Fission here, fission now

Italy breaks a 20-year ban on new nuclear power. Could a cap-and-trade system encourage the U.S. to also hop on the radioactive bandwagon?

By Andrew Leonard

Published February 26, 2009 8:28PM (EST)

Responding to the news that Italy has ended a 20-year ban on new nuclear power plants, energy-issues watcher Robert Rapier muses that if the U.S. is "serious about moving away from coal," it too will be forced to reengage with the industry.

His reasoning is not new: Electricity from clean, renewable sources simply can't ramp up quickly enough to make a significant short-term dent in the percentage of our energy needs currently supplied by burning coal. So if our goal is to combat climate change, nuclear may well have to be part of the package.

The alacrity with which many Americans embraced the drill-here, drill-now philosophy espoused by John McCain during last year's presidential campaign, adds Rapier, makes it clear that environmental issues are easily shoved into the background by economics.

If gas is $1.50 a gallon, people are concerned about the environmental impacts of expanded drilling. At $4.00 a gallon, they are prepared to let you drill in their back yard.

Again, not breaking news. But I do like Rapier's succinct conclusion:

The same will be true of nuclear power. Opposition will be inversely proportional to the cost of electricity.

Of course there's still plenty of debate as to whether nuclear energy really is cheap at any price. If a new reactor made financial sense, why does the industry require massive loan guarantees from the government before getting started? And how one calculates the long-term costs of radioactive waste disposal has also yet to be resolved. But it's still interesting to contemplate: If President Obama is successful in getting a cap-and-trade greenhouse gas emissions limiting system moved through Congress, the price of coal-fired electricity will rise, to the benefit not just of the fledgling solar and wind and geothermal energy industries, but also nuclear.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Environment Global Warming Globalization How The World Works Nuclear Power