Monday, March 22, 2004

Nuclear Power

I think we need a massive increase in the domestic production of nuclear power.

Oil and natural gas and coal and electricity are, to some extent, fungible. If we produce more electricity with domestic nuclear, we can import less oil. There is a short-term limit, of course, because there are only so many oil-burning powerplants that can be supplanted by nuclear plants. But if new supplies of electricity make electricity cheaper relative to oil, people will switch other things from oil to electricity -- things like cars (plug-in hybrids) and home heating (heat pumps instead of furnaces and oil burners).

Think of the advantages:

  • Oil is a major portion of our balance of trade deficit, so reducing our oil imports will improve our overall trade deficit. Our trade deficit is scary, because we pay for all these foreign consumables with domestic hard assets -- we are trading our land and buildings away for things that are thrown away in 15 years.

    Numbers: 9,140,000 barrels a day at $22/barrel (the bottom of OPEC price range) is $73 billion a year. The real number is likely a fair bit higher than that. The entire 2003 trade deficit was $374 billion, so oil imports were at least 20% of that.

  • The money we pay for oil goes largely to corrupt governments in unstable parts of the world (and Norway and the UK :). If we buy less oil, less money will go to these governments. Other nations will certainly step in and buy more barrels of oil, of course, but if total demand is reduced then the total revenue will go down with it. As the U.S. is the world's largest consumer of oil, by far, a significant drop in U.S. oil imports will have a very real effect on world oil prices and revenue.

  • Those governments spend their massive oil wealth in ways that are not aligned with U.S. interests. Saudi Arabia funds schools which teach millions of children religious intolerance and the glory of death in battle. Iraq was funding a militaristic dictatorship. Reducing the money they have to spend is in our interests.

  • External oil supplies are a national security problem. Right now, the world's producers are pumping at close to capacity. There is not a great deal of slack in the system. That means that a single large country, like Saudi Arabia, halting exports of oil would make for a massive disruption of the world economy. This gives the oil-producing countries a large amount of negotiating power. That their own economies would be wrecked by such a move tempers that power.

    But consider what would happen if the guy on the Saudi side of the table didn't care about the local Saudi economy. What if his priorities were religious and/or political?

  • Not just the rate but the total amount of oil is a long-term national security problem. The U.S. will use up its domestic reserves before foreign reserves are depleted. As U.S. domestic reserves are depleted, our reliance on and transfer of money to foreign sources will increase, and our independence of action in the world will decrease.

  • Shifting $73 billion a year into jobs which are almost entirely all in the U.S. directly employs about 730,000 U.S. residents, permanently. These people then consume services from others, and so there is some multiplier for the total number of jobs added to the U.S. economy. Though this is not going to solve our economic problems, it is enough to make a noticeable change in the unemployment rate.

    There is some possibility the jobs could be moved to Canada or Mexico. Either one of those two countries could invest in large nuclear programs and become a major exporter of electricity to the U.S. Canada is already a major exporter of hydroelectricity.

  • The U.S. accounts for a healthy chunk of the world's CO2 output. A significant cut in our CO2 production would help towards reducing the rate of CO2 rise in the atmosphere. The science on global warming is still out, but I think it's clear that humans are responsible for most of the rise in atmospheric CO2 in the last century, and I find it reasonable to imagine that that rise is changing something.

  • But of course the problem with nuclear power is the waste and the security issues. These issues look unacceptable if you think that the alternative is to simply reject nuclear power. But that's not the alternative. The alternative is invading nasty foreign dictatorships because we can't afford oil supply instability. But worse, we have to keep those foreign nations stabilized over dozens of years to ensure oil stability. That effort claims the lives of our soldiers who will perish trying to suppress rebellions overseas against what those rebels (correctly) see as U.S. interference in their domestic politics.

    So, I think we need to examine two propositions: Do we keep garrisons overseas in unstable nations for the next 100 years, and lose many soldiers every year to insurrection, in order to secure our overseas oil supply, or do we replace that oil supply with a domestic nuclear infrastructure that generates, uses, and discards enormously dangerous substances as part of its basic operation?

    And my answer is, better the devil you know that the one you don't. Nuclear is an entirely domestic industry. Our government has the ability to regulate this industry. The regulation may not be perfect, but at least everyone involved is inside our borders. Nobody questions that the U.S. military and police forces have the right to secure nuclear facilities. There are no protests in the street from those willing to die to prevent the NRC from specifying standards to which the nuclear industry is accountable.

    Of course, I would like to see some changes in the nuclear industry. Reactors are still built as if a major goal was the production of weapons-grade plutonium. The only way to reduce the amount of nuclear waste that must be separated from the environment forever is to reduce the interaction of radioactive stuff with the environment. This means that reactor cores should be sealed objects, built in the very crypts they will stay in for hundreds of thousands of years. The only thing that ever comes out is heat. When the fuel in the core is "burned up", the core is irreversibly shut down and left to cool, essentially forever. New cores, with their own independent containment vessels, are built next to the old ones, and the power generation infrastructure is switched to these new cores as the old ones die.