Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Is Obama Right On Nuclear Plant Locations?

I don’t often agree with Obama, but it does happen. And right now, I agree with something he’s done. On Sunday, Obama’s Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced that, in response to the nuclear crisis in Japan, the US would start giving “population” much more weight when deciding where to build nuclear power plants. In other words, they’re going to start putting these plants away from large population centers. It’s about time.

I am not opposed to nuclear energy. I do not fall for leftist arguments, which are based on emotion rather than science and which mistake possibility for probability and demand perfection when no such thing is possible. But I also don’t fall for industry propaganda, which tries to pretend that a nuclear plant is no more dangerous than an old tractor sitting in some field.

The truth is that nuclear power plants are fairly safe, but they are not entirely safe. Indeed, there have been 33 serious accidents at nuclear plants since 1952 (with another 39 military accidents) and there are any number of things that can go wrong. And more importantly, when these accidents do happen, they have the potential to do serious, serious harm. Not only can they kill large amounts of people and make many more significantly ill, but they can make large chunks of land uninhabitable. Chernobyl, for example, resulted in an 1,100 square mile exclusion zone.

Thus, when thinking about building a nuclear plant, the first question we should be asking is: where can we put it that it doesn’t cause a major catastrophe if something goes wrong? This is simple common sense. When you store a can of gasoline, you don’t store it under your bed or next to your fireplace. You put it somewhere safe. You don’t build a house underneath a hanging boulder and you don’t put a school next to a toxic dump. It’s just common sense to account for potential dangers when building something.

Yet, for whatever reason (read: heavy lobbying), we have never thought about this when building nuclear plants. Indian Point power plant, for example, is only 40 miles from New York City, and 21 million people live within 50 miles of the plant. Imagine the cost if something went wrong! Not only could you be dealing with millions of sick people, but even if they all got out, you still could be looking at abandoning New York City in its entirety! And I’m not talking about evacuating until the danger passes, I’m talking about abandoning the city. What kind of criminally negligent fool thought this was a good place to put that plant?

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t build plants. To the extent these plants make economic sense, without subsidies, I’m all for them. But that doesn’t mean we have to be stupid about where we place them. Here’s why.

Have you ever wondered how cities, states and countries are able to sell each other electricity? It’s because the transmission of electricity is highly efficient -- even given our outdated and poorly constructed electric infrastructure. According to electrical industry groups, the power loss resulting from transporting electricity 1,000 miles is only 8.71%. To transport electricity 2,000 miles results in a loss of around 17%. (Apparently, 2-3% is normal even for local transport.)

So how far is 1,000 miles? Well, St. Louis to Washington, D.C. is only 878 miles. New York City to Miami is only 1090 miles. Even New York City to Los Angeles is only 2,462. That means you can put reactors almost anywhere in the country and service most of the country with less than 10% loss in energy.

So why haven’t we done this? Well, it would increase the costs of electricity! True, but doesn’t it make more sense to pay 10% more for electricity than it does to run the risk that some disaster could eliminate a major metropolitan center?

Building any of these plants in or near a large population center is shortsightedness at its worst. Put them in the middle of deserts or on the far reaches of the coast. Don’t be stupid.

Thus, I have to congratulate President Obama for making the right decision here. I’m glad someone finally decided to use a little common sense.

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