Monday, August 24, 2009

Trade Offs

Like so many people, I have been pondering the pros and the cons of the current cap-and-trade legislation. My instinct is to jump on board with anything that will benefit both the environment and the economy; however, I have this niggling doubt that the current bill up for consideration may fail on both counts.

This morning, I came upon an interesting editorial in the Wall Street Journal that I think bears repeating. Wisely, the authors of this piece did not get mired in the scientific debate over whether or not Global Warming is "real." Instead, they looked at whether or not this bill will actually solve our environmental dilemma in an economically sound manner.

At the end of the day, capping our carbon emissions and cutting back on our energy consumption may buy us time to come up with a new carbon-free energy technology; but it is not the answer. Breaking the link between our productivity and our carbon emissions is.

For most environmentalists (and I include myself in this category), the elephant in the room is that, of all the technologies we currently have available to us, nuclear is the clear winner in terms of being able to provide baseload power with virtually no carbon emissions. If dramatically reducing carbon emissions as soon as possible while still maintaining our economic productivity is our real goal, then we have to at least consider this alternative.

France figured this out in the 1970's; and as a result, currently 75% of its electricity comes from nuclear energy. According to the World Nuclear Association, France is the largest exporter of nuclear energy in the world, earning EUR 3 billion from those exports. France also recycles or "reprocesses" used fuel, utilizing 30% more energy from the original plutonium. And only about 3% of the used fuel is considered "high-level wastes" which require special storage and disposal.

Every problem has multiple solutions, most of which involve trade offs between what we want and what we don't. The key, I think, is to first be clear about our intentions and then be open to a variety of solutions to achieve our goals. Whether the current cap-and-trade proposal will help or hinder us in the process of reducing carbon emissions and boosting our economy remains to be seen.

I do, however, wonder: If our government's intention is to slash carbon emissions and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels (both of which are laudable goals), then why is it not developing strong incentives for the development of nuclear power and the recycling of nuclear waste?


GutsyWriter said...

Strange how the french have had nuclear power since the 70's and were so heavily criticized, yet this is the solution for us in the U.S. It seems like we could have started this 20 years ago.

Patricia Stoltey said...

One of the biggest issues is finding acceptable locations for storage of nuclear waste. The product needs to be secure from the outside, must be secured so it cannot contaminate the outside, and must somehow be made acceptable to the population that lives near the disposal area (and the path through which the waste material will be transported). It's a pretty big problem, especially since few trust those who would be in charge.

And all that assumes we can find places to build new power plants. The prevailing attitude is "sure, build them. Just don't build them within a hundred miles of my house."

rsm said...

There are many existing nuclear sites where additional reactors can be built. As for waste, I would think that is an advantage as the volumes of waste are much smaller than those for the fossil fuel technology.