Wednesday, May 04, 2005

More On Brand vs. Romm: Nixing Nukes

I haven't been covering this too much because it's getting so much attention elsewhere, but there's a new post in the continuing series of Stewart Brand vs. Joseph Romm exchanges that I wanted to comment on. Started with the article "Environmental Heresies", Brand's thesis is that environmentalism is about to undergo a sea change in what qualifies as acceptable to the mainstream within that movement, and in particular,
  • Birthrates are in free-fall due to increased urbanism, which makes cities a benign influence on the environment
  • Biotechnology will become acceptable
  • As will nuclear power
It's this last point that Romm takes on today. In particular, he says that
Even after all the massive subsidies, nuclear remains simply uneconomic, as every independent study has shown. Matt Wald had a good story in the New York Times today, May 2, quoting Peter Bradford, a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, saying that nuclear technology is still uneconomic.

β€œ β€˜The abiding lesson that Three Mile Island taught Wall Street was that a group of N.R.C.-licensed reactor operators, as good as any others, could turn a $2 billion asset into a $1 billion cleanup job in about 90 minutes,’ Mr. Bradford said in an interview conducted by e-mail.”

However, I'm not sure that a close reading of the Times article he cites actually makes the point he's trying to make. In particular, take this snippet:
"It's got to be shown that it's a business, but it has got to be jump-started," he said. "The only people who can make that happen is the president of the United States and the government." Mr. Taylor said loan guarantees and risk insurance of the kind mentioned by Mr. Bush would be very helpful.

The risk of licensing problems has been on the minds of nuclear advocates for decades [emphasis mine]. To try to limit risk, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission began a licensing process in 1989 that was meant to avoid the debacles of the mid-80's. The process, known colloquially as "one-stop licensing," is mostly untried. Under it, a utility can apply for "early site approval" with no commitment to build, and vendors can submit completed designs for preapproval.

That is to say, the problems appear to be dealing with the expenses and unknowns of permitting; the rules for getting new plants sited are a quicksand. Peter Bradford, a former NRC commissioner, claims that nuclear is currently uneconomic. But it should be noted that Bradford, a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists has his biases as well. It's one thing if the industry is looking for operational handouts, but given the scary history of millions of wasted dollars spent pursuing plants that were never built, you can hardly blame the industry -- tied as it is to the government -- for looking for reassurances about the regulatory environment.

As a matter of policy, I'm against state handouts to private agents, and that goes for the nuclear power industry. If they can't get their next generation plants designed without public assistance, there's less painful renewable options that could be pursued. But if this is only a matter of wanting assurance about siting, getting some help at the federal level isn't inappropriate.