Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Nuclear "Renaissance" That Wasn't--And Probably Never Will Be

After recently giving our annual State of the Planet Address for 2015, we at the TSAP have begun to re-evaluate our energy policy for the future.  Since 2009, our party has been heavily pushing the idea of a "nuclear renaissance" as a complement to our renewable energy future.  Such an idea would entail a massive building of nuclear power plants nationwide (if not worldwide) utilizing the latest, state-of-the-art technology.  And doing so would theoretically allow us to phase-out fossil fuels more quickly than if we stuck only to renewable power sources in our future energy mix.  And who knows, perhaps even fusion power!

All of which sounds pretty good until you consider all of the rather sobering facts about nuclear power specifically and about energy in general.  The truth is, nuclear power is actually in decline, and has been for quite some time now.  Perhaps that is because policymakers are beginning to see the writing on the wall:  nuclear energy is simply getting more and more expensive over time, while at the same time renewables are getting cheaper and more efficient every year.  And while nuclear does not emit greenhouse gases directly, it actually does lead to significant emissions during the lifecycle as a whole (mining, milling, processing, transportation, construction, and decommissioning), and is not nearly as "green" as its proponents claim, even if it is somewhat better than fossil fuels.  Which is hardly a ringing endorsement for nuclear, since saying it's "not as bad as coal" is a rather pitifully low bar to clear.  And then of course there is that whole Fukushima thing, which by the way is still "hot" even many years later.  As for fusion, it always seems to be perpetually 25 years away, as they were saying 50 years ago.

But probably the most damning thing of all about a "nuclear renaissance" is that its huge demands would crowd out the resources (capital, labor, infrastructure, and yes, energy in the form of fossil fuels) that would otherwise be devoted to the making the renewable energy transition possible.  The time to build the huge number of nuke plants required was about 20-30 years ago, and that ship has clearly sailed.  Renewables are the way to go if we are to heed the warnings of climate scientists that say that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% in the next 15 years--there is simply not enough time to build nukes.  Additionally, it should be clear that decentralized energy is the way of the future, as well as flexibility, and nuclear power is basically an energy dinosaur that inherently fails to deliver on both counts.  Thus, as of 2015 we have officially dropped the idea of a massive nuclear power expansion from our party platform.  That said, however, we at the TSAP still believe that nuclear power should not be phased out until after fossil fuels are, ideally by 2030 at the latest, and we are not against building a small number of new nuke plants between now and 2030.  Like the Union of Concerned Scientists, we are now neither pro-nuclear nor anti-nuclear, but we are pro-renewables and anti-fossil fuels overall.  (But we still think ground meat should be irradiated.)

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