Friday, March 16, 2007

Conservatives shouldn't like nuclear

An enduring mystery, to me anyway: Why do conservatives (regardless of partisan affiliation it seems) just love, love, love nuclear power? I mean, this is the icon of big government. An industry that literally could not exist without original and ongoing welfare on a scale that actual humans have never benefited from: The Manhattan Project was, proportionally speaking, multiples more expensive than the Apollo Program. Some 20% of US industry in the early 1940s was tasked with developing the first nuclear weapons, from which the modern industry still derives it's chromosomes.

Imagine, for a moment, if we spent 1 out of 5 dollars alleviating poverty in this country -- roughly $200 billion today. The mind does kind of boggle, even to a lefty like me.

And I don't understand why even some leftish people are warming to nuclear, when you see a chart like this (via The Oil Drum):

Look at that chart. Military uses of uranium weren't matched by civilian commercial uses until the mid-1970s. It's certainly fair to say that at least half of the nuclear industry's history has been exclusively military, that is: the production of weapons with sufficient power and number to irrevocably destroy human civilization.

Look, if you had said to me in the mid 1970s that we needed to begin a crash program to get off of fossil fuels, I'd have supported the French program, more or less: massive investments in state-run, standardized nuclear facilities. But this isn't the 1970s, and technology is already eclipsing nuclear technology. Efficiency is cheaper than coal. Wind is cheaper than nuclear. Solar is catching up quickly -- by the mid-2010s, it should easily be cheaper than nuclear.

And if we wanted to make the market fair, we'd ask the nuclear industry to do two things it simply cannot afford: take care of it's own waste, and insure its own reactors. Currently, the state does both these jobs for the nuclear industry, but refuses to provide similar subsidies for the renewable industry. But adding these costs to already-expensive nuclear power would basically price the industry out of the market (obviously, not something that worries me too much. I would, as a compromise, accept state insurance of renewable power.)

Or, to rephrase: nuclear power is something that cannot survive without massive government interference in the market, ad infinitum.

And yet, nuclear power is a kind of totem to conservatives on energy issues -- largely, I suspect, because it annoys the left. Talk about global warming, and some idiot is likely to say to you "oh, then I guess you hippies shouldn't have protested all those nuclear plants, huh?" Well, yeah. Between two bad options (coal and nuclear) on the one hand, and an actual good option (efficiency, renewables) on the other, we would like humans to choose rationally.

This is an issue I keep coming back to. I'm genuinely confused as to why nuclear has any backers in North America anymore.


Closet Liberal said...

Simple really. It is seen as "easy". Everyone understands the concept of big central power generating stations. It is a natural concept, it's how power distribution has been viewed since Edison lit up New York.

Joshua Kubinec said...

I actually agree with the premise of Closet Liberal's analysis. The Conservatives know they have a problem which is known as the "environment." From everything I've read as of late, it seems as though they still think they can ride out the storm on the environment issue and eventually it will go away. If the Conservative Party was smart, they would be on TV right now telling Canadians that they're in it for the long term when it comes to the environment. If they don't do that, then they're going to set themselves up for failure over the long term and almost garuntee (sp?) that the other parties who are committing themselves to the environment over the long term will surpass them when things continue to get worse as a result of their typical short sighted policies.

Over all, I think any party who wants to maintain longterm electoral success should at least have the good sense to understand that nuclear technology is detrimental to the long term interests of the country and the species as a whole. The fact that Stephen Harper, Dalton McGuinty, Ed Stelmach, and *sigh* Lorne Calvert cannot see this is a testament to the fact that the environmental issue isn't yet sinking in with the people whom it needs to sink in with THE MOST.

My reasoning for saying as such is because I tend to think that nuclear technology still represents the recently outdated concept of more for less. With global warming threatening as much as it is, we can no longer be looking for ways to generate more power. We need to look at ways in which we can reduce consumption and focus exclusively (for the most part) on the reduction of our ecological footprint. Failure to do so, is a failure to contribute to the betterment of our planet for the future and to hand future generations the proverbial "poisoned challace" (sp?).

southernontarioan said...

