Although in recent months the term “nuclear option” has mainly applied to legislative tactics, during Wednesday’s State of the Union address Obama discussed the original nuclear options. One—nuclear proliferation—he emphatically rejected. The other—nuclear power—he strongly endorsed, eliciting some of the most enthusiastic cheers of the night. I was cheering too, because nuclear power might prove the one of most effective ways to reduce our civilization’s carbon footprint.
The progressive case for nuclear power is fairly simple—it’s better than coal. Coal doesn’t just up the proportion of carbon dioxide in the air, but also rains down a more conventionally lethal cocktail of ash, uranium, thorium, arsenic, mercury and more. A 2004 EPA report estimated that coal-burning power plants kill 24,000 a year. Although nuclear waste disposal is by no means perfect, at least the industry acknowledges it is a problem to be secured. Furthermore, even when things do fail, they fail much less spectacularly: the worst American nuclear incident, at Three-Mile Island in 1979, led to no statistically significant (pdf) increase in cancer rates. As environmentalist Bill McKibben cleverly summarized it:
“We know that nuclear power represents some risk; even [nuclear energy proponent Rip] Anderson says so. But we also know by now that a new conventional coal plant offers a flat-out guarantee of environmental destruction—even if nothing goes wrong.”
What about renewables, though? Although renewables are becoming more and more capable of providing a greater share of our energy mix, it is still hard for them to provide baseload power—the constant minimum amount of electricity needed for the grid. Although some environmentalists claim that a good network of renewables can provide such power, the most advanced “supergrid” being planned—connecting the countries bordering the North Sea—will connect with such intermittent sources as wind and solar with the constantly-running Norwegian hydroelectric dams. Even as renewables provide a greater and greater share of our electricity, we’ll still need a greenhouse emission-free and reliable baseload, and (lacking Norway’s geography) that means nuclear.
Despite nuclear power’s green potential, though, the way Obama framed his energy policy was worrying. It included almost every potential energy option under the sun—or rather, under the ground. By specifically pushing for “clean coal technologies,” Obama threatens to undermine the great unsung grassroots accomplishment of the noughts: the United States’s de facto moratorium on new coal power plants. Obama’s plan, as outlined in the State of the Union, consisted mostly of carrots: more incentives, more subsidies, more power stations. Nuclear can’t simply add onto coal as the baseload electricity source—it must replace it, and that means introducing a stick. And the most effective stick would be some sort of carbon pricing.
Obama only backhandedly this, pushing for congress to “[pass] a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America.” This seems like good politics on the short run, defusing concerns that energy prices will rise in a bad economy. However, by making cleaner energy investments—be they in nuclear power, renewable electricity, or energy efficiency—dependent on the whims of congressional budget committees, such a “positive” approach makes change in the long run more difficult.
Increased subsidies are no substitute for a price on carbon which would level the playing field in favor of more efficient and less-greenhouse gas intensive methods of electricity production and consumption. And more importantly, it would make it easier for actors independent of the government—individuals and businesses—to make green investments. And it would make the sort of subsidies that make fossil fuel backers and fiscal conservatives chafe at nuclear and renewable subsidies less necessary.
One would think this sort of libertarian paternalism would appeal to the self-described conservatives in Congress. On Friday Obama confronted House Republicans over their health care proposals—a similar confrontation over the logic of energy funding needs to happen. The nuclear option may be greener than commonly assumed, but extra funding won’t make America more sustainable unless it happens in a sounder policy context. To address that, we may need to confront the legislative nuclear options.