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Obama's Nuclear Madness and the Future of "Clean"

In early February, President Obama did something that his predecessor George W. Bush was unable to do: he pushed the restart button on the U.S. nuclear power industry. Obama announced the first loan guarantee to the nuclear industry in nearly three decades – a conditional guarantee of $8.2 billion for two proposed nuclear power plants in Georgia. In this single move, he may have jump-started the nuclear power industry in the U.S.

Or not.

The loans come with some strings attached — and Southern Company, the company behind the Georgia plants, may not accept those terms. Loans aside, the U.S. nuclear industry has a long history of cost overruns, production delays, and the inability to solve its most vexing problem: the issue of nuclear waste and containment. Until these issues are resolved, all the government money in the world may not be able to overcome public opposition and financial common sense.

So the question I’d like to ask the president is: why nuclear — and why now?

If it’s a question of reducing carbon emissions, creating jobs, and ensuring U.S. energy and economic security, there are far better options. The DOE has reported on how the U.S. could get 20 percent of its electricity from the wind by 2030. Clean Edge, along with Green America, has outlined a pathway for America to get 10 percent of its electricity from solar by 2025. And a number of studies have shown that renewables and energy efficiency are far more effective at reducing carbon emissions than nuclear power.

Indeed, if you pair solar and wind up with other baseload-power-providing renewables such as geothermal and biomass; efficiency measures (green buildings, retrofits, and the like); limited natural gas in high-growth areas; and a smart grid — then there’s no need to expand nuclear or coal. Just last month, for example, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council unveiled its 6th Power Plan for the Pacific Northwest. This well-respected and influential group, which shapes the power direction of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana, outlined how the entire region could meet its increased energy demand primarily through conservation and efficiency measures.

The current proposed crop of nuclear power just doesn’t make financial sense, either.  That’s why Wall Street has taken a big pass on nuclear power for more than three decades. Without the government insuring nuclear power plants (no private insurer will touch them) — and the feds backing them with taxpayer guarantees — they just wouldn’t get built. Sure, solar and wind require subsidies as well — but not wholly-run government insurance and financing programs.

Obama’s 2011 budget, for example, increases the Department of Energy loan guarantee authority for nuclear projects by $36 billion, to a total of $54.5 billion. Renewables’ potential share pales in comparison. The budget provides around one tenth of that amount for solar, wind, and other renewables — with just $3 to $5 billion of loan guarantees for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. To the budget’s credit, it also includes a 30 percent tax credit for qualified investments in new, expanded, or re-equipped advanced energy manufacturing projects, allocating $5 billion to provide this tax credit to energy manufacturing projects. But if all of the nuclear money is allocated, admittedly a big if, it would leave solar, wind, and energy efficiency far behind.

Nuclear power now costs around $6-$8 billion per installed gigawatt to construct — and 3-7 years to complete a power plant. Wind power, on the other hand, can be deployed far more rapidly (usually in a year or so) for far less money (around $1.5-$2 billion per gigawatt installed). And even solar is now getting competitive, with prices dropping nearly 50 percent in 2009 and with some systems being installed in the $3 billion per gigawatt price range.

Add in vexing nuclear containment and security issues (nuclear energy technology is basically a precursor to nuclear bombs), uranium mining pollution, and the fact that after decades of operation the nuclear power industry has still not figured out what to do with its radioactive waste — it makes one wonder why the U.S. would want to reenter this game.

In a recent Facebook post, Energy Secretary Steven Chu makes the case that we need more nuclear power because solar and wind, as variable resources, can only provide up to 20-30 percent of our electricity supply without major advances in energy storage. But with all due respect to Dr. Chu, even if solar and wind tap out at 30 percent without advances in storage — that’s still a significant number (equal to more than what we currently get from nuclear power). And if we are going to spend tens of billions of dollars on nuclear power simply because of its baseload qualities — why not take that money and invest it in the next generation of energy storage (large scale and distributed) and smart grid deployment instead? I’d happily place a bet on which investment would make the U.S. more secure and competitive.

Looking at all the evidence above, it’s pretty clear that there’s nothing clean about the current crop of nuclear technology. So, let’s not muddy the waters. Until we see a new generation of nuclear power — one that is modular, scalable and finally addresses radioactive waste and containment issues — let’s be honest about its considerable shortcomings. I understand that nuclear power will continue to play a role in the U.S. for some time to come — we live in a diverse energy world — but trying to revive nuclear power under the banner of “clean” is simple and utter madness.

Ron Pernick is cofounder and managing director of Clean Edge Inc. and coauthor of The Clean Tech Revolution.

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