A feature story in the current issue of Wired magazine has received surprisingly little attention in the blogosphere, though it seems to be a topic of conversation at recent conferences and meetings I’ve attended.
The article -- Nuclear Now! How clean, green atomic energy can stop global warming -- was written by Peter Schwartz and Spencer Reiss. Schwartz is well-known as founder of Global Business Network and a bestselling author on books on societal trends (The Art of the Long View, Inevitable Surprises, others); Reiss is a features editor at Wired.
The piece is, essentially, a Valentine to nuclear power, which Schwartz and Reiss maintain is climate friendly, safe, and gaining in popularity -- assertions that are (in order) true, false, and, at best, optimistic. A sampling of the giddy prose:
. . . nuclear energy realistically could replace coal in the US without a cost increase and ultimately lead the way to a clean, green future. The trick is to start building nuke plants and keep building them at a furious pace. Anything less leaves carbon in the climatic driver's seat.
Schwartz’s and Reiss’s arguments might be deemed credible but for the obvious disdain they have for efficiency and renewable energy and their advocates:
The granola crowd likes to talk about conservation and efficiency, and surely substantial gains can be made in those areas. But energy is not a luxury people can do without, like a gym membership or hair gel. The developed world built its wealth on cheap power -- burning firewood, coal, petroleum, and natural gas, with carbon emissions the inevitable byproduct.
Wind, biomass, and other renewables are “capital- and land-intensive, and solar is not yet remotely cost-competitive,” claim the authors, while nuclear power is -- well, not quite “too cheap to meter,” a hollow promise the industry made back in the 1950s, but mere pennies a kilowatt-hour, they swear. That’s true . . . if you don’t count the high security costs of protecting nuclear plants, the environmental damage of uranium mining, and the incalculable costs of safely storing nuclear wastes -- something we haven’t yet figured out how to do. It’s like saying that the real price of gas is whatever we pay at the pump.
Schwartz’s and Reiss’s arguments that nuclear power is nothing less than our energy savior would be easy to laugh off if they didn’t play directly into the hands of the nuclear industry, whose advocates have been licking their chops at the potential spoils of a nuke-friendly Bush-Cheney administration -- and of the lucrative potential of dozens of new nuclear power plants in China and elsewhere. It’s a future that promises more of the same: large, centralized power plants creating security risks and environmental damage, feeding electrons into a grid that’s barely holding its own.
There may be a role for nuclear power, but it’s hardly the energy source of our dreams. The promise of a renewable energy future is not, as Schwartz and Reiss maintain, “attractive but powerless.” It’s real and it is coming on strong.
Say the authors about their beloved nukes:
The best way to avoid running out of fossil fuels is to switch to something better. The Stone Age famously did not end for lack of stones, and neither should we wait for the last chunk of anthracite to flicker out before we kiss hydrocarbons good-bye. Especially not when something cleaner, safer, more efficient, and more abundant is ready to roll. It's time to get real.
Ironically, it’s one of the best arguments for solar I’ve heard.