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Nuclear Mania

In this month's Wilson Quarterly, it's Max Schultz (pro) vs. Brice Smith and Arjun Makhijani (anti) on the merits of relying on lots and lots of nuclear power to satisfy our carbon-free energy needs in the future. I tend to think the "anti" side has a better case here, especially on the point that nuclear power isn't the most cost-effective form of alternative energy, but judge for yourself. (Note that when Schultz is called out for fudging the cost of nuclear, he rather weakly retorts that the numbers are "open to interpretation.")

One question neither side asks is whether there's even enough cheaply retrievable uranium lying around to support a global effort to build thousands of new nuclear plants. An analyst at The Oil Drum recently ran the numbers and concluded, "If nuclear energy is to become a major solution... the needed manifold increase in nuclear capacity [and demand for uranium] could make nuclear energy too expensive to be competitive with other alternatives." Breeder reactors might be competitive on a grand scale, but they aren't likely to make a significant contribution until 2030 at the earliest. If the world's serious about averting large-scale climate change, we'll need much more carbon-free energy before then. I'd be curious to see more on this.

On the other hand, this is all fairly irrelevant to the energy debate in Congress. A certain number of Republicans are going to demand subsidies for nuclear no matter what (all the while scolding environmentalists for being so fanatical about the subject). When Al Gore spoke before the Senate, it was the only thing Larry Craig, Johnny Isakson, and Lamar Alexander wanted to chat about. If and when Democrats craft a climate bill, though, it's not clear whether they'll seriously consider nuclear energy or just include a few desultory handouts to peel off Republican support.

--Bradford Plumer