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Nuclear Power: Unsafe in any dose

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Of course, it'd be nice if energy producers could make more money with non-greenhouse gas-producing energies, but at this point I don't think nuclear can qualify on the basis of safety, considering Areva's leak in France and the numerous challenges that company faces in bringing its new reactor models on-line.

Looking at corn-based ethanol, and the way government subsidies have created that industry, I don't think nuclear (or ethanol) will succeed without government help.

Solar and wind should be the primary focus of a sadly missed national energy policy. The expense and risks of nuclear power generation should make it a secondary technology, unless/until safer versions can be devised, ideally ones that don't produce radioactive waste or can safely recycle almost all of it.

Nukes, nukes, nukes

Supporters of nuclear power have been slow to grasp at any knee-jerk response to the rise in the cost of energy, as people like CNBC's Larry Kudlow have on the oil drilling front. Calls to "drill, drill, drill" are rising as the conservative echo chamber attempts to sway mass opinion.

Contrary to the Republican position, increasing energy production is possible without making concessions to Big Oil, or allowing rigs to be set up on every beach in the nation. Still, the mediascape is framed purely in black and white, as if bestowing drilling permits will lead to a substantive and almost immediate reduction in prices at the pump. This stagecraft is performed by lobbyists for Big Oil, oil contractors (like Susan Palin's husband) and their political representatives.

For nuclear power, the risks to any public figure are quite high. Unlike "drill, drill, drill"--a mantra as quick to roll off the tongue as the ubiquitos "USA, USA, USA"--nuclear energy could become highly unpopular literally overnight. As bad as a major oil spill off one of our nations most pristine beaches might be, another Three Mile Island could be far worse, and contaminate a much larger region for a far longer period of time.

The road to nowhere

Most Americans, ignorant of how gas prices are determined, are vulnerable to whatever spin the Republicans and their cronies in the oil and coal industries can generate. Prices at the pump are not set in a vacuum; supply is not a function of American supply but rather that of the world. Demand is also not limited to American shores--even if we drive less, Americans cannot reduce increasing demand for oil in places like India and China. As soothing as the concept of more drilling now might seem, even the US Department of Energy admits that new drilling won't lower costs at the pump by very much, or any time soon.

None of these economic facts can be boiled down into a snippet like "Drill, Drill, Drill!" Explaining supply and demand are beyond the grasp of the Americans, especially when believing that the problem of higher prices can be magically alleviated by simply producing more. The US already produces a huge amount of oil domestically, every day, more than 10 million barrels. Conservation could give Americans far more relief, with zero risk, if conservation were more than a personal virtue, as Cheney calls it. Barack Obama has said--and was instantly ridiculed by McCain supporters--that simply inflating automobile tire pressures we can save more gas than new drilling would provide. He was right--simply monitoring tire pressure could save up to 3% of all gasoline consumption, which is more than current estimates of new production from domestic drilling.

In his acceptance speech at the GOP convention, John McCain extolled the US to lead the world. We are by far the world's greatest energy user, consuming 25% of the world's supply, which is hardly an example of conservation considering how we make up only 5% of its population. Unless the world can reduce its consumption, we will see the demand for energy rise. If the world can't reduce CO2 output, we'll see more warming. Can't the US curtail its wasteful energy habits? To lead the world, the US will have to change its usage patterns or the world will look elsewhere, to places like Iceland, which is already almost energy independent.

Petroleum will likely be the energy of choice simply because we know there's a lot of it around, and where it is. For now, the cost of extracting oil is lower than implementing new energy technologies, so we will keep doing as we have. In the future though, higher demand will reduce supply and put further pressure on the costs not only of oil, but of all its alternatives. In this respect, a small increase in supply will matter little, as we--or someone else in the world--will simply use it up. This is why the opportunity presented by American leadership in the field of conservation is so immense, and the consequence of a failure to conserve so drastic.

Now as the amounts of easily extracted oil decrease, new sources of oil will be more remote and more costly to extract. Already we're seeing this in the depth of drilling--up to 5 miles!--that will be necessary to develop large oil fields. There's also a political risk premium--a specific level of military or economic aid necessary to maintain the ongoing supply of oil from the world's more volatile regions, which through perhaps no coincidence end up being right above the choicest reserves.

Compared to the problems of nuclear waste, and the Mountaintop Removal associated with sourcing coal, petroleum may be less environmentally destructive. Burning coals also produces huge amounts of mercury, contrary to the Clean Coal fantasy. Many Middle Eastern deposits only require the investment of one or two barrels of oil to get 100 barrels out of the ground (although reserves this easily extracted are dwindling.)

To grow and process ethanol requires expending 1 barrel of oil (and its derivates, fertilizers, transport, etc.) for every 3 barrrels of equivalent energy it provides. In other words, the amount of energy required to grow corn, spray it with fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, harvest it, transport it, dry and/or store it, and transport it again to the ethanol plant (which in turn must be run on energy) makes it an inefficient source. Brazilian sugar-based ethanol is a better bet, but only delivers 7-9 barrels for each one invested.

Ironically the higher price of oil--the cost people are seeking to avoid through ethanol--makes the production of oil alternatives more expensive. Even if corn growers could somehow avoid using any petroleum-based fertilizers, or fuels, they'd still face higher energy costs, as the price of substitutes for petroleum products will rise as oil prices go up. There's no way, therefore, to shelter the American consumer from rising gas prices, short of reducing consumption, a task so mammoth that it can't be achieved through natural market forces alone, as they tend to lift alternative energy prices in proportion to oil.

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The author lives in Colorado, photographing the natural beauty of the Rocky Mountains. Politically, John's an X generation independent with a blend of traditional American and progressive values. He is fiscally conservative and believes in (more...)

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