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The Greenhouse Down To Earth

July 31, 1988|Donella H. Meadows | Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental and policy studies at Dartmouth College

PLAINFIELD, N.H. — To the proponents of nuclear power, this year's drought is one of the best things that could have happened.

Their logic goes like this. The drought is widely perceived to be a first sign of the greenhouse effect--the global warming caused by a buildup of atmospheric pollutants. Primary among those pollutants is carbon dioxide, produced by the burning of coal, oil and gas. Nuclear power produces no carbon dioxide. Therefore, to prevent more and worse droughts, sea-level rises, floods and other climatic horrors, we should nuclearize in a big way.

The media have been captivated by this reasoning; recent news-magazine pieces on the greenhouse effect cited nuclear power as the only major energy source that might replace fossil-fuel plants. The problem with this apparently obvious conclusion is that, like many apparently obvious conclusions, it doesn't hold up when you run out the numbers. What does add up, rather than fission, is efficiency of design--a solution that is at once cheaper and more all-inclusive than nuclear energy.

Bill Keepin and Gregory Kats, energy analysts at Rocky Mountain Institute in Old Snowmass, Colo., have figured out exactly what it would take for nuclear power to "fill the breach." They start by supposing that the world's nations come to an unprecedented agreement to replace all current and future uses for coal with nuclear power, and to accomplish that within 40 years. (They choose coal, rather than oil and gas, because coal is the greatest carbon-emitter of all the fossil fuels, and because nuclear can substitute directly for coal's major use, which is making electricity.) The two analysts also make the deliberately optimistic assumption that it will take only six years to build each nuclear plant and that the cost will be $1,000 per installed kilowatt capacity (which is the reported current cost in France; in the United States the cost is three times higher).

If the world's energy demand grows at the top of the range of present forecasts, it will increase 3.5 times between now and 2025. Under that scenario Keepin and Kats calculate that a substitution of nuclear for coal would require bringing on nuclear power approximately equal to all the world's current energy production. By 2025 the world would need 8,000 large nuclear plants, as opposed to the 350 operating today. New plants would have to come on line at an average rate of one every 1.6 days, at an average cost of $787 billion per year, for 38 years.

Even with this enormous increase in nuclear power, carbon dioxide emissions would grow to be 65% higher than they are now. Greenhouse warming would be rampant, and the drought of '88 would probably look like a cool spell.

If energy demand goes up at a slower rate--doubling by 2025--and again nuclear energy was systematically substituted for coal, one new nuclear plant would be required every 2.4 days, at a cost of $525 billion annually. To pay for their share of this buildup, Third World nations would have to double their current levels of debt (never mind the problem that no one would lend them that much). There would be 18 times as many nuclear plants as there are today. Carbon dioxide emissions would grow until the turn of the century and then slowly fall, but at all times they would be higher than they are now. The greenhouse effect would go on getting worse.

Why is nuclear power so ineffective in combating greenhouse warming in these calculations? Because it only provides electricity, which accounts for only one-third of fossil-fuel use. Because fossil fuel use accounts for only about half of the greenhouse problem--the rest comes from deforestation and from gases other than carbon dioxide. And because even with generous assumptions about construction times and cost, nuclear generation starts from too low a base and takes too much time and money to take over a major part of world energy production.

The massive buildups of nuclear power assumed in the Keepin and Kats calculations could never really happen. Construction times of U.S. plants are more like 12 years than six. Costs around the world are typically two, three, even five times higher than Keepin and Kats assumed. Even if the managerial capacity were available to construct so many plants so fast, the drain of that much capital into nuclear construction would slow or stop the very economic growth that is assumed to require so much power in the first place. And of course the problems of nuclear power--high cost, intractable and dangerous wastes, evacuation planning, threats to public health, decommissioning, diversion of materials into bombs, vulnerability to terrorism and political unpopularity--all those problems would escalate.

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