In light of the nuclear power plant partial meltdowns in Japan, there are calls for not expanding the U.S. nuclear power plant capacity, and even shutting down existing plants. What bothers me about this is that there is no discussion of how we make up the energy production shortfall–I’ll get to energy conservation in a bit. As the U.S. begins the 21st century, we still are generating most of our power by lighting things on fire: oil, gas, and coal. While renewable energy (which despite its name still has some CO2 footprint) could pick up some slack, given our dysfunctional political system, if wind, solar and tidal power could reach fifteen percent of energy production, that would be a minor miracle.
If we ever want to reduce our production of CO2 over the next 20-30 years, we’ll have to develop nuclear power (although I would like to see thorium-powered reactors which produce less super-long term radioactive waste, instead of our current reactor technology). And as to environmental effects, well, Deepwater Horizon, mountain top removal, and fracking. No impact there. At all.
Ideally, we would undertake serious energy conservation measures. Making the energy grid less leaky would be a good start (although Republicans have ridiculed this). Other smaller effects, such as improving appliance efficiency, reducing food transport, and so on would help–at this point, the situation is dire enough that everything helps.
But we can’t be serious about energy conservation until we tackle this figure:
One of the best ways to reduce the amount of stuff we have to light on fire is to move from single detached housing in areas with no efficient mass transit to apartments with access to mass transit (keep in mind that residential use and transporation account for about two-thirds of total energy consumption). In other words, we have to massively ‘desuburbanize’ and simultaneously ‘reurbanize.’
Just how likely is that? Hell, whenever I write something nice about Boston, I get people showing up and claiming that they couldn’t live in the city because those people will rape all their stuff and steal all the women (or is it the other way around? I get confused).
Would we really be able to change the myriad number of economic and funding incentives in favor of the suburbs and the disincentives for living in urban areas?
Will we remove the mortgage interest tax deduction (most urbanites are renters and most suburbanites are owners)?
Will we decrease the massive subsidies and externalizations at the federal, state and local levels for driving?
Will we intelligently zone communities so apartment buildings could be built in more places? (which, of course, could lead to an influx of those people. AAAIIEEE!!!)
Will we adequately fund mass transit, both short- and long-distance? Especially when conservative governors actively refuse what is basically free money?
Probably not. And that’s just the short list. In fact, environmental organizations never discuss the issue of suburbanization, even though it is probably the single most significant contributor to energy consumption. So we’re left with either nukes or lighting carbonaceous compounds on fire. And we’re running out of time with regards to global warming.
So that leaves the nukes as the second best option.