Saturday, October 20, 2012

Does nuclear lack a natural constituency?

A quick Turing test from the prior round of U.S. presidential debates - see if you can spot the speaker:
We have increased oil production to the highest levels in 16 years. Natural gas production is the highest it's been in decades. We have seen increases in coal production and coal employment.
Look, I want to make sure we use our oil, our coal, our gas, our nuclear, our renewables. I believe very much in our renewable capabilities; ethanol, wind, solar will be an important part of our energy mix.
Number three, we've got to control our own energy. Now, not only oil and natural gas, which we've been investing in; but also, we've got to make sure we're building the energy source of the future, not just thinking about next year, but ten years from now, 20 years from now. That's why we've invested in solar and wind and biofuels, energy efficient cars.
Let's take advantage of the energy resources we have, as well as the energy sources for the future. And if we do that, if we do what I'm planning on doing, which is getting us energy independent, North America energy independence within eight years, you're going to see manufacturing jobs come back. Because our energy is low cost, that are already beginning to come back because of our abundant energy.
In order: Obama, Romney, Obama, Romney. Most notably, while the word "energy" showed up 40 times during last Tuesday's debate, "nuclear" showed up only twice (and only once in the context of energy, within the throwaway line given by Governor Romney above). Compare and contrast with coal (22 appearances), natural gas (8 appearances), oil (26 times), wind (7 times), and solar (3 times).

It is consistently puzzling how an energy source which supplies about 20% of U.S. baseload electricity and the overwhelming share of its carbon-free energy portfolio manages scarce mention in debates over energy. Instead we have two candidates practically tripping over themselves to extol the virtues of increased fossil fuel production (which, depending on your constituency, will sometimes include a nod to chimerical "clean coal" or carbon sequestration technology) but who can barely suffer more than an obligatory mention of nuclear.

It isn't because either candidate seems particularly hostile to nuclear (at least, not openly); both have quietly supported nuclear, generally in the context of "all of the above" energy policies which differ primarily in the respective weight given to fossil exploration and renewables. It would seem, as I have often asserted, in a world both where energy scarcity and environmental impacts of energy are at the forefront, opposition to nuclear is a self-marginalizing position. So why it is exactly that it fails to merit more than passing mention? Consensus doesn't seem to be it; if the above ideological Turing test is any indication, both Obama and Romney seem intent upon defying traditional expectations by endorsing (however insincerely) traditionally-favored energy resources of their opponents. (As a result, we have such scintillating "debates" as to which candidate really loves fossil exploration more...)

The superficial answer commonly given in response to this of course would be that fossil interests (and perhaps, by proxy, renewables, if one is the conspiratorial type) represent tremendous financial interests, and thus, political interests. But this explanation only goes so far - particularly when one looks to polling data as to how energy preferences break down within the public.

Rather, I am inclined to wonder if this is a case of where nuclear, unlike fossil and rewnewables, lacks a well-defined constituency - being relegated to a tepid, forgotten center (where it enjoys broad, lukewarm support by many and hot, focused opposition at the fringe). It is perhaps progress (and a keen awareness of the urgency brought on both by the need for action on climate change and developing abundant future energy resources) that nuclear is no longer seen as ideologically confined to the rightward end of the political spectrum; but instead I am forced to once again go back to the hypothesis that we are seeing energy as a marker for pre-existing cultural affinities.

To wit - for all of the talk by both Romney and Obama on developing coal resources, does either seriously expect to see any significant new developments in coal-fired electrical capacity? (A telling example of the direction of things to come is TVA's shuttering of the John Sevier coal plant, which was recently replaced by a combined-cycle natural gas facility. In a single year, TVA's coal portfolio has shifted down from around 50% to 30% - with the gap entirely being made up for by gas.) Even if one does believe new coal-fired generation will emerge, does either seriously believe this will emerge when projected costs for so-called "clean coal" outstrip the production costs of new nuclear?

Or, more importantly, if support for nuclear was more than token for both candidates, why is it exactly than in Romney's 21-page energy plan, the proposals for nuclear come down to a single bullet point: "Revitalize nuclear power by equipping the NRC to approve new designs and to license approved reactor designs on approved sites within two years." (How this will be accomplished is left as an exercise for the reader). Note the striking absence of any mention of small modular reactors and their potential to revitalize export-driven manufacturing in the U.S., or even such basic measures as reforming antiquated laws restricting vitally-needed foreign investment in new domestic nuclear capacity - nuclear, it would seem, is an afterthought. Nor is it any better with Obama, where his campaign's "issues" site for energy lists oil exploration and (inexplicably) clean coal (one gets the feeling we're actually back in the Bush years), but fails to even mention nuclear.

The very fact that the Romney campaign would speak effusively of renewables as an improbable part of a vague, "all-of-the-above" energy strategy while Obama bafflingly promotes both fossil exploration and dubious "clean coal" technology (see also, vaporware) point to an effort to reach voters not on the rational basis of carefully-considered energy policy, but rather, in a word, pandering. (Yes, quel surprise indeed coming from a political campaign).

So why is this? Because again, by and large for the public, I am largely convinced that support for particular energy sources comes not from their practical value but from what these represent. It is immaterial as to whether availability and diffusivity inherently limit the ability of renewables to produce electricity at the large, consistent scales required to power modern civilization - because these sources, at their core, represent aspirational goods which somehow magically disconnect environmental consequences from energy. Fossil resources represent abundance - an energy abundance which can be found here at home, supporting an economic fantasy of "energy independence" powered by domestic, low-cost energy sources (to which environmental concerns are ancillary).

What brings this charade crashing down is the dissonance with how each of these sides deals with the issue of nuclear. If the latter camp truly cared about abundance, nuclear would plausibly be of co-equal priority - uranium resources are relatively abundant in the U.S., and most of the uranium it imports are from friendly countries like our neighbors to the north. Further, nuclear is relatively cheap - particularly once plants are built - and those plants can supply energy for entire generations at tiny marginal costs. Thus, if it was simply about energy abundance, one would expect more than simple tepid support - one should see more folks like Lamar Alexander exhorting the country to double our current fleet by building a hundred new nuclear reactors. But they don't. Instead we are given platitudes extolling the virtues of abundant natural gas and coal - not uranium.

Meanwhile, as to the former crowd that values minimizing environmental impacts, it is immaterial as to what backs up intermittent sources (i.e., it's the same resources in which they claim they are attempting to displace). If the plausible goal were to eliminate CO2 and air pollution as much as possible, one would think that nuclear, given its high capacity and availability, would be at the vanguard of the movement. And yet it is shockingly absent - instead, once again, natural gas and ephemeral promises of "clean coal" (which, in fairness, is probably more about a cynical electoral sop to coal-producing states than it is a serious policy proposal) take the fore. Constantly we hear from these same people theoretically devoted to the cause of creating a clean energy future about the virtue and necessity of natural gas as a "bridge" fuel - as if carbon-free nuclear energy simply did not exist. (Or as if natural gas did not pose a far more substantial risk in terms of deaths per unit energy produced).

What nuclear seems to lack here is the existence of a natural constituency  Again, look at what a rational examination of the expressed interests of our two major constituencies above should theoretically produce - nuclear, by all accounts, should be a hands-down consensus winner. Yet instead it is relegated to scarcely a mention in high-profile debates.

Again, it is far better for nuclear not to exist solely in the thrall of one ideological pole, given the ease at which it can be marginalized on a partisan basis. But perhaps the bigger issue now is that nuclear, enjoying a broad but shallow public consensus, finds itself politically homeless.