Friday, May 13, 2005
The search for alternative energy sources to replace pollution-emitting fuels preoccupies environmentalists and their political allies in Washington.
But the environmentalists' quest for cleaner air and less dependence on fossil fuels never leads them to a practical and proven alternative to pollution-belching coal-fired power plants: nuclear power.
The nuclear option is still off the table, more than 25 years after the accident at Three Mile Island stirred public fears and prompted activists to launch a crusade against nuclear power.
Environmentalists continue to tout "renewable" energy sources such as solar power and wind power. The technology to harness solar energy and wind power has existed for years, but despite government efforts to promote these renewable energy sources they remain a negligible part of the total power market.
Even pro-business Republicans favor the development of alternatives to existing power-generating facilities. But most of their attention seems to be focused on emerging technologies such as coal gasification, which still hasn't been tried on a large scale.
Recently, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., introduced a bill that would provide $4 billion in construction assistance, loan guarantees and tax incentives to promote clean-coal technology. The coal gasification process removes pollutants and, in environmental terms, provides a far superior alternative to conventional coal-fired plants.
Still, environmentalists reject clean-coal power facilities, arguing that renewable energy sources are a better choice. And they question why the taxpayers should invest in the technology, instead of the power companies.
That's a question market-oriented conservatives should consider. If a new energy technology is viable, it should attract a significant amount of private investment.
But environmentalists aren't interested in protecting taxpayers or allowing the market to sort out energy alternatives. They want the government to continue to subsidize impractical alternatives such as solar power. Ironically, Alexander's proposal also includes measures to promote solar energy.
Even scientific specialists who warn of the dangers of global warming see serious limits to the potential of the current renewable energy technology.
An article in The New Yorker magazine describes the work of two Princeton University professors who are exploring the problem of how to "stabilize" worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases.
Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala examined various methods for reducing emissions, including solar power and wind electricity. According to the author of the article, Elizabeth Kolbert, the professors concluded that photovoltaic installations covering an area the size of Connecticut would be needed to significantly reduce carbon emissions.
As for wind power, they estimated it would take at least one million turbines to produce a "wedge" that helps stabilize emissions.
The drawbacks of various energy alternatives should lead both environmentalists and conservatives to reconsider the original breakthrough in alternative energy.
Nuclear plants have been safely generating power all over the world for the past 50 years.
The hysteria over Three Mile Island obscured the fact that very few serious incidents have been reported at U.S. nuclear power plants. Nuclear plants supply 70 percent of France's power and about a third of the power used by the Japanese. China plans to build 20 nuclear plants in the next 15 years.
One reason nuclear power is a popular option abroad is that it doesn't release greenhouse gases that are suspected of contributing to global warming. Nuclear power also is strikingly efficient. In a column in The Wall Street Journal, Gary Becker, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, pointed out that one kilogram of natural uranium yields 20,000 times as much energy as a kilogram of coal.
According to Becker, construction and operating costs for nuclear facilities have declined sharply since 1980, making them more competitive with traditional power plants.
Concerns about nuclear waste simply aren't serious enough to justify the rejection of this important energy source. France and other countries recycle nuclear waste, eliminating the need for storage. But if the U.S. opts for a storage policy, the proposed Yucca Mountain facility could hold vast quantities of nuclear waste with only minimal risks of leakage.
The Three Mile Island accident essentially halted the growth of the nuclear power industry in the U.S. It's time to remove regulatory obstacles to the development of this sensible and safe alternative to pollution-producing energy sources.