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Surely We Can Do Better than Nuclear Socialism

by Brent Blackwelder

They were in the news a half century ago when they were called “too cheap to meter.”  Now “absolutely safe” nuclear reactors are once again in the news.  As the horrifying scene in Japan unfolds this month, many politicians and media pundits are acting as if the only electricity choice for the U.S. is nuclear reactors or coal power plants.  This is a false choice.

A sustainable economy requires a sustainable energy supply, one that is not subject to the vulnerabilities of big central energy systems.  A steady state economy would run on a decentralized set of renewable energy sources that is clean and resilient.  It would be an economy powered by the sun, the wind, the natural heat content of the Earth, and other renewable sources. Advanced designs for where we live and how we travel would be a key part of this energy transformation. For example, buildings would be designed to generate power rather than requiring external energy supplies for cooling and heating.  And let’s not forget about conservation – we need to set up the economy such that it uses less energy in the first place.

The energy system that would run a steady state economy does not have the severe security problems that plague current systems, nor would it require massive subsidies in the form of liability limits, loan guarantees, externalization of  health damages, etc.  You don’t have to worry about a solar or wind “spill” contaminating the air, land and water; you don’t need liability caps for a wind farm or for solar collectors on roofs; and finally, you don’t need to bill consumers (instead of stockholders or investors) in advance for a nuclear reactor that may never be completed.

The strength and resilience of decentralized power, its superior employment intensity, and the potential for community involvement are all features that make a different energy model very attractive. Various European nations such as Spain, Germany, and Denmark have demonstrated the huge potential of wind and solar power, as has the state of Texas in the case of wind with 9,700 megawatts installed.

But look at the powerful forces today pushing nuclear reactor construction in the southeastern U.S. and obstructing the clean energy path of the future.  Even after the terrible nuclear meltdown in Japan, two big southern utilities, South Carolina Electric & Gas and Georgia Power, announced that they are not pausing to consider some lessons to be learned before proceeding full speed ahead with four new reactors.  To pay for two new reactors at Plant Vogtle, Georgia Power has begun billing its Georgia customers this month for the intended construction. Ironically, the proposed new reactors being billed to Georgia consumers are intended to supply customers in Florida.  Consumers and taxpayers are bearing all the risks, not investors.

The energy systems used to power the global economy are highly vulnerable to extreme weather events, sabotage, terrorism, and war.  The Japanese catastrophe this month certainly brings to mind the nuclear disasters at Chernobyl in 1986 and Three Mile Island in 1979.  But the nuclear and fossil fuel industries have supplied many less well-known disasters.  A brief  review of some of the accidents will accentuate the difference between the polluting energy of today’s economy and the clean energy future that would, by its very nature, avoid these messes:

  • In  July of 1979, at the Navajo community of Church Rock, New Mexico, an earthen dam at United Nuclear Corporation’s uranium mill broke, releasing 95 million gallons of radioactive wastewater into the Rio Puerco.  The spill sent contaminants over 100 miles downstream.  This unpublicized spill is estimated to have contained over triple the amount of radiation (curies) that the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor released in the very same year.
  • Last year tornado warnings near Detroit forced the shutdown of the Fermi 2 atomic reactor.  This was the same site where a meltdown in 1966 nearly irradiated the Greats Lakes Region.
  • For much of 2010 the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was an ongoing saga of futility and despair.
  • In July of 2007 a major earthquake in Japan badly damaged one nuclear reactor in a complex of nuclear reactors.
  • In December of 2008 a Tennessee Valley Authority reservoir, which was storing the contaminated ash from one of its power plants,  burst and  sent a toxic stew of waste 100 times larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill into a tributary of the Tennessee River.  Despite assurances that such dam bursting was unusual and would never happen again, scarcely a month had passed when yet another coal waste reservoir (this one in Alabama) failed and spewed contamination downstream.

Vulnerability lessons are not new.  After World War II German military leaders pointed out that the U.S. could have ended the War two years sooner by bombing the big coal power plants. Instead the allies were bombing individual industrial sites like steel mills, failing to recognize that the big coal plants powered 80% of Germany’s manufacturing.   In contrast, Japan’s electric power was provided by a huge number of small dams that were not attractive targets for attack because no single one was crucial for the power system of the nation.

The energy for a steady state economy can be supplied by a huge number of solar panels and wind mills as outlined by physics professors Jacobson and Delucchi at Stanford University (Scientific American, November, 2009) and by many others.  It would be a refreshing change to see President Obama propose such an ambitious solar/wind plan in the aftermath of the meltdown in Japan, but he seems content merely to suggest a thorough review of nuclear reactors.

Before having to hear how high the costs of renewable energy are, I’ll close with a brief reminder of the government subsidies the U.S. nuclear industry is slated to receive.  Here are some components of the $46 billion being offered up over the next 5 years in addition to the cap on liability for any accident:

  • $22.5 billion in loan guarantees for new reactors;
  • $12.3 billion in nuclear waste fund liability payments;
  • $3 billion for mixed oxide activities; and
  • $1.9 billion for fusion energy.

For more details, please see the green scissors report.

