Friday, February 16, 2007

Choose Your Poison

Regarding Jamison Colburn’s post on Thursday regarding nuclear power ('Who Can We Blame?' Is Always A Game Played Best From Afar), I think the lesser-of-evils question in energy production is one of the most difficult questions we face. Nuclear power is undeniably a very dangerous way to produce energy. Yet it is also true that not using nukes means we use more fossil fuels, which without question causes death and disease (as well as economic damage) on a tragic scale.

Still, I have always been convinced that even the less-than-certain catastrophes that can only be associated with nukes (meltdowns, theft of deadly materials, unsafe disposal of waste) are simply too horrible to risk. An article in Harper's many years ago made the further point that nuclear power plants themselves have finite lives, meaning that we ultimately have to worry about how to mothball what amounts to a huge chunk of radioactive concrete. Too dangerous to disassemble and move, they present us with the engineering challenge of creating a mausoleum on site that is impermeable and cannot be vandalized. Perhaps it is now possible to keep plants running forever. I haven't kept up with that debate; but at the very least, the difficulties of doing so safely and economically must be added to the anti-nuclear side of the ledger.

Now that global warming's risks are better known and understood, though, it's possible that the calculus has changed enough to tip the balance. It’s no longer a matter of weighing a statistically certain number of lung- and heart-disease-related deaths every year against a statistically uncertain nuclear catastrophe that could kill millions (or the entire planet). Use of fossil fuels now also at least increases the possibility of the deaths of millions of people living in coastal areas along with the longer-term disruption of entire eco-systems. How to choose between that and possible nuclear Armageddon? Happily, conservation is still an option. What an easy choice!


egarber said...

Another tipping factor is national security.

There’s a growing understanding that energy independence is becoming our most important national security issue. Getting off oil services the real centers of gravity in the battle against terrorism:

1) It would cut off the revenue streams used to train the very people killing American soldiers and civilians.

2) It would enable us to militarily disengage from the region, winning or at least neutralizing the hearts and minds of those Muslims not yet committed in the larger battle (the Iraq invasion was arguably a massive recruiting tool for Osama).

3) If the U.S. leads the world to get off oil, oppressive Middle Eastern regimes would no longer be able to autocratically control their economies; those market systems would have to liberalize (ironically, I think that’s the only real chance there is to grow democracy in that part of the world).

Anyway, I guess the point is that national security concerns will only augment calls for nuclear options, alongside conservation and other alternatives.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

I agree that these additional concerns are very important. (While I usually find Thomas Friedman's op-ed's somewhat annoying, he is absolutely right about the geopolitical impact of oil revenues.)

I doubt that it's possible to determine with any accuracy the necessary reduction in oil usage to make a difference, but I strongly suspect that we could de-fang the oppressive oil-dependent regimes AND reduce the use of nukes if we made sufficient investments in conservation and green alternative energy technologies.

egarber said...

You're right about conservation, I think.

The thing about oil is that it's a single global market. So if the U.S. was to drastically reduce its demand (we consume 25% of the world’s output) and export new technologies to others, that would have a drastic impact on world production and prices.

The corollary is the reality that the U.S. will never be able to drill itself out of the national security problem. Drilling advocates love to say that opening up ANWR will reduce our dependence on foreign oil and weaken Iran, etc. But the real question isn’t “how much will home-drilled oil reduce our dependence?” Instead, it’s “how much will our addition of 3% to the global market affect the big players?” The answer is NONE.

In other words, as long as heavy demand exists for the commodity, those sitting on the biggest reserves will always be the big winners.

Jamison Colburn said...

I couldn't agree more on the need for better cost accounting in the cost benefit analyses that are starting to roll out. Thanks for the excellent post. The other alternative or partial solution besides conservation, which I of course support, is distributed generation (whether solar, geothermal,
etc.). What is it--about a tenth of what is generated nationally is lost in transmission? Not that I hold myself out as knowledgeable about the actual CBA itself, mind you. I just think that the beginnings of the public conversation about how to reduce our fossil fuel use are no cause for celebration.

egarber said...

I said: The thing about oil is that it's a single global market.

To be more accurate, I should say that oil is basically a single global market. That suffices for my point.

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