March 24, 2011

Another way of looking at nuclear energy

I was reading Karl Denninger the other day on his "Market Ticker" site. Karl, in my opinion, is very good on things like the federal deficit and American over-indebtedness in general. Very few writers get down to his level of fine-grain detail on the question of why the United States believes it can afford a $3.8 trillion budget on about $2.1 trillion in income. (I note, by the way, that the Treasury projections for fiscal 2011 have been reduced to that figure from the previous $2.4 trillion. Apparently someone in the Office of Management & Budget or somewhere calculated that the tax and FICA reductions passed at the end of the year, with the enthusiastic support of President Holograma, would blow another $400 billion hole in federal financing; thus, the $100 billion "reduction" proposed by the PigMen of Congress is in reality a $300 billion increase in federal deficits.) Mr. Denninger draws attention to facts like that.

He's an enthusiastic supporter of nuclear energy, despite the fact that he seems dubious about the reality of global warming. Global warming is about the only rationale I can think of to support the idea of nuclear energy at all. He is claiming now that the problems at Fukushima are being overblown by a "hard left, anti-nuke" press." I think Mr. Denninger needs to get out of the Florida Panhandle a little more; the Redneck Riviera is beginning to addle his thinking. Anyway, the thrust of his argument, which he makes in his usual arrogant way, is that we can't find a way to replace the 20% of electrical energy supplied currently by nuclear power plants.

The graph above suggests another way of thinking about the problem (I think if you right-click on the graph, you can see the whole thing more clearly in a separate window). I have heard the various rationales for why America "needs" to expend twice the energy per capita as other developed First World countries - it's a big country, the distances we travel are greater, we rely on suburbs for housing, et cetera. All well and good, and all cases of (a) self-indulgence and (b) begging the question. As James Howard Kunstler points out on a weekly basis, the whole suburban build-out is based on a misperception that the availability and price of oil are stable and reliable, which they are not. We are now beginning to see with full force how dangerous it was to entertain such an illusion. And at the level of generality, the greater size of the United States than the European countries graphed above (and Japan) is surely offset by the circumstance that France and Germany, for example, are located much farther north than most of the United States, and consequently have much greater needs for heating energy.

Yet they use half of what we do. A big part of our problem, I think, is that we have politicians like Dick Cheney who tell us "conservation is a private virtue." Aside from being the kind of typically meaningless drivel this guy was always famous for, there is nothing particularly private about conservation. It's been cast in those terms because a president who actually confronted the American people with the stark reality of our dangerous reliance on foreign oil, Jimmy Carter, was hounded from office by a movie actor who recited the lines the country wanted to hear. In time, the "normative tendency of the factual" made us incapable of even seeing that the per capita use of energy in this country was anything other than our God-given right. This is the delusion, I think, that Mr. Denninger suffers from. He often talks about his boat, his SUV, his need for air conditioning of his big Florida house and the rest of the typical American PigLife.

I would not try to make the argument that our standard of living is twice as good as that found in France or Germany. We equate materialism and an ever-expanding GDP (whatever its source, including credit default swaps written on mortgage-backed securities which the purchaser of the CDS does not even own - that's how abstract our "inputs" into GDP have become) with the "good life," and now we've hit the wall, because there's no way to sustain even this anemic, largely-mythical "recovery" (or to increase federal tax revenue) with gasoline going to five bucks a gallon.

So we don't really need nuclear energy. We need a new way of looking at how one goes about living. Sad to say that it's highly unlikely we're going to hear anything about that from Washington.

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