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October 29, 2007

Nuclear energy deceivers


On Oct. 23, a group led by singers Jackson Browne, Graham Nash and Bonnie Raitt delivered a petition to the Senate denouncing nuclear energy. Their spurious arguments are off-key to say the least. They confuse nuclear weapons with nuclear energy, claim non-existent dangers, and misrepresent nuclear power's economics. Otherwise, it was quite a show.

Mr. Browne and Co. masquerade as environmentalists, pushing what they describe as environmental justice. But their agenda would deny Americans, especially the poorest Americans, access to one of the cleanest, most secure and economically stable sources of energy available today.

They don't seem to realize that things have changed since the old No-Nuke movement packed up its placards. Today, the nuclear industry's safety, environmental and economic record ranks among the best in the energy (or any other) industry.

In an effort to devalue nuclear power's environmental advantages, Mr. Browne's warriors include the pollutants and CO2 released during the construction and fueling process in their evaluation, without fully acknowledging that other energy sources have similar impacts. No apples-to-apples comparisons for this crowd.

For example, 2 million tons of concrete, about double what a nuclear plant requires, must be produced and delivered to anchor enough windmills to match one nuclear plant's energy production. Just producing this concrete emits the CO2 equivalent of flying a Boeing 747 from New York to London 450 times.

Carbon-free fairies do not magically drop windmills onto mountaintops. Every windmill or solar panel started as a raw material that was mined, transported and manufactured using fossil fuel.

We live in a fossil-fuel based society. CO2 is released by almost any activity, whether building a windmill or a nuclear power plant. Ultimately, however, nuclear technology provides the world an opportunity to make its energy profile less fossil-fuel-centric.

The new No-Nuke crowd then warns of the ripe targets that nuclear plants provide terrorists. Really? Now Jackson Browne is a terrorism expert? But his credibility is, we must say, "Running on Empty." Nuclear plants were among the nation's most protected assets before September 11, 2001, and have had numerous security upgrades since. But none of the world's 443 nuclear power plants have been attacked. Why?

Simply put, they're not easy targets. Nuclear plants are built to withstand airplane impacts, are heavily guarded and are under constant review. If risks are discovered, the answer is to fix the problem, not shut down the industry.

But what about the disposal of nuclear waste, the No-Nukers ask? Actually, industry solved that problem decades ago. Spent fuel is removed from the reactor. The reusable portion is recycled by separating it and re-using it; the remainder is placed in either interim or long-term storage, in remote locations such as Yucca Mountain. Other countries, including France, safely do this every day. Politicians and bad public policy prevent it from occurring in the U.S.

Waste transportation is another favorite target. The truth is that nuclear waste has been transported on roads and railways worldwide for years without incident. Indeed, more than 20 million waste packages are transported globally each year, and more than 20,000 shipments have traveled some 18 million miles since 1971. It's just not a problem.

The No-Nukers argue that nuclear power is bad economics. Back in the 1970s, they successfully drove the costs of nuclear power up by forcing delays and instigating superfluous regulation. Though affordable, nuclear power is as expensive as it is today because of that success, not because the technology is uncompetitive.

The situation is much different today. Streamlined regulation, better designs and greater efficiency make the economics of today's nuclear plants much more predictable. Nuclear energy is among the least expensive energy sources today. Indeed, numerous studies have shown that new nuclear power is very competitive in a carbon-constrained economy.

The anti-nuke crowd already nearly killed the nuclear industry once, and America is paying for it today with higher energy prices. This time the stakes are higher and consequences are greater. Sadly, the environment and the poorest Americans will be hardest hit if they succeed. Nuclear energy is the only realistic and affordable option if we hope to cap CO2.

The old rock stars of the world may be able to afford higher electricity prices. But the single mothers of the world cannot. It's time for a Browne-out.

Jack Spencer is a research fellow in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies.

First appeared in the Washingon Times

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