MARK HERTSGAARD, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE -Environmentalists center their critique on safety concerns: Nuclear reactors can suffer meltdowns from malfunctions or terrorist attacks; radioactivity is released in all phases of the nuclear production cycle from uranium mining through fission; the problem of waste disposal still hasn't been solved; civilian nuclear programs can spur weapons proliferation. But absent a Chernobyl-scale disaster, such arguments may not prove to be decisive. . .
The case against nuclear power as a global warming remedy begins with the fact that nuclear-generated electricity is very expensive. Despite more than $150 billion in federal subsides over the past 60 years (roughly 30 times more than solar, wind and other renewable energy sources have received), nuclear power costs substantially more than electricity made from wind, coal, oil or natural gas. This is mainly due to the cost of borrowing money for the decade or more it usually takes to get a nuclear plant up and running.
Remarkably, this inconvenient fact does not deter industry officials from boasting that nuclear is the cheapest power available. Their trick is to count only the cost of operating the plants, not of constructing them. By that logic, a Rolls-Royce is cheap to drive because the gasoline but not the sticker price matters. The marketplace, however, sees through such blarney. As Amory Lovins, the soft energy guru who directs the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Colorado think tank that advises corporations and governments on energy use, points out, "Nowhere (in the world) do market-driven utilities buy, or private investors finance, new nuclear plants." Only large government intervention keeps the nuclear option alive.
A second strike against nuclear is that it produces only electricity, but electricity amounts to only one third of America's total energy use (and less of the world's). Nuclear power thus addresses only a small fraction of the global warming problem, and has no effect whatsoever on two of the largest sources of carbon emissions: driving vehicles and heating buildings.
The upshot is that nuclear power is seven times less cost-effective at displacing carbon than the cheapest, fastest alternative -- energy efficiency, according to studies by the Rocky Mountain Institute. For example, a nuclear power plant typically costs at least.