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Monday, October 25, 2010

More nuclear power!

During my undergrad days, most universities paid little attention to parents of students – unless they happened to be wealthy alumni. Times have changed, and now it’s common for universities to hold parent weekends. Particularly at private universities where parents are a large source (if not the largest source) of revenue for the school, it makes good sense for the university to treat parents with a certain degree of importance.

One way that the politically conscious American University makes its weekend interesting for parents is a political program on Saturday night. This year they had Rudy Giuliani. The centrist that I am, I agreed with about half of what he said and disagreed with the other half. Among many topics he mentioned nuclear power in a positive way, and that’s one that I agree with.

I wish the U.S. would get over Three Mile Island and begin constructing nuclear power plants in significant quantity. From an ecological perspective it makes less sense every year to burn coal, natural gas, or oil for this purpose; nor does it make sense to build more dams.

Here’s a case where the French got it right. Electricity from nuclear power is economical and safe. Moreover, the capital investment and operating expenses for nuclear power remain in the U.S.

Personally I’d rather have nuclear waste stockpiled in Nevada or South Carolina than allow global warming, acid rain, and heavy metal pollution from fossil fuels to continue. Chernobyl and Three Mile Island are important reminders, but with advances in technology over the last 40 years the likelihood of another accident like those is about the same as the arrival of an inbound asteroid. We must not allow fear to overrule logic.

Of course we should promote conservation. As important as conservation is, it’s not likely to result in a substantial reduction in demand for electricity. 99% adoption of CFLs is more about intellectual and emotional commitment to conservation than actual savings. True conservation is setting the thermostat to 80 in the summer or 60 in the winter, but most folks aren’t willing to do that. True conservation would be forced by taxing electricity consumption at high marginal rates for middle-class and upper-class households, but in the current political climate it's unimaginable.

We should also promote alternative power in the form of solar and wind. But the unfortunate reality is these sources of electricity are not 100% reliable in every locale, and the amount of power available from each of them has fundamental limitations of physics. It’s a little secret, by the way, that the manufacture of photovoltaic panels is ecologically dirty.