April 09, 2007
The renewed push for legislation to cut greenhouse gas emissions could falter over an old debate: whether nuclear power should play a role in any federal attack on climate change.
Congress, with added impetus from a Supreme Court ruling last week, appears more likely to pass comprehensive energy legislation. But nuclear power sharply divides lawmakers who agree on mandatory caps on carbon dioxide emissions. And it has pitted some on Capitol Hill against their usual allies, environmentalists, who largely oppose any expansion of nuclear power.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Barbara Boxer Bay Area Democrats with similar political views are on opposite sides.
Pelosi used to be an ardent foe of nuclear power but now holds a different view. "I think it has to be on the table," she said.
Boxer, head of the Senate committee that will take the lead in writing global warming legislation, said that turning from fossil fuels to nuclear power was "trading one problem for another."
[Editor's note: Like, say, electing one Bay Area brain donor instead of another?]
"I've never been a fan of nuclear energy," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who has called it expensive and risky. "But reducing emissions from the electricity sector presents a major challenge. And if we can be assured that new technologies help to produce nuclear energy safely and cleanly, then I think we have to take a look at it."
The public's attitude toward nuclear power is more favorable when such energy is seen as part of an effort to fight climate change. Polls over the years have shown that a slim majority backs nuclear power, but a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg survey last summer found that a larger majority, 61%, supported the increased use of nuclear energy "to prevent global warming."
Legislation introduced recently in California seeks to repeal a 1976 ban on new nuclear plants in the state.
I predict that pigs will fly before that last statement comes to pass. San Francisco residents will garb themselves in human excrement to stay warm before they'll consent to using power generated by nuclear power.
On Capitol Hill last month, former Vice President Al Gore, who has become a leading advocate for swift action on climate change, said he saw nuclear plants as a "small part" of the strategy.
"They're so expensive, and they take so long to build, and at present they only come in one size: extra large," he said.
No article on energy policy would be complete without a comment from the Goreacle. However, he does make a valid point, albeit one contained in his usual inanity: nuclear power plants usually come in only the "extra large" size due to several reasons:
1) When a utility has to borrow several billion dollars to build a plant, it will want to generate enough energy during the plant's lifetime so as to ensure an adequate return on its investment.
2) Part of the reason that nukes were so expensive in the past was the ridiculous number of hearings, lawsuits, et al that the utility had to wade through before even breaking ground. A lot of that cost has been eliminated with the combined site permit and operating license process. Now, if a utility builds an NRC-approved design on a site that receives a permit, all systems are go. In fact, the company that I work for will probably attempt to build a monster plant sometime within the next 10 years. For the record, once the construction phase begins, the plant could be completed and go online within about three years, although normal construction delays could add a year or so to that figure.
3) All of the currently approved designs are pretty damned large. The Pebble Bed design has not been approved for construction within the United States. South Africa is working on one, and the US will gain lots of useful knowledge from its operation, which will -probably- lead to that design's eventual approval. You would then have a nuclear plant design that you could build in a modular fashion, where 300 Mw(e) plants would become economical.
We'll see where it all goes. For those of you who are opposed to the generation of power via the burning of fossil fuels, but are also opposed to nuclear power, I have this to say to you: you had better move south, because it gets cold in the winter. Just an FYI.
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