Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Did Europe Over-React to the Chernobyl Disaster? Reducing Greenhouse Gases by Increasing Nucler Power Plant Production

What have been the long run consequences of the 3 Mile Island and Chernobyl events? Did these events make it much harder for the U.S and Europe to reduce greenhouse gas production? If these events had not taken place, how much lower would U.S and Europe's greenhouse gas production be today as "clean" nuclear power would have had a larger market share? We will never know how much nuclear energy research was retarded by the reduction in investment in these technologies after these salient shocks.

As I've blogged about in the past, the New York Times has discussed at length that the long run damage from Chernobyl was not nearly as bad as first thought.

Environmentalists face an interesting challenge. This group must prioritize. What are the greatest challenges we face? If it is climate change, then nuclear does become a more attractive choice. But, environmentalists are right to stress that nuclear is not a "free lunch". To quote from the NY Times article below,

"Opponents of nuclear power argue that it is costly, potentially dangerous, vulnerable to terrorist attack and dogged by the difficulties of nuclear waste disposal."

It sounds like an economist is needed here to measure the costs and benefits of each alternative! A critic would argue that it is very difficult to quantify some of the key unknowns (such as: If we build new nuclear plants,what is the probability that a terrorist group could achieve a big bombing and how much damage would this even cause).

So, how do we make choices under uncertainty? Which is the lesser of these two evils? As I ask my students each year, "Is Nuclear a green technology?"

November 29, 2005
Blair to Decide on Nuclear Plants by Next Summer

LONDON, Nov. 29 - Challenged by environmentalist protesters, Prime Minister Tony Blair announced today that Britain would decide next summer whether to reverse its current reluctance to build new nuclear power stations.

Mr. Blair's announcement reflected a nascent European debate that could presage a dramatic shift in energy policies. Finland in particular has already broken ranks with the opposition to nuclear power that has seized much of the Continent since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. And while France derives around 80 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power, Germany, Britain and others may be poised re-evaluate their previous pledges to phase out nuclear power by the early 2020's.

As Mr. Blair spoke at an employers' meeting here, two men wearing fluorescent yellow jackets over dark business suits clambered into the steel rafters of the auditorium to launch a protest by the Greenpeace environmental group.

They carried banners saying, "Nuclear: wrong answer" and scattered similar messages on tickertape onto the crowd below. Greenpeace said the protest was intended to launch a "fightback against a new nuclear era" by preventing Mr. Blair from speaking.

The protesters refused to abandon their perches in the roof beams, insisting that they wished to make a 10-minute speech to participants in the annual meeting of the Confederation of British Industry, a leading employers' group.

"I'm not prepared to accept that," said Digby Jones, the head of the Confederation. "I don't give in to ultimatums."

Mr. Blair, regarded as an undeclared supporter of nuclear power, was forced to address business leaders in a cramped side room, surrounded by reporters and photographers. "This is going to be a surreal occasion," Mr. Blair said. "I'm going to give this speech if it's the last thing I do."

"Like most tough issues, what we actually need is an open and democratic debate, not one conducted by protests and demonstrations to stop people having the freedom to express their views," he said.

The two protesters, identified by Greenpeace as Huw Williams and Nyls Verhauelt, had apparently infiltrated the building with unauthorized identification passes, the organizers said.

Their action recalled other demonstrations by pro-hunting and fathers' rights protesters who breached security at the House of Commons and Buckingham Palace.

The Confederation of British Industry acknowledged that security around the prime minister had been compromised, only months after the July terrorist bombings. Another speaker at the annual gathering was Sir Ian Blair, the head of London's Metropolitan Police.

Prime Minister Blair's speech had been widely expected as the trigger for a new energy debate only two years after the British authorities resolved to increase the use of renewable sources like wind power to 10 per cent of the country's needs by 2010 and 20 per cent by 2020. At the same time, Britain's coal and nuclear power stations would be gradually phased out by 2023.

At the time, though, the government left open the possibility of building new nuclear power stations - a move that has divided environmental groups and is opposed by some members of Mr. Blair's Labor Party.

"The issue back on the agenda with a vengeance is energy policy," Mr. Blair said. "Round the world you can see feverish rethinking. Energy prices have risen. Energy supply is under threat. Climate change is producing a sense of urgency."

Britain's looming energy crisis is depicted here as potentially acute since the country, which long relied on its North Sea oil and gas reserves, has now become a net importer of both, provoking concerns that Britain will consume more energy than it can produce or afford to import. Government officials say they are also worried that Britain could finish up reliant on politically unstable countries for its supplies of natural gas.

Mr. Blair said Britain's latest policy review "will include specifically the issues of whether we facilitate the development of a new generation of nuclear power stations."

Opponents of nuclear power argue that it is costly, potentially dangerous, vulnerable to terrorist attack and dogged by the difficulties of nuclear waste disposal. Advocates maintain that nuclear power plants produce clean and cheap fuel, reducing emissions of so-called greenhouse gases.

In the United States, no new nuclear plants have been ordered since the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979. Nuclear power contributes around one-fifth of the country's electricity needs.

But in Europe, the nuclear debate - propelled by concerns over future shortages of oil and gas, pollution and high costs - has begun to accelerate.

In Finland, four nuclear reactors provide 28 per cent of the country's electricity. In 2002, the government in Helsinki resolved to build a fifth reactor - the first ordered in Europe for over 10 years - that will bring that figure to 34 per cent.

Much of Europe's opposition to nuclear power dates to the Chernobyl disaster, which provoked such protest that no new reactors have been built since then. Indeed, Italy and some other countries call themselves nuclear-free zones, while Austria and Denmark have also rejected nuclear power.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats have traditionally been favorable to extending the deadline for closing nuclear plants supplying almost 28 per cent of the country's power. But the Social Democrat coalition partners, who are in charge of the environment ministry, insist that the plants will close on schedule.