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What's the Quickest Path?

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMarch 13, 2012 7:54 PM


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Despite the immense human tragedy of the earthquake/tsunami that struck Japan one year ago, many media stories in the West this past week have focused on the Fukushima meltdown, which led Mark Lynas to tweet:

I find the total silence about the 20,000 victims killed by the tsunami a year ago horrifying, current nuclear angst out of all proportion.

On a related note, because nuclear power is part of the energy/climate debate, George Monbiot recently tweeted:

How come climate change ceases to be an issue as soon as someone needs to make the case for abandoning nuclear?

That is a curious thing, isn't it? Which leads me to this essay by Michael Lemonick, titled, "No Nukes? Only if you believe in magic." It is a wry, concisely argued deconstruction of all the proffered "magic" solutions that keep the climate change debate stuck in the realm of fantasy. After reading that, waltz on over to Dot Earth for some historical perspective by Spencer Weart on why "nuclear fear feeds back on itself" in society. Then there are the regulatory and cost issues that still bedevil nuclear power. The Economist, in an introduction to a new special report, writes:

In any country independent regulation is harder when the industry being regulated exists largely by government fiat. Yet, as our special report this week explains, without governments private companies would simply not choose to build nuclear-power plants. This is in part because of the risks they face from local opposition and changes in government policy (seeing Germany's nuclear-power stations, which the government had until then seen as safe, shut down after Fukushima sent a chilling message to the industry). But it is mostly because reactors are very expensive indeed. Lower capital costs once claimed for modern post-Chernobyl designs have not materialised. The few new reactors being built in Europe are far over their already big budgets. And in America, home to the world's largest nuclear fleet, shale gas has slashed the costs of one of the alternatives; new nuclear plants are likely only in still-regulated electricity markets such as those of the south-east.

While not giving up on nuclear power, the piece argues that the much anticipated "promise of a global [nuclear] transformation is gone." So where does all this leave us? If you don't believe in magic, and you're not waiting anymore for a nuclear renaissance, what's the quickest (and most realistic) path to a low-carbon energy economy?

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