mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

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The G-8’s Risky Nuclear Embrace

At their summit in St. Petersburg this weekend, leaders of the
G-8—the world’s richest economies—are poised to endorse a major
expansion of nuclear power as part of the “energy security” agenda
proposed by Russian president Vladimir Putin. Leaked drafts of the
summit’s final communique mirror a statement released by energy
ministers of the eight nations, which read, “For those countries that
wish, wide-scale development of safe and secure nuclear energy is
crucial.”

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Nuclear power is often perceived as a potential counter to climate
change because nuclear plants release much less carbon dioxide than
coal or natural gas plants do. But aside from the safety and security
risks of nuclear power, the fact is that the atom’s unfavorable
economic performance means that going nuclear would actually make
climate change worse.

During the lead-up to the summit, Russia and the United States have
been the strongest pro-nuclear voices. France, which generates nearly
80 percent of its electricity in nuclear reactors, is a strong
supporter as well. Germany and Italy remain opposed, both having
passed laws prohibiting additional nuclear power plant construction.

But the country to watch is Britain. The pro-nuclear argument got a
strong push earlier this week when Prime Minister Tony Blair’s
government
endorsed
nukes
as a crucial weapon in the fight against
climate change. The endorsement came as part of the government’s new
energy policy. While that policy includes increased reliance on wind
and other forms of renewable energy, nuclear power is expected to
make, in the words of Alistair Darling, the trade and industry
secretary, a “significant contribution” to cutting carbon emissions.

The Blair government’s announcement triggered a political firestorm in
Britain. The embrace of nuclear power, which had been rejected by a
government White Paper on energy in 2003, was widely attacked both by
environmentalists to Blair’s left and the two opposition parties to
his right.

But there is a big catch in Blair’s nuclear plan—one that could
settle the question once and for all of whether nuclear power makes
sense as a response to global warming.

The catch is that Britain will not publicly subsidize nuclear power.
According to Secretary Darling, private investors alone must pay to
finance, construct, operate and eventually dismantle any new nuclear
plants. They also must help pay to dispose of the plants’ radioactive
waste—an activity whose cost is unknown, since scientists remain
uncertain about how to store the waste safely.

This no-subsidy pledge amounts to a revolution in nuclear economics.
There are 440 nuclear plants now operating around the world. Not one
of them was built without sizable public subsidies.

Governments have subsidized nukes both directly—through R&D funding
energy sources, according to studies by the Renewable Energy Policy
Project and the energy policy analyst Charles Komanoff. Perhaps the
most critical subsidy is the Price-Anderson
Act
, which shifts most
of the liability for a major accident at a US reactor to the federal
government—in other words, the taxpayers. Without Price-Anderson’s
protections, no nuclear plant would remain in operation, as
pro-nuclear legislators point out every time the act comes up for
renewal by Congress.

Despite these ongoing subsidies, nuclear power remains forbiddingly
expensive. A recent MIT study calculated that in the United States,
nuclear power costs 6.7 cents per kilowatt hour. That’s nearly 50
percent higher than natural gas, coal or wind, and it is vastly higher
than energy efficiency, the least polluting form of electricity.

None of this stops nuclear industry flaks from regularly claiming, as
one did not long ago on public radio, that nuclear power is the
cheapest electricity around—a statement so deliberately misleading,
it qualifies as a lie. It’s true that nuclear’s operating costs—for
fuel, labor and personnel—are low. But its capital costs—for buying
the reactor, concrete and other materials and, above all, for
borrowing the money needed to finance years of construction and
permitting—are astronomical.

In short, saying nuclear power is cheap is like saying a Rolls-Royce
is cheap. It’s true, but only if you count just the money you spend on
gas and repairs, not the price of buying the car in the first place.

Investors know all this. That’s why nuclear power survives today only
in countries like Russia, China and France, where state-controlled
electricity systems can ignore market forces.

“The financial outlook of nuclear power has always been, and remains
today, poor,” says Brice Smith, an analyst at the Institute for
Energy and Environment Research
and author of Insurmountable Risks:
The Dangers of Using Nuclear Power to Combat Global Climate Change
.
“Nuclear is seen as such a risk that Standard & Poor’s issued a report
in January saying that despite all the new nuclear subsidies the Bush
Administration inserted in the 2005 Energy Act, S&P still might
downgrade the bond rating of any utility company that ordered a nuke.”

If G-8 leaders want to honor last year’s pledge to fight climate
change, they need to understand that going nuclear would actually
represent a big step backward. Because nuclear power is so expensive,
it delivers seven times fewer greenhouse reductions per dollar
invested than boosting energy efficiency does.

Tony Blair—like George W. Bush, for that matter—says it’s not an
either/or question; we need energy efficiency and nuclear power and
lots of other energy sources in the future. But in the real world,
capital is scarce. To divert capital to nuclear when efficiency can
work so much faster would delay our transition to a low-carbon economy
when in fact we need to accelerate it.

It’s hard to believe Blair doesn’t know this. In any case, he’s in for
a big surprise if he truly expects any nuclear plants will be built
anywhere, without continued subsidies from the public purse.

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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