Seeing this list of handouts, one might think that Republican leaders would recoil at what might be termed nuclear socialism.  One would think that the Tea Party activists would revolt at the sight of this massive government program to fund something that Wall Street would not touch even before the catastrophe in Japan.

More Accidents Await with President Obama’s Errant Energy Policies

President Obama triumphantly entered office with the popular promise of moving the United States to a cleaner energy basis, but his actions to date, along with those of the Congress, have promoted two types of dangerous energy developments: off-shore oil drilling and nuclear reactors. Nuclear expert Harvey Wasserman highlighted the dual dangers by noting, “As BP’s ghastly gusher assaults the Gulf of Mexico, a tornado has forced a shutdown of the Fermi 2 atomic reactor at the site of a 1966 melt-down that nearly irradiated the entire Great Lakes Region.”

These two recent events bring the reality of energy subsidies, especially in the form of liability limits, sharply into focus. The public should be suspicious of gigantic energy projects like deepwater oil drilling and nuclear reactors that are labeled “safe,” but enjoy liability protections from the extraordinary damages they can cause.

In contrast, projects to reduce energy waste or to generate electricity from solar or wind farms do not require special financial protection from huge disasters that spiral out of control. We don’t have to worry about a leak of solar or wind energy into the water or on the land. If a few solar panels or wind turbines fail, there is no widespread ecological catastrophe.

Everyone ought to pose a question to U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu and White House Climate Czar Carol Browner: do you have a credible plan to respond to a disaster at a nuclear reactor that is superior to what we have seen at the BP spill in the Gulf? Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar should be asked why, after promising at his swearing-in ceremony to bring integrity back to the department, he did nothing but grant permit after permit and exemption after exemption for offshore oil drilling?

It is important to raise these issues with the Obama Administration because this month it is proceeding to promote and request money for more nuclear reactors, including several right on the Gulf Coast. Another would be only 50 miles from Washington, DC on the shores of Chesapeake Bay. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has warned that at least one new design proposed for federal funding cannot withstand tornadoes, earthquakes, or hurricanes.

A sustainable economy – a steady state economy with stabilized throughput – needs to be powered by reliable energy resources that do not wreak havoc with our security or our ecosystems. In a steady state economy, taxpayers would not be given the role of ultimate underwriters for energy debacles. Today the situation of government subsidization of dirty and risky energy is epitomized by the U.S. tax code, which has rewarded pollution and waste for over a century. Other ongoing government subsidies such as loan guarantees, tax write-offs, and miscellaneous appropriations are counterproductive, preventing the transition to a prosperous steady state economy.

The Obama Administration is perpetuating the worst in dirty energy and neglecting basic economic principles that ought to apply to all energy projects. The energy that runs most of the global economy today has externalized its health and environmental costs onto the public. Coal mining by mountain-top removal in West Virginia and oil extraction from tar sands in Canada provide two stark examples of poor economic practices – practices that President Obama could alter to develop the clean energy future he promised.

The legacy of mountain-top removal in West Virginia consists of wrecked watersheds, contaminated groundwater, valleys and streams filled with millions of tons of rock waste, and obliterated deciduous forests – damages that will never be paid for by the coal industry. An all-out military assault on these biologically diverse mountains could not produce a more comprehensive destruction than is now taking place. Reclamation is the equivalent of putting lipstick on a corpse.

Oil extracted from tar sands in Alberta, Canada is coming into the United States, and new pipelines are being proposed to transport it. Yet a net energy analysis of tar sands oil shows that you have to spend the equivalent of 5 gallons of oil to steam one gallon of oil out of the tar sands. An energy-efficient Toyota Prius using tar sands oil would thus be getting worse fuel mileage than a big SUV or Hummer. Left behind are poisoned water and soils and a huge reservoir of toxic waste that could burst forth and further pummel a compromised landscape.

These two sources of energy can only be brought to market because of hidden subsidies and incredible externalization of costs. The external costs should be internalized – virtually every economist agrees that such externalized costs are the result of a “market failure.” President Obama could also take direct action, for example, by refusing to grant a permit for a new U.S. pipeline to transmit the tar sands oil. (Visit Friends of the Earth for more information).

Energy accidents keep happening. In December of 2008 a Tennessee Valley Authority waste reservoir that was holding contaminated ash from its coal power plant burst, releasing over a billion gallons of toxic sludge into the Tennessee River Basin. This TVA disaster was 100 times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, which dumped 10.9 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. Each year coal preparation creates waste containing an estimated 13 tons of mercury, 3,236 tons of arsenic, 189 tons of beryllium, 251 tons of cadmium, 2,754 tons of nickel, and 1,098 tons of selenium. And the toxic ash from coal burning is frequently held in reservoirs susceptible to dam failure.

The coal industry and TVA said this unfortunate accident would not happen again, but not even a month later in January 2009, another coal waste reservoir in Alabama failed and spilled its contaminants onto the land and water.

These allegedly “cheap” sources of energy could not survive if their prices reflected their true ecological costs. Market failures need to be corrected so that oil platform failures and dam failures can be eliminated. In a steady state economy no energy source would be permitted to externalize all of its health and ecosystem impacts.