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Kelpie Wilson: Sellin' Nukes, Dissin' Wind

Sellin' Nukes, Dissin' Wind

By Kelpie Wilson
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Sunday 05 June 2005

Twenty years after Chernobyl, the pro-nuclear lobby has decided that it's time to glue a happy face on nuclear power again. Simultaneous pro-nuclear public relations campaigns have plastered their briefs in the US and British media markets in the last couple of months. Time will tell whether they stick.

Jonathan Leake and Dan Box reported in New Statesman (The Nuclear Charm Offensive, 5/23/05) that a sudden flux of news articles about nuclear power right around the UK election last month was preceded by months of planning and the retainer of expensive PR consultants.

"Nothing had occurred politically," they said. "There had been no reports, scandals, technical breakthroughs or new policies. What had happened was that a group of journalists had taken the bait offered them by a few canny public relations experts."

But good PR can't take all the credit because the growing prominence of global warming is a golden opportunity. If the world is to avoid catastrophic global warming, we must start reducing CO2 emissions immediately. Nuclear lobbies tout their product as "carbon free" even though the mining and processing of uranium ore involves considerable amounts of greenhouse gasses. Still, a nuclear plant over its life may emit less than a third of the CO2 of a gas-fired power plant.

One of the strategies for making nuclear power look good is to compare it with its top "carbon-free" competitor - wind power. Nuclear is reliable where wind power is intermittent; nuclear is strong and solid where wind power is weak and dispersed.

The comparison cuts both ways. Nuclear is not always reliable - plants are often shut down for repairs, sometimes for months at a time - and that is just the beginning of a long list of negatives that includes: no place to safely store radioactive waste; security concerns about terrorist attacks and nuclear proliferation; the depletion of high-grade uranium ore; and the potential for accidents like Chernobyl.

Still, for a true-blue pro-nuker, that list of negatives is hardly daunting. Peter Schwartz and Spencer Reiss, in their article Nuclear Now! (Wired, February 2005) blow off the long-term waste storage concern, calling it an exercise in science fiction: "We don't need a million-year solution. A hundred years will do just fine - long enough to let the stuff cool down and allow us to decide what to do with it."

But for nuclear power alone to effectively stabilize carbon emissions at current levels would require seven times the world's present inventory of 440 reactors - that's 3,080 new thousand megawatt reactors (see Elizabeth Kolbert, The Climate of Man, Part III, The New Yorker, May 9, 2005 for background on how I derived this figure). The US is already generating 2000 tons of high-level radioactive waste a year. This waste does not "cool down" significantly in the space of a hundred years and there is no indication that we will have any better idea of how to store it a hundred years from now. Most of it now sits in uncontained pools of water at reactor sites around the country. What will we do with seven times as much or more?

On the depletion of high-grade uranium ore, Schwartz and Reiss recommend stretching the supply by reprocessing spent fuel, which also happens to be the way to make the bomb-grade fissionable material that is the core of the nuclear proliferation threat. For these writers, the solution is simplicity itself: "... create a global nuclear fuel company... [t]his company would collect, reprocess, and distribute fuel to every nation in the world, thus keeping potential bomb fixings out of circulation." Even without deliberate targeting by terrorists, a large distribution network of bomb-grade materials practically guarantees that there will be a normal transportation accident some day with horrible consequences.

After blithely disposing of these nuclear pitfalls as mere engineering problems, the Wired authors address the negatives of wind and solar, calling them "‘false gods' - attractive but powerless." Their biggest concern is that these technologies require a lot of land area to deploy: "... a run-of-the-mill 1,000 megawatt photovoltaic plant will require about 60 square miles of panes alone. In other words, the largest industrial structure ever built."

To Schwartz and Reiss then, nuclear waste disposal is a negligible problem while installing solar panels on millions of roofs, along roadways and over parking lots is an insurmountable challenge. They call solar and wind "pie in the emissions-free sky," while nuclear power is "proven technology."

Peter Schwartz is a member of the Global Business Network consulting group, along with Stewart Brand, one-time sustainability guru and editor of the 1970s Whole Earth Catalog. Schwartz is also a co-author of the Pentagon report released last year that warned of the possibility of abrupt climate change. These futurists are an important current within the "geo-green" movement that is bringing environmentalists together with neo-cons to promote US energy independence along with reduced carbon emissions. However, it is now becoming clear that the thrust of this movement is a nuclear revival and not the development of truly green, renewable power.