I have to butt in on this discussion to make one point. As someone of a 'right of center' background (but has supported the NDP in the past) I always found opposition to nuclear energy to be rather irrational and illogical.

Opponents of nuclear power will often state that it is 'detrimental to the long term interests of the country and the species as a whole'. They might even point to Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Hiroshima as evidence of their viewpoints. But usually, people who understand the technology support it since it is proven to be safe, clean and affordable.

Reducing our 'ecological footprint' is indeed a worthy goal, but its not practical to expect it to occur overnight. As well, there have been serious questions about the overall efficiency of some 'renewable' sources of energy/fuels. (do some digging on hydrogen fuels or ethanol) In any case, improving the environment requires us to invest more in our nuclear industry, not less, in order to replace 'dirty' sources of energy. At least until the technology becomes available to replace nuclear power.

john said...

Southern: Um, no. Nowhere did I bring up Chernobyl, or Three Mile Island, or even Darlington or Pickering (which had plenty of problems during the 1990s.) You'll note that I addressed cost primarily, and nuclear costs too much.

It costs more than not using electricity. (Efficiency/conservation.) It costs more than using wind electricity. The nuclear/ethanol/hydrogen comparison is irrelevant, because we don't use ethanol and nuclear electricity for the same things. You're comparing apples to red herrings.

I wouldn't suggest, say, closing down existing nuclear plants prematurely. But building new plants -- spending money on an obsolete and costly technology -- when better alternatives exist is the definition of stupidity.

Nobody expects anything to happen "overnight". The points is that money spent on the incremental changes -- more nuclear or more wind? -- should go to the obviously preferable options.

But you think opposition to nuclear is irrational. Even if you take in to account the costs to store electricity and excess capacity because of wind's lower reliability, wind is cheaper than nuclear. Please explain why you prefer to waste taxpayer's money, and why this makes you more rational than me.

Kevin Rooney said...

Conservatives like nuclear because it fits with traditional models of social organization. It both concentrates the generation of electricity and concentrates the power of control over the grid.
Support for nuclear power is also a form of anti-anti-rationalism. Even though on balance, I oppose nuclear power, I see a good portion of the opposition to nuclear power as anti-rational and anti-science. I think that this anti-rational portion of the opposition to nuclear power generates its opposite.
What we need is a far more sophisticated energy system. Many more generating nodes, many of them quite tiny (solar homes that feed into the grid not just take from it), of far more different types, tied together in interactions so complex that it made no sense until the Internet showed how to do it. When electrid power grids were first laid out, this would have been impossible. We needed a big, crude network centered on a small number of large generating plants with relatively crude technology. Non-sustainable extraction of energy that eons of Nature had put into convenient form for us (coal, oil, gas). We need to shift from extracting pre-formed energy using basic industrial technology to generating less pre-formed energy using higher levels of technology.
In short, we will shift from reliance on natural resources to reliance on accumulated human knowledge/technology.
This is the way we will reduce our ecological footprint because so much of our footprint comes not from our material standard of living but from the crude way we produce it.
Trying to lower standards of living with our current social arrangements would just lead to bitter reactionary societies, which sooner or later would be ruled by crude brutal leaders who cared only about their small group, not about people in general and not about the environment. Similar to the way that decades of stagnating living standards for most Americans produced the Bush regime.
The evolution of humans and our societies is toward the ability to cooperate and empathize in larger and larger groups in more and more complex ways.

Karl said...

Some 20% of US industry in the early 1940s was tasked with developing the first nuclear weapons

That's pretty astonishing. Do you think it's true? How could we keep a project that big a secret?

Wikipedia says the budget was $2 billion (nominal), GDP in 1945 was $223 billion, that seems more in line with the scale I imagined for the Manhattan Project.

john said...

Karl -- I'm going to double check my numbers and get back to you. I suspect the 20% was a rather broad definition of what the Manhattan Project consisted of.

But remember that more than 50% of the GDP of the US at the time was direct government spending, so it's not entirely implausible, especially during the peak years of 43-44.