Opinion

Global warming debate revives talk of nuclear power

The debate over global warming is testing long-held positions of politicians and environmentalists. For example, the pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is reviving talk about nuclear power.

The current method of combating global warming is to reduce carbon emissions. Carbon dioxide (CO2), a byproduct of energy use, is the most prevalent greenhouse gas. The U.S. Department of Energy reports that in 2006 the U.S. emitted 5.8 billion metric tons of CO2 or nearly 20 tons per person.

President Bush has set a goal of stopping the growth of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. But environmental groups want to reduce those emissions 80 percent by 2050, a goal endorsed by Democrat presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, supports a 65 percent reduction.

In a recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, analyst Steven Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute says only President Bush's goal is attainable. Hayward points out that an 80 percent reduction in CO2 emissions would put us back to where we were in 1910.

Put in individual terms, meeting the environmentalists' goal would mean reducing electricity use in the average home to 2,500 kilowatt hours per year. That's not enough power to just run the average water heater.

The same drastic reduction would apply to commercial and industrial installations as well. To meet the 80 percent reduction goal, we would have to stop using fossil fuels entirely, at a cost of many trillions of dollars if it can be done at all.

In fact, the only nations in the world today that emit the low level of CO2 emissions favored by environmentalists are poverty stricken countries such as Belize, Haiti and Somalia. The best performers among developed nations are France and Switzerland, which generate almost all of their electricity from nuclear and hydropower. Still, those "perfect performers" emit some 6.5 metric tons of CO2 per person, more than twice the stated goal.

Natural gas is not the answer. If we replaced all existing coal plants with natural gas plants, CO2 emissions would still be more than twice the 2050 target. Renewables wind, solar, and biomass can never make up more than about 20 percent of our electricity supply.

Transportation is a major producer of greenhouse gases, but even if every American driver and trucker drove hybrid vehicles, we would still overshoot the 2050 goal by 40 percent.

So, what can we do? We can revisit the issue of nuclear power.

According to a recent article in the Tri-City Herald, the nuclear power industry is making a comeback. License applications for 15 new reactors have been submitted to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and 10 more are in the pipeline.

Here in the Northwest, Jeff King a senior resource analyst for the Northwest Power and Conservation Council says, "[Nuclear power] is on the table … for the first time in many years." Noting that wind and solar power alone cannot wean our state from carbon-emitting power plants, Democrat Governor Chris Gregoire says, "I think it has to be on the table. I think we're going to have to revisit this question." Republican Dino Rossi, the governor's presumptive election challenger, concurs, "It's something we need to explore."

But for Washington's environmental community, nuclear power is a non-starter. Tom Geiger of the Washington Environmental Council says, "It's not really a question people are open to engaging." Sara Patton, of the Northwest Energy Coalition, calls nuclear power "big and risky."

However, nuclear power has been used safely and successfully in Europe for decades.

Currently, there are 197 nuclear power plants operating in Europe and 13 more are under construction. France gets 78.5 percent of its energy from nuclear, Lithuania 70 percent, Belgium 56 percent and Sweden 46.7 percent.

We need to set goals of reducing carbon emissions, but those goals must be reasonable and attainable and they cannot be allowed to destroy our economy. To accomplish even reasonable goals, we cannot afford to slam the door on any option particularly nuclear power, which is working successfully to reduce carbon emissions in the rest of the world.

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