Nuclear Energy Is Obama’s Nixon-to-China Opportunity


shutterstock_320521304President Obama and other world leaders are in Paris for talks to limit climate-altering emissions. Now the problem here is that a) the world needs to get richer, b) that requires more energy, and c) more energy has meant rising atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide.

So we have to get better, a lot better, at de-carbonizing our energy. As the Ecomodernist Manifesto correctly notes, ” … rising energy consumption is tightly correlated with rising incomes and improving living standards. … For that reason, any conflict between climate mitigation and the continuing development process through which billions of people around the world are achieving modern living standards will continue to be resolved resoundingly in favor of the latter.”

The solution is clean-energy abundance for a high-energy planet — not scarcity — with the goal of decoupling human progress from its potential impact on the climate. That path forward would seem to be one that rests on advancing solar and nuclear technology. In a New York Times commentary, venture capitalist Peter Thiel focuses on the latter:

While politicians prepare a grand bargain on emissions limits that future politicians are unlikely to obey, a new generation of American nuclear scientists has produced designs for better reactors. Crucially, these new designs may finally overcome the most fundamental obstacle to the success of nuclear power: high cost. Designs using molten salt, alternative fuels and small modular reactors have all attracted interest not just from academics but also from entrepreneurs and venture capitalists like me ready to put money behind nuclear power.

However, none of these new designs can benefit the real world without a path to regulatory approval, and today’s regulations are tailored for traditional reactors, making it almost impossible to commercialize new ones.

Fortunately, we have solved this problem before. In 1949 the federal government built a test facility at Idaho National Laboratory to study and evaluate new nuclear reactor designs. We owe our nuclear power industry to the foresight of those New Dealers, and we need their openness to innovation again today. Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed a bill calling for reform of our national laboratories; recently, the White House hosted a summit meeting to support nuclear energy. However, now that the speeches are over, we still lack a plan to fund and prototype the new reactors that we badly need.

Both the right’s fear of government and the left’s fear of technology have jointly stunted our nuclear energy policy, but on this issue liberals hold the balance of power.  … Like Nixon’s going to China, this is something only Mr. Obama can do. If this president clears the path for a new atomic age, American scientists are ready to build it.

In its 2013 report, “How to Make Nuclear Cheap,” the Breakthrough Institute offers a plan that would seem to sync with what Thiel recommends. It includes both expanded support for public research as well as regulatory reform “so developers can demonstrate and license reactor components; and lower the costs, regulatory barriers, and time to market for new designs.” And certainly there are examples of government and private sector working together successfully on energy advances, most notably the shale energy revolution.

Full-throated presidential support for nuclear would not only help with the funding and regulatory issues, but also public acceptance. Venture capitalist Sam Altman has said that he believes that just as “the 20th century was clearly the carbon century … the 22nd century is going to be the atomic power century. … It’s just a question of how long it takes us.”

And that transformation will require public support. But even Altman concedes he finds nuclear power a bit unsettling: ” I know all of the physics, I know a lot about the engineering, and I know that it’s totally safe. And I do not want a nuclear power plant on my block. I really don’t. And it’s totally irrational, but I understanding why people feel that way.” As we have seen with other controversial issues, persistent use of the bully pulpit can sway opinion.

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  1. PHCheese Inactive

    I for one don’t buy in to the CO2 climate change warming fairly tale.

    • #1
  2. Ross C Member
    Ross C

    I think James is right on target here.  There is much room for improvement in nuclear power provision, but utilities shun innovation like vampires shun sunlight.

    Utilities have been unable to control costs on these projects and they are typically been high dollar boondoggles.  The Vogtle 3 and 4 plants will be coming online in GA in the next 3 or 4 years thus far the overruns are not that bad.

    It will be interesting to compare these mega projects with the LNG export mega projects like Sabine Pass and Cameron LNG which have similar costs but no utility ratepayers to back them up.

    • #2
  3. iWe Coolidge

    So we have to get better, a lot better, at de-carbonizing our energy.

    Stuff and nonsense. CO2 is plant food.  Plant growth rates are soaring. Any possible warming has made places like Canada livable. And people are far more likely to die from cold than heat anyway.

    I have no issue with nuclear power. But this argument is not the way there.

    • #3
  4. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda

    James Pethokoukis: But even Altman concedes he finds nuclear power a bit unsettling: ” I know all of the physics, I know a lot about the engineering, and I know that it’s totally safe. And I do not want a nuclear power plant on my block. I really don’t. And it’s totally irrational, but I understanding why people feel that way.” As we have seen with other controversial issues, persistent use of the bully pulpit can sway opinion.

