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Posted by on Nov 9, 2010 in Economy, Health, Politics, Science & Technology, Society | 0 comments

The Nuclear Option

With Republicans in firm control of the House, Democratic influence diminished in the Senate, and interest being expressed from the White House, a political opportunity may exist for proponents of expanding nuclear power in the United States.

In 2003 MIT published an interdisciplinary report on the future of nuclear power. You can read the report summary and link to the full report here. The report was the result of a joint study between researchers at MIT and Harvard with political input from a bipartisan advisory panel. The report was updated in 2009. That update can be found by linking to it through the link provided above. The original 2003 report concluded:

“The nuclear option should be retained precisely because it is an important carbon-free source of power.”

That base assumption is reinforced by the 2009 update to the report. The update notes the increased interest in plug-in vehicles which adds to the need for carbon-free sources of electricity generation. In the year since the update, plug-in vehicles have moved from being an item of interest to an available commodity. As of the 2009 report, 44 new nuclear plants were under construction worldwide. None in the United States.

The original report predicted that, by 2020, 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions would come from fossil fuel based electricity generation. The 2009 update reports that carbon-free generation of electricity, including and especially nuclear, is lagging behind the predictions of just six years earlier in its original report.

Nuclear power cannot be discussed without reference to the concerns and criticisms that accompany the topic. Some of those concerns are emotionally based. Some are substantive. Those issues fall roughly into four categories: cost, safety, security and waste disposal. The safety issue can be subdivided to include environmental and health concerns. It is the conclusion of the MIT studies that the objections can be overcome through technological advances that are now largely in place. Critics disagree. The 2009 report recommends pursuit of nuclear power generation in the United States in concert with other non-carbon options.

With an ever growing need for additional energy to maintain global economic competitiveness and secure an affluent lifestyle moving into the future, the time has come for national discourse on the subject of nuclear power. Emotionalism needs to be discarded in favor of technological questions and answers. Bias, for or against, should be replaced by serious inquiry. Reality checks need to be in place. Arguments for conservation or agrarian lifestyles are notably unproductive given the general acceptance of affluence as representative of the “American Dream” in a broad cultural context.

That national discourse needs to recognize two critical truths. First, carbon based electricity generation has not become cleaner in recent years, anticipated technologies to accomplish that goal have not been achieved, and future energy generation needs to be based on environmentally conscientious principles. Second, from both a technological and quantitative perspective, other carbon-free options like wind, solar, and thermal are not prepared to take up the slack in the short to mid term future, meaning the next 20 to 50 years.

With the future in the balance, partisan obstructionism and wishful thinking should take a back seat to practical problem solving. Nuclear power may well be a practical solution that the American public and its political representatives need to consider.

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