Friday, January 23, 2009

The Audacity of Shooting Your Mouth Off

Obama has seized on the energy issue--both as a matter of independence and as a climate issue--and has co-opted it. Good for him. But when you step up to such an issue, you assume the risk of being blamed when things go sideways, just as you assume the reward if real progress is made.

So Obama goes and talks about solar, wind, and ethanol very specifically in his inaugural speech but he is silent on nuclear power. Those three are certainly among the most promising technologies. But each has unsolved technological problems that prevent their deployment today.

Solar is too expensive. It can't scale easily to become a significant percentage of load for the grid, both because of an inadequate grid and because its power density sucks. And, finally, it's not suitable for base load until we find a really good way of storing the energy for when the sun isn't shining.

Wind is less expensive and scales better, but it still doesn't scale well enough to take over the needed percentage of power generation, and it suffers from the same base load problem as solar.

Ethanol can be used for base load, but it's ridiculous unless we're talking cellulosic ethanol and that's not really out of the lab yet. Furthermore, scalability is a big issue: What happens to the soil if you're using all your mulch for fuel? How do you transport gigatonnes of biomass to processing facilities?

Now, all of these energy sources are very promising. We should be investing heavily in solving the technical problems associated with them. But what if the technical problems can't be solved? We run across promising technologies like this all the time. (Think nuclear fusion...)

Meanwhile, nuclear power has no technical problems. It's got very high power density. It works with the existing electrical grid. It scales wonderfully. It's not much more expensive than fuel oil-, gas- or coal-fired electricity. It's safe (yes, really). Its waste is easy to dispose of. (There is no waste disposal problem at a technical level. There certainly is a political problem, but there's a political problem with all of this stuff: it's not as cheap as coal, gas, and fuel oil.)

But Obama is avoiding any mention of nuclear power. From his tepid position during the campaign to his thunderous silence in his early days in office, it's clear that Obama doesn't want to talk about nuclear. Maybe he wants to deploy it quietly so as not to enrage the Left, but we can't assume that yet.

Here's the bottom line. Obama has staked a big chunk of his reputation on improving the energy picture. Nuclear has better risk-to-reward characteristics than any of the energy sources that Obama thinks are politically correct. He needs to build out nuclear as a hedge against technological failure. Failure to do so comes with a steep price: If Obama could have fixed the energy problem with nuclear and all the other technologies come up dry, he deserves every bit of blame that we can heap upon him.

There are a few things that the government could do that would dramatically improve the deployability of nuclear power plants. First, the licensing process is intentionally obstructive. It could be streamlined with no detriment to safety.

The government could go a long way towards solving the NIMBY problem (Not In My Back Yard) and its more virulent ideological cousin, BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere, Near Anyone). Community review is all well and good but there's this thing called the common good that eventually needs to trump the delicate sensibilities of every single community everywhere. It's a sad fact that, as an industrial society, we have to have areas that are nasty and, well, industrial. A small risk attends the conduct of industry. The government can codify this risk, plan for it, and legislate when the reward so vastly outweighs the risk that we move forward.

Another major impediment to nuclear power is its insurability. Nuclear power is much safer than most other energy technologies in terms of number of accidents and ill effects caused by pollution. However, a major accident will happen all at once and affect a very large number of people. So on a per-capita, per-time-period basis, nuclear power is riskier than other technologies and therefore more difficult to insure. Government underwriting would dramatically reduce the cost of the technology with virtually no additional taxpayer exposure. (Think about it for a minute: If there's a nuclear disaster in the United States, is there any way that the government doesn't wind up footing the bill anyway?)

Finally, there are research activities that only the government can perform. Lots of nifty next-generation technologies are floating around. (My favorite is the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor, but there are plenty of others.)

Sadly, Obama doesn't seem interested in any of this kind of policy. I think it's incumbent upon us as citizens to make sure that he knows we're watching him on this. He needs to understand the risk he's running and the consequences of an ideological stand on this issue.

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