23 April, 2008

The Nuclear Option

Tyler Cowen reports that Europe is building more coal power:

Over the next five years, Italy will increase its reliance on coal to 33 percent from 14 percent. Power generated by Enel from coal will rise to 50 percent.

And Italy is not alone in its return to coal. Driven by rising demand, record high oil and natural gas prices, concerns over energy security and an aversion to nuclear energy, European countries are expected to put into operation about 50 coal-fired plants over the next five years, plants that will be in use for the next five decades.
So given that oil prices are not likely to come down until demand for oil recedes, coal becomes the cheaper option. Absent a system in which energy producers have to pay for their effect on the global environment, is this an argument for taking a second look at nuclear power? And is Elliot still the anti-nuclear firebrand he once was?


higgy said...

*loves nuclear*

Sorry y'all - but I'm a physicist. It's in our nature.

Elliot said...

"And is Elliot still the anti-nuclear firebrand he once was?"

Short answer: no.

Long answer: If a surge in nuclear power can help us move quickly away from fossil fuels (and coal is really a terrible source of fuel) then it is worth considering. And putting a price on carbon would be a de facto subsidy for nuclear in any case.

But the fact remains that nuclear is still incredibly problematic, and I only think it is responsible to expand its use under two conditions: 1) an even larger environmental threat looms (check) and 2) that its use, unless technology addresses the problems, is understood to be only a stopgap measure until other sources of fuel are developed. Wind, solar, and biofuels seem to be much more promising avenues in the long term.

spencer said...

That's a great pragmatic answer and probably almost identical to my view.

One complication I'd offer is that once nuclear plants are built, the incentives for creating more efficient wind and solar power are sharply reduced, at least for 50 years or so until those plants start getting old and people start worrying about waste and meltdowns. Since power plants have really high startup costs but are not so expensive to run, you really have to commit to a mode of power generation for a long period of time.

Eremita said...

Yeah, I agree with Spencer. I mean, it's a great idea to think about using something as a "short-term" answer, but people and economies don't really work that way, nor will doing that encourage anyone to understand the greater change in attitude that is needed here: a real understanding of the environmental effects of our energy choices.

Elliot said...

Right, I'm not advocating that we make nuclear the centerpiece of our energy policy -- I'm not advocating nuclear at all. I'm allowing that expanding nuclear at the margins could be the lesser of two evils in the short term. In that context, I think 50 years is the short term.

The question to ask seems to be, If someone is going to start building a new power plant tomorrow, before a carbon tax can be levied, before wind power can be invested in, do I want that power plant to be coal or nuclear? I would answer, nuclear.

But Spencer's right: how do you allow enough nuclear to stave off the worst of the coal industry without decreasing the incentives for investment in other forms of energy? Maybe its impossible, in which case my pragmatic defense of nuclear would more or less fall apart. But maybe, with creative policy, its not. What could such a policy look like?