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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.

The Errant Economics of Detrimental Dams and Ruined Rivers

By Brent Blackwelder

Quick Note on Another Matter: On September 3, BP officials threatened not to pay for damage claims and clean up work on its huge spill in the Gulf of Mexico if it is not granted new offshore drilling permits. If you are offended by this blatant blackmail attempt, see Dr. Blackwelder’s call for banning BP from doing further business in the United States.

Lessons from the massive flooding that has beset Pakistan, uprooting 14 million people, underscore the need for a new economic paradigm. River engineering (a mainstay of the old economic paradigm) in the Indus Basin reduced small and medium floods, but set up the conditions for millions to be harmed when larger floods occurred.


Flooding in Pakistan. Image credit: Matloob Ali/Oxfam


Sustainable infrastructure forms the foundation of a steady state economy, but that foundation will have to be rebuilt from the ecologically ignorant infrastructure constructed throughout the 20th century. Big river engineering projects have actually heightened flood damages and destroyed vital renewable resources such as forests and fisheries.

Pakistan has always had monsoon seasons, