John McCarthy on Nuclear Politics

Nuclear Politics

These remarks are about a decade old. We have included them because Professor McCarthy was an excellent scientist who described things both scientific and political in a clear and direct manner. ENW

John McCarthy’s home page at Stanford.

The development of nuclear energy in different countries has depended significantly on the failure or success of anti-nuclear movements.

The environmental movement, with early exceptions, opposes nuclear energy.

The political left in capitalist countries has opposed nuclear energy except in France. There the communists and the people they influence supported French nuclear energy and French nuclear weapons. [Two leading developers of nuclear physics in France were communists, and the communists wanted to claim that they were nationalists rather than mere followers of the Soviet Union.]

The results are approximately as follows.

France: 75 percent of electricity is nuclear.

United Kingdom: A substantial continuing nuclear program. They have had to switch to pressurized water reactors, a U.S. invention, from their own earlier designs, and this was politically difficult. 2003: The present Blair government is no longer emphasizing nuclear energy.

Germany: A large nuclear program which as been stalled recently, because the opposition Social Democrats now oppose nuclear energy. 1999: The Social Democrats are in power in alliance with the Green Party and proposes to close the nuclear plants. There has been much backing off, and I’ll bet it won’t happen to more than a token extent.

Belgium: More than half its electricity is nuclear.

Japan: About 30 percent nuclear and increasing steadily.

China: A slow nuclear program is now picking up steam.

Taiwan: The nuclear program was stalled after Chernobyl, but is getting going again.

Russia: The RBMK was a bad reactor design which contributed to the Chernobyl disaster, but their newer reactors have used pressurized water.

Ukraine: The Chernobyl disaster has played an important role in Ukrainian politics. They want Western money to close down the plant. 2003 note: They got some money and closed the plant.

Lithuania: Most electricity is nuclear from two RBMK, i.e. Chernobyl type, reactors. The European Economic Commission is putting pressure on Lithuania to close them.

Austria: One nuclear plant was built, but then the citizens voted to not operate it. 1999: The Austrian government made a big fuss about a nuclear plant being built in nearby Slovakia.

U.S.: The U.S. has the most reactors and generates the most electricity from nuclear energy. However, the anti-nuclear movement succeeded in stalling new commitments to nuclear plants. There is only one reactor currently under construction. [2003: probably finished by now.] Nuclear energy generates about 20 percent of U.S. electricity. Early problems with reliability have been mainly overcome, and nuclear plants have reached an average of 75 percent availability. Republicans generally favor resuming construction, and Democrats generally oppose it. 2003: Reliability is now over 90 percent.

There is plenty of coal in the U.S., so decisions can be long delayed without serious consequences – provided global warming and the contribution of coal burning to respiratory problems can be ignored. The utilities have made their peace with the environmental organizations and the activist, lawyer dominated regulatory commissions and will use whatever technology the regulators approve regardless of costs.

Conclusion

The politics of nuclear energy is unlikely to change rapidly. When the cost of petroleum goes up a lot, the countries that have had nuclear programs will have a competitive advantage that will put pressure on the backward countries. The danger that anti-nuclear politics would succeed in suppressing nuclear energy everywhere seems to have passed.

1999: The politics of nuclear energy has improved slightly in the U.S. Congress has mandated that the Government take the nuclear waste that it has been charging the companies for taking. There is still stalling on the repository. The repository for Government low level waste has finally opened in New Mexico. There is a one stop law on licensing plants. The undamaged Three Mile Island power plant has been sold to an energy supply company. With all that, a company proposing to build a new nuclear power plant might still face expensive delays from lawsuits.

Most of the new power plants in the US have used natural gas. The CEO of Entergy, an operator of nuclear plants bought from utilities, said that a natural gas price of $5.00 per million BTU should trigger the construction of new nuclear plants. It’s above that in late 2003.

2003: Congress passed a bill, and President Bush signed it specifying that a waste site in Nevada will be used. With the expected lawsuits 2010 is the earliest that waste will be stored. The energy bill that almost passed in Fall 2003 provided for a Government subsidy to construct a nuclear plant to produce hydrogen. The delays in passing the bill have involved conflicts over subsidies for ethanol, MTBE, etc. and have not involved the nuclear part. So far as I know, the opponents of the bill have not raised anti-nuclear issues.

 

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