Can uranium help generate the additional electricity that California needs yesterday, New York needs this summer, and the rest of the country will need in years to come?
Not for the next five years. The main thing we're going to do on that time frame is burn more gas, and several hundred million more tons of coal. After that, it depends. Not so much on the Bush administration, which has audaciously proposed a nuclear revival, but on who now speaks for the "Al Gore greens." The likes of Jane Fonda and Erin Brockovich, reflexive ideologues who hate big power plants and the economic growth they enable? Or a more rational new center, to be led, perhaps, by the National Wildlife Federation, the Audubon Society, and other serious students of climate models and global warming?
It was their pessimism about nuclear power two decades ago that landed the Al Gore greens in their present quandary. The Jane Fonda wing of their movement had been agitating against nukes long before the March 1979 accident at Three Mile Island. But after Three Mile Island, the greens had a real meltdown to rally around. That was it, politically speaking. Chernobyl, seven years later, just added a final nail to the U.S. nuclear coffin.
It didn't matter that the Three Mile Island containment vessel had done its job and prevented any release of radioactivity. Nor that Soviet reactors were built and run within a system that couldn't build or operate a safe toaster oven. Nor that both experience and elaborate computer analyses established that U.S. nuclear power plants and the planned repositories for nuclear wastes were stable and safe for the long term. No one could possibly deconstruct the long-term future of such complex systems, the green establishment concluded. Uranium was finished.
And we didn't need any more big power plants, anyway. "Conservation" and "renewables" would suffice from there on out. We would generate "negawatts," not megawatts. We would split wood, not atoms.
Another option was to burn an additional 400 million tons of coal a year, which is what we are in fact now doing, 20 years later. Oh yes, we messed around with windmills a bit, and boosted efficiency along the way too -- our appliances, air conditioners, refrigerators and light bulbs are 30% to 50% more efficient today than they were in 1980. But all that saving notwithstanding, we still managed to increase our total consumption of electricity by over 60%. All the new efficiency somehow got overtaken by new consumption -- bigger homes with bigger air conditioners, bigger refrigerators, and a brand new all-electric digital infrastructure.
We met half of the new demand with coal -- in absolute terms, we expanded coal-fired generation as much as all other fuels combined. That kept coal's share of our (steadily rising) output of electricity steady, at about 51%. Electricity generated with natural gas -- the fossil fuel that Al Gore greens much prefer to coal -- dropped sharply for a time, but then rose rapidly again, and is now back at the 16% share it had 20 years ago.
Meanwhile, uranium turned out to be not quite finished after all. Even though we weren't building any new nuclear plants, nuclear generation increased during the same 1980-2000 period, to 20% from 11% of total power generated. There were 71 civilian power plants running in 1980, but others were under construction; the nuclear count peaked at 112 in 1990. Since Three Mile Island, plant operators have also developed systematic procedures for sharing information and expertise across the industry, and that has pushed nuclear plant "up time" from under 60% into the high 80s. This stealth rise in nuclear-electric output allowed nuclear to displace about 8 percentage points of oil's share of the expanding electricity market, and 5 points of hydroelectric's.
With 103 civilian power plants currently on line, we've accumulated several thousand additional reactor-years of statistics since the Three Mile Island accident. And all the numbers strongly reinforce the projections made two decades ago: It's extremely unlikely that there will ever be a serious release of nuclear materials from a U.S. reactor. It's equally clear now, at least to the technical community, that nuclear wastes can be turned into inert glass and disposed of permanently, deep in salt deposits that have been stable for tens of millions of years.
But are any influential segments of the Al Gore greens ready yet to trust these analyses? Maybe. They certainly have come around to trusting complex computer projections of another kind. The fluxes of carbon dioxide, water vapor and solar energy through the global atmosphere are a lot more complicated than the flow of water and heat through the pipes and pumps of a nuclear reactor. But many greens are now quite certain they have a good grip on the likely trajectory of the planet's climate over the next 100 years.
And what their climate models tell them is that if we keep on burning fossil fuels at current rates, there will be meltdown on a much larger scale than Chernobyl's, beginning with the polar ice caps. An extra 400 million tons of coal here or there -- roughly the amount of carbon that the U.S. would be required to stop burning to comply with the Kyoto Treaty -- would make quite a difference, we're told.
Whatever they may believe about global warming, it's time now for all serious greens, left or right, to face up to three fundamental facts. First, an economic one. Demand for electricity has been rising without interruption since Edison invented the light bulb over a century ago. Short of war or a massive economic depression, it will go on rising for the foreseeable future. Total U.S. electricity consumption will rise another 20% to 30% over the next 10 years. Economic growth marches hand in hand with increased consumption of electricity. Always. Everywhere. Without exception anywhere in the annals of modern industrial history.
Second, a political fact. Neither Al Gore Democrats nor George Bush Republicans will let the grid go cold. Not even if that means burning 400 million more tons of coal. Not even if that means, in turn, melting the ice caps. Hundred-year ice-cap scenarios just don't beat the practical, day-to-day political imperative to deliver cheap electricity to everyone, everywhere.
Third, a technological fact. Coal, uranium and gas plants generate gargantuan amounts of power in very small amounts of space, which means they really can and do get built within reach of the population centers that need the power. Sun and wind will never come close. Earnest though they are, the people who maintain otherwise are the people who brought us California's power mess.
For the next five years, almost all new demand will be met with fossil fuels. By coal, because it represents half the installed base, and therefore half the opportunity to expand output at the margin -- aging coal plants will be "re-skinned" with new furnaces, boilers and turbines. And by smaller-scale gas units, because new jet-engine gas turbines can be deployed much faster than larger plants, and because greens dislike them the least. The next five years are set; all we can usefully discuss now is what will come after. Will it be still more fossil fuel, a good half (or more) of it coal? Or more uranium?
"Neither," the Fonda-Brockovich wing will howl. And from West Virginia to Wyoming, coal miners will quietly cheer them on. The miners understand political reality as well as Sen. Robert Byrd (D., W.Va.) does. "Neither" has been the official green line since 1980, when Big Coal was 400 million tons a year poorer than it is today. What more serious greens will reply remains to be seen. What they ought to do is part company with the Hollywood flakes and reach some sensible political accommodation with the Whitman-Norton greens instead.