Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The View of Nuclear Power:

 Voices of Reason

[I start by saying that Blogger seems to have changed their whole template for preparing posts, so I have no idea at the moment whether this is going to look at all like my previous posts--or for that matter, whether it will get lost in cyberspace.  Please bear with me as I figure out the new order of things.]

The last couple of days have brought several news items, letters to the editor, and editorials that continue to give me hope that many people are viewing energy options in general, and nuclear power in particular, from a balanced perspective.  That is, they recognize that no energy source is perfect, that nuclear power continues to fill an important niche (baseload power with very little greenhouse gas emissions) that cannot be met by other energy sources, and that we cannot make sudden, radical changes in our energy mix.  

The two items that most emphasized this for me were an editorial on April 23, 2012, in the Washington Post, and a report that some environmental groups are now disappointed in the path Germany seems to be taking to replace the electricity from the nuclear power plants they have shut already shut down, as well as the ones they plan to shut down.

The Washington Post editorial is particularly important, in my view.  It raises the question of why we would think about phasing out a clean energy source.  It provides a very nicely argued analysis of the difficulties Japan and Germany are facing by the de facto current shutdown of nuclear plants in Japan, and the deliberate permanent shutdowns--and plans for more--in Germany.  It ends by addressing a concern an argument that is sometimes made that we will be able to move more quickly to renewable energy sources if we abandon nuclear power.  The Post argues that this is not the case, and that, in fact, we can only meet our emissions targets if we keep the nuclear power plants running.

This is not the first time in recent history that I have cited a Washington Post editorial in this blog.  The last time was when I wrote about the plan for offshore windmills for the State of Maryland.  This, of course, was an issue that would affect my pocketbook directly, so I was particularly glad to see the Post come out against selecting one technology "winner."  Their position on nuclear power is consistent with their position on the government not picking winners.  They are not saying we should favor nuclear power above other energy sources--in fact, they specifically see a potentially promising future for both nuclear power and renewables.  They are equally against the government taking actions that would favor one technology, or that would result arbitrarily and prematurely removing the option to use another technology.

Just a few days earlier, I had picked up an article noting that environmentalists are now concerned that Germany's retreat from nuclear power has increased greenhouse gas emissions.  This article is one of several I have read reporting that Germany's greenhouse gas emissions are on the rise following their phaseout decision, and that their energy plans call for the construction of more fossil-fuel power plants.  And, of course, as those of us in the nuclear field have recognized for some time, that they are relying more on nuclear power from neighboring countries.

I should hasten to note that the article does not conclude that perhaps Germany's decision on nuclear power was ill-advised.  It does indicate that some believe this situation is transitional and that Germany will eventually replace the lost nuclear capacity with renewables.  I am sure that Germany will continue to push renewables.  However, as a practical matter, once new fossil fuel capacity is built, it may be difficult to justify shutting it down in a few years, so I think the situation they have created will set back their greenhouse gas reduction goals for a long time.

All in all, I see these two articles as further signals of the growing recognition that energy supply is a complex and multi-faceted issue, and that abruptly or arbitrarily eliminating a critical source of energy has serious downsides.


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