientific discoveries made in the 20th century.

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