For instance, the new version of the McCain-Lieberman climate change bill adds in a hefty nuclear power subsidy. This is a harbinger of what we are likely to see in this summer's episode of the Energy Bill Wars: nuclear advocates will bargain for new subsidies in exchange for some slightly increased support of solar, wind and energy efficiency.

One of the prizes the nuclear industry wants is a production tax credit of 1.8 cents per kilowatt hour guaranteed for ten years. This is on top of a package already passed in the House version of the Energy Bill that includes more than $6 billion in subsidies and tax breaks plus the reauthorization of the Price-Anderson Act that caps industry's liability for nuclear accidents.

According to Public Citizen, nuclear energy has received $74 billion of taxpayers' money for research and development since 1948. In contrast, fossil fuels have received $30.9 billion; renewables have gotten $14.6 billion and energy efficiency $11.7 billion.

For the nuclear industry to demand a guaranteed production tax credit is particularly insane in the face of the struggles of the wind power industry. Here is a power source that, once installed, has NO fuel cost. While the rest of the world is experiencing explosive growth in wind power, the US has crippled its industry by refusing to provide a reliable production tax credit. The only credit available has to be renewed every two years. Attached to last year's failed Energy Bill, it was saved at the last minute by insertion into another piece of legislation, but the uncertainty created deters serious investment in wind power.

Which industry most deserves our hard earned tax money? Massive deployment of wind power could help revitalize US manufacturing and bring money into rural areas by installing wind turbines in farmers' fields. Nuclear power employs only elite contractors and engineers along with a few Homer Simpsons to run the plants.

The newest, most sophisticated geo-green project is coming from General Electric, which has just launched a $90 million ad campaign for its "Ecomagination" program. The company is committing to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions company-wide, improving energy efficiency and doubling its R&D investment in "clean" energy.

These goals were developed with help from the World Resources Institute, a sustainable development think tank. WRI's president, Jonathan Lash, teamed up with GE's Jeffrey Immelt to write an Op-Ed for The Washington Post (5/21/05) titled: "The Courage to Develop Clean Energy." The duo called for a dose of good old "American will" to push through a sensible energy policy that would accelerate development of "wind, solar, clean coal, nuclear power and other resources."

GE owns investments in all of these technologies, so the company stands to benefit no matter which energy alternatives get the most subsidies. But are they just hedging their bets, or are they secretly hoping that nuclear will win big?

The UK Guardian's Polly Toynbee, in her article, Capitulation to the Nuclear Lobby Is a Politics of Despair, wrote:

"But don't underestimate the immense power of the pro-nuclearists. They will begin with the reasonable claim that nuclear is just "part of the mix", but the monumental cost of a new nuclear program would devour all the cash - and far more - needed to develop better alternatives."

Big companies generally prefer big, capital intensive projects over smaller, retail level projects. It is not a matter of profits so much as it is a matter of control. Oil, gas and coal have fueled imperial ambitions to heights never seen prior to the 20th century. We may not recognize it as imperialism because there is no single emperor, but we know well who is in charge. President Eisenhower called it the military-industrial complex and that is still as good a term for it as any.

Big power fantasies are not limited to heads of governments and corporations. Peter Schwartz wants nuclear power because "...wouldn't it be a blast to barrel down the freeway in a hydrogen Hummer...?"

But the real choice is not between a high-powered but dangerous nuclear future and a solar-powered, modest granola lifestyle. We will never build enough nukes to replace the immense legacy of stored sunlight that is fossil fuels. We are inevitably headed toward a different, decentralized, low energy future. If there is a human impulse toward imperialism, there is an equally strong human impulse for democracy, and I am optimistic that the future will offer fewer opportunities for despots and more for democrats.

The real choice then is this: Do we saddle our descendents with the poison forever of nuclear contamination in our attempts to hang on to a doomed lifestyle? Or do we start learning to live lightly on the planet now, and spare the children?


Kelpie Wilson is the t r u t h o u t environment editor. A veteran forest protection activist and mechanical engineer, she writes from her solar-powered cabin in the Siskiyou Mountains of southwest Oregon. Her first novel, Primal Tears, is forthcoming from North Atlantic Books in Fall 2005.

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