I understand Dave Johnson's position that, given the scope of the climate disruption we're facing, we should throw everything we can at greening our energy production [link updated.] It makes sense from a certain point of view, one somewhat supported by former Clinton staffer Joe Romm, but I don't share it in this case.
Consider that the Obama administration's budget proposes $54 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear power, energy that will, optimistically, be online in a decade. Energy Secretary Steven Chu expects that to support 7 to 10 reactors, maybe, even though it triples the Bush administration's proposed nuclear expenditures. The cost of one Texas nuclear project that went over budget and was shut down by the community has already topped $18 billion.
Meanwhile, the National Renewable Energy Lab faced funding cuts, getting only $316 million for their 2009 budget out of a DOE budget of less than $2 billion. The global photovoltaic industry in 2008 had revenues of $37 billion. The global wind industry had a turnover of 40 billion € (approx $54 billion at today's exchange rate of 1.3562).
In short, the loan guarantees on offer to the nuclear industry, which dwarf renewable energy and efficiency funding in last year's stimulus, could provide a boost to the clean energy industry that would be noticed on a worldwide scale and ensure the health of wind and solar power for years to come. Instead it's going to the nuclear industry, which only has enough feedstock for another 75 years at current capacity.
Is nuclear power, which is consistently rejected by private investors everywhere in the world, the best use of limited resources?
Then consider the physical limits imposed by climate disruption, which is already causing warming and droughts in parts of the US. In the 2006 heatwave, the French nuclear power industry, which is often considered an example for the world by nuclear energy enthusiasts, had to cut reactor capacity, import electricity from abroad and dump excessively hot water into rivers to deal with environmental conditions that made it difficult to operate the reactors. The same story played out in Germany and Spain that year. Drought has already affected nuclear plants in the US during 2008 as lakes and rivers worryingly approached the minimums required for safe operation and cooling of the facilities.
As the world gets hotter and drier in many of the regions angling for new nuclear facilities, they might be rendered inoperable before they even go online, or put local communities in the precarious position of having to choose between water and power. And aside from the hazards to local ecosystems of flushing hot water into lakes and streams, the increased temperature will speed evaporation and water loss.
I wonder if the environment can actually support this very expensive fix, even aside from the issue of what the opportunity costs might be.
But let's face it, DC just loves the nuke plants and no one asked me before deciding to spend this money as a sop to 'budget hawk' Republicans and conservative Democrats who didn't even agree to do something useful in return, like pass a climate bill. Even though this expenditure was in part proposed by environmental organizations as a bargaining chip in climate negotiations. Even if it's the spending equivalent of building a wall just to tear it down. Consider this my dead letter over something that I have to admit I'm kind of sick of hearing about.
So sure, as Dave Johnson and Scott Paul pointed out so clearly, if we're going to build these things anyway, let them create jobs for Americans and let's use high quality parts manufactured here and overseen by US regulatory agencies. The only thing worse than funding a boondoggle is having it blow up, literally, in someone's face.
X-posted from the Campaign for America's Future, where I write as a fellow for the Making It In America project, sponsored by the Alliance for American Manufacturing.