Michael Grunwald has written a primer on alternative energy for the latest issue of Foreign Policy, and he makes a number of excellent points. His skepticism regarding biofuels is warranted, and his core argument that efficiency increases are of central importance is well taken. That said, I don’t think Grunwald gives nuclear power its due. (Seed Magazine published a symposium on the relative virtues of nuclear power and coal power last month that’s worth a look.) He rightly emphasizes the staggeringly high start-up costs involved in nuclear power and the excruciatingly slow process of getting nuclear plants up and running.
Unlike biofuels, nukes don’t worsen warming. But a nuclear expansion — like the recent plan by U.S. Republicans who want 100 new plants by 2030 — would cost trillions of dollars for relatively modest gains in the relatively distant future.
Nuclear lobbyists do have one powerful argument: If coal is too dirty and nukes are too costly, how are we going to produce our juice?
We’re banking on the emergence of new technologies that will sharply reduce these costs. In June, Keith Johnson of the Wall Street Journal surveyed the state of small nukes.
In a nutshell: The smaller reactors can be built in U.S. factories, then shipped to where they’re needed. That gets around many of the roadblocks to building big nuclear reactors, such as a bottleneck on reactor core vessels made only in Japan.
Babcock & Wilcox say the new reactor, which uses existing technology, will also be as cheap or cheaper than existing plants—“less than $5,000 per megawatt.” That compares favorably to recent cost estimates for large-scale nuclear construction.
Part of the appeal of a would-be small nukes revolution to policymakers is that it could generate manufacturing employment, though that remains to be seen.
Then there are a number of more exotic possibilities, some of which Brad Plumer surveyed in his TNR essay on how the promise — perhaps the false promise — of technological breakthroughs shapes the climate debate.
Last December, the office [the DOE's Office of Basic Energy Sciences] released an “energy challenges” report that offered a lavish vision of what a new “control science” could accomplish. If, for instance, the steel used to make nuclear reactors was built by manipulating atoms at the nanoscale, rather than through traditional bulk processes, we could have materials that self-heal and better resist chemical corrosion and intense radiation, allowing the construction of nuclear reactors that operate at much higher temperatures and efficiencies–meaning more power and less waste. Or ultra-light materials could be used to build cars that require far less energy to propel. Or batteries built on chemistry yet unknown could allow electric vehicles to vastly surpass their currently limited range. Or solid- state lighting that used just a fraction of the power that incandescent light bulbs use, and without the glare of compact fluorescent lights, could drop the percentage of electricity the nation needs for lighting from 22 to 2 percent.
Grunwald also briefly references the idea of technological approaches to mitigating carbon emissions.