The Agenda

Why Nukes?

Matt Yglesias wonders why Republicans are so enthusiastic about nuclear power

A reasonable approach to nuclear power would, I think, just start with the reality that the waste problem is both serious and also potentially solvable. Put a solution in place, and then the country could accommodate more nuclear power. Then put a carbon price in place, and more nuclear power could provide to be part of the solution. But if you’re going to pour billions in subsidies toward something, you should focus it on truly clean sources of energy.

I see where Matt is coming from, and there are a few decent clean sources that are probably underrepresented in our energy portfolio, including concentrated solar polar. But I think there are two pretty good reasons to support a massive push on nuclear power. The first is an issue that I’ve worried about for a while and that Matt has written about very persuasively, namely what he calls “The Growth/Oil Hammer.”

What if six months ago, the economy is actually growing? Not growing rapidly. But just growing. Like, the number is above zero rather than below it.

Well it seems to me that we’ll be right back where we were in the summer of 2008 where sky-high gas prices were clobbering everything. And we haven’t really done anything over the past year to leave ourselves better-prepared for that situation. 

That is, the coming energy crisis is urgent. We need to take drastic steps in the near term. I don’t go as far as Edwin Black in his book The Plan, but a true energy crisis would prove far more wrenching the economic downturn thus far. The second is that for all of the downsides of nuclear power, we have a good sense of what it can do, how to produce it safely, and how to scale it up, leaving aside the admittedly tough NIMBY/BANANA questions.

Keith Johnson of the WSJ makes an excellent contrarian case. 

In the meantime, wind and solar power are significantly more expensive than nuclear. T. Boone Pickens’ Texas wind farm, to pick one high-profile example, was meant to cost $12 billion for four gigawatts of power. Make that 1.6 gigawatts of power, since wind farm output rarely exceeds 40% of nameplate capacity.

That’s $7.5 billion per gigawatt—more than recent large-scale nuclear cost estimates, and a lot more than boosters of mini nuclear plants are promising: Under $5 billion per gigawatt.

I tend to think that this is a cultural divide more than anything else. If we want to go with the cheapest alternative, well, we can keep burning coal (except for that minor “peak coal” problem …). If you want a reliable, carbon-free source of energy, nuclear is your best bet. It’s worth noting that with most clean sources, the core concern is baseload power. For example, new concentrated solar plants tend to include natural gas plants to guarantee that they can reliable produce over longer periods of time. Wind farms require extremely long transmission lines that are very difficult to build. Not as difficult, granted, as a nuclear plant near a suburb, but this is not a trivial concern. Once you factor in the higher intrinsic costs of wind and solar, the cost of rebuilding our energy grid, and all of the baseload power we might need to make a nuclear-free or nuclear-light approach to reducing carbon emissions work, you have to wonder if the Congressional GOP has outwonked the wonks. 

I’ll note, in fairness, that the nuclear power industry has made a number of terrible environmental missteps, particularly in Britain. This has engendered a great deal of distrust. 

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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