    I do want a nuclear power plant on my block.  There are more radioactive isotopes in the soot from a coal-fired power plant than are released from a nuclear power plant.

    • #4
  5. Dan Hanson Thatcher
    Dan Hanson

    This article is spot-on.  Nuclear is obviously the cheapest, fastest way to meet the carbon reduction goals of the climate activists.

    Even if you are worried about melt-downs and radiation,  if you believe that global warming will result in  the destruction of the ecosystem or the death of billions of humans,  nuclear should be a no-brainer.   There is no other technology in the pipeline that can come close to replacing our fossil infrastructure.  Even the climate warriors are shooting for weak solutions like targeting for 30% renewables by 2030,  which means they’re going to accept that 70% of our power would still come from fossil fuels,  which doesn’t solve the problem even remotely.

    So how come they aren’t embracing nuclear?  The obvious answer is that this isn’t really about global warming.   Maybe with some scientists it is,  but the global warming activist community is actually pushing for the same thing they’ve always pushed for:  A new, ‘fundamentally transformed’ world order in which the enlightened international intelligentsia run things,  where evil energy companies are brought under their thumb, where they can act as the purveyors of wealth transfer from the evil rich countries to the good poor countries,  where we will all live sustainable, low-energy lives in tune with nature,  and all the rest of the progressive rubbish  they believe in.

    The reason so many people are skeptical of global warming is because the solutions to it miraculously turned out to be all the things the left has always wanted:  Stronger international institutions,  larger government,  more taxes on producers,  massive wealth transfers,  an excuse to berate our patriarchal white society and stick it to capitalists,  and so forth.

    They aren’t really interested in real solutions,  because global warming is far too useful as a big stick against their opponents.

    None of this is to say that global warming isn’t happening – just that it happens to be the perfect tool in the left’s war chest.  If it didn’t exist they’d want to invent it.

    • #5
  6. Petty Boozswha Inactive
    Petty Boozswha

    I voted for Obama back in the days of Hope and Change just for this kind of thinking – I thought he could be a Nixon-to-China or Eisenhower taking on the racial grievance/industrial complex. Didn’t work out then, doubt this will work out now, but hope springs eternal.

    • #6
  7. John Hanson Thatcher
    John Hanson

    Nuclear is a good idea on its own, however, climate change driven by manmade emission of CO2 is pseudo science  generated by leftist groups using the issue to increase government (and UN ) control over  individual’s lives at the expense of liberty.  Actual data does not support the climate models. There has been some warming (most of it prior to when CO2 emissions ramped up). Most of the remaining warming appears to be the result of multi-decadal cycles in the thermal engine driving climate, and not tied to CO2 emission.  Man based effects on the worlds climate to the extent they exist are more likely based on land use changes, and effects on the water cycle, other than CO2, but the focus on CO2 (because targeting one villain allows more political power accumulation) prevents progress on these other issues.

    Even accepting the most likely climate model scenario, one gets a temperature rise of about 1.2 degrees for a doubling of CO2, and the net effects of this on humans would be beneficial, and to be hoped for, not opposed.   There is no “ideal” climate and a lot of the recent science indicates it is likely that for a significant portion of human history over the last several thousand years, it may have been warmer than today.

    Decisions should be based on economics, and solar and wind will never be effective in providing base power load capability at reasonable cost.  Solar because one needs to provide power at night and during bad weather, wind because it is unreliable and simply doesn’t blow all the time.  Usually actual power generated runs at about 10-15% of rated capacity.   If we were to build a huge number of additional power lines, (not likely) one could slightly improve the capability through continental scale power grids, with instant load balancing but all of this is terribly expensive.

    Go with nuclear for base load, it is the only reasonable option, and automobiles should likely be hydrogen powered, not electrical unless someone can solve the need to be able to recharge, or swap charge in no more than 10 minutes instead of 4-5 hours. Additional base load needed for electrical vehicle charging, and environmental cost of manufacturing the huge number of batteries argues against battery generated electrical power.  Fuel cell derived electric power driving motors however would work, but needs a lot of development.

    But the reason to adopt nuclear, is not climate related, rather it is to use the carbon based fuels, as feedstocks for non-fuel related uses with higher value added, and provide abundant energy at lowest total cost to the nation.

    • #7
  8. PHCheese Inactive

    John, Hanson, very well said. So many people don’t understand how the grid works.

    • #8
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