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Nuclear Power is Back! (Maybe)

President Obama announced yesterday an $8.3 billion loan guarantee for two new nuclear reactors in Georgia.  It’s got people asking: Is nuclear back?


Thomas Friedman wrote a column today titled “Global Weirding.”  The world has become a strange, strange place – a lot of what we thought we knew has been turned upside down.  For instance: until recently, the gradual warming of the earth (and our role in it) was known.  Nuclear power was, for many, a relic of the 1970s and 80s – construction on the last new U.S. nuclear power plant began in the 70s.


But now it’s snowing like crazy in Washington D.C., raining in British Columbia, and the federal government is guaranteeing $8.3 billion (or more) in loans for the construction of new nuclear power reactors.  Even a Greenpeace founder is lobbying for nuclear energy.  Maybe this is Fringe and I’ve travelled to the “other side.”


Or maybe, in the case of nuclear power, at least, we’ve simply come around again to sensibility.  The fact is that the answer to our country’s (and our world’s) energy needs is not nuclear power.  It’s not solar power.  It’s not wind energy.  Or natural gas.  Or clean coal.  It’s all of the above.  The most efficient, most effective way to meet our energy needs, now and in the future, is to do it with a portfolio of generation methods.


“Nuclear power is not a silver-bullet solution to America’s energy challenges, but it is an essential part of the puzzle that has been largely neglected until now for political reasons,” wrote Samuel Thernstrom, a resident fellow and co-director of the Geo-engineering Project at the American Enterprise Institute.


Part of employing the most efficient, effective means of power generation is to take into account regional differences in supply and demand.  Arizona, for example, is perfectly suited to generate solar power; Washington, not so much.


But leveraging regional differences in both power supply capabilities and demands for energy may well require redesigning the power grid.  An excellent article last year in Wired (“Power to the People: 7 Ways to Fix the Grid, Now”) suggested ways to redevelop a “smart” power grid.


A mish-mash of 9,200 generators streams vital electrons along 300,000 miles of aging, inefficient transmission lines and one untrimmed tree in the wrong place could plunge a quarter of the country into darkness. This is our electric grid. A whopping 40 percent of all the energy used in the US – be it oil, gas, wind, or solar – is converted into electrons that travel over these wires. Any attempt at energy reform must begin here.”


Bill Gates said recently that he thinks Nuclear 2.0 (along with heavier investment in solar, battery, and wind technologies) will be the world’s answer to climate changes.  The two traditional nuclear reactors that the federal government has said it will help finance would generate 2,200 megawatts of energy, offsetting about 30 million barrels of oil.  “It would be like taking 3.5 million cars off the road,” said President Obama.


But there is the pesky problem of what to do with the nuclear waste.  Gates’ Nuclear 2.0 would solve that, too.  Gates is pushing for the development of a new kind of nuclear power plant, one that reuses waste uranium from existing nuclear reactors.  Some suggest he’s  helping the world into a “nuclear Renaissance.”  Others criticize that the kind of technology he proposes is pie-in-the-sky and will drain resources from development environmentally-friendly generation methods that can work today.


Each power generation technology has its strengths and its weaknesses.  Coal has a “big” carbon footprint but is relatively inexpensive (to generate and to build).  Solar and wind are incredibly clean but, as new technologies, are still finding their sea legs.  Natural gas is cleaner than coal but prices are relatively volatile and supplies are uncertain.  Nuclear doesn’t emit greenhouse gases but it creates waste we don’t know what to do with.


So the answer is to leverage the particular strengths of each type of power generation (taking advantage of regional differences across the U.S.) and minimize the weaknesses.  The answer is not A, B, or C.  It’s All of the above.

Written on Thursday, 18 February 2010 10:03 by Gary Yaquinto

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