The Nuclear Bargain: 25 Years After Chernobyl

In Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a novel on American society, conservationist Walter Berglund is deeply pessimistic about the future of the environment. He is convinced that the world has gone so far down the path towards cataclysmic destruction that he envisions a future where nature is destroyed, save for a tiny piece of land  – an “unwrecked stronghold” – that he can keep safe for the songbirds.

An environmentalist defense of nuclear power depends on the exact opposite vision of the future. Most simply, nuclear power accepts that small, “empty” parts of the world will be made uninhabitable now and forever. We sacrifice some to save the whole. This is the bargain of nuclear power.

Today’s 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl meltdown highlights just one example of that tradeoff. The area in the Ukraine around the former reactor is now closed forever to human life. Hundreds of thousands of people have had to forever uproot their lives to avoid radioactive contamination. Today, the international community is struggling to raise funds for a $780 million containment dome, expected to replace the rusting hulk that has helped cut off Chernobyl from the world for the past 25 years.

For too long, we have assumed that affordable and reliable energy was one side of a coin that also threatened either climate change or nuclear meltdown. Saving a small piece of land from a world destroyed and sacrificing a small piece of land to prevent that destruction are not the only options; the trajectory of alternative energy suggests that this is a false choice.

The argument for nuclear energy rests on the idea that nuclear is necessary, but is it?

China, IndiaSouth Africa, and other developing countries seem to think so. They are pressing ahead rapidly with new nuclear construction.

However, the case for nuclear power as a necessity is much weaker in more developed energy markets. In the U.S., renewables now provide about as much energy as nuclear, and are set to pass nuclear this year. In the UK, nuclear energy is believed to be unnecessary for meeting the country’s emissions-reduction goals. In Germany, wind power alone is believed to be sufficient to replace all nuclear power.

Besides nuclear’s potentially unpalatable bargain – destroying one place to save others – the biggest problem with nuclear energy may be its cost. Most technologies have positive learning curves – as they become mature, they become cheaper. Nuclear power, however, seems to exhibit a surprising opposite trend. The average cost of nuclear power (in constant dollars) has increased from a bit below $1000 per kilowatt to north of $8000/kW.

In the U.S., financing for these increasingly expensive systems now comes only from the federal government.

There are valid reasons not to let the market rule unilaterally our energy decisions. Diversity in energy sources is probably valuable. Increasing domestic production, too, has its merits. Providing support for fledgling industries may also be a valuable role for governments.

Nevertheless, the continued failure of nuclear power to become market-competitive shows that subsidies for nuclear may be good money after bad. We can buy far more kilowatts per dollar with our subsidies by focusing on other sources of energy.

Burning coal and oil forever may very well doom us to the fate Walter Berglund feared – a future in which we “cut down every tree and sterilizie every ocean, and then collapse.” Nuclear offers an alternative – save the trees, the oceans, and the atmosphere, but sacrifice areas around nuclear reactors for decades or centuries and nuclear waste repositories for millennia. On this anniversary of Chernobyl, it’s important to recognize that we don’t have to accept either Walter Berglund’s view of the world or the nuclear advocates’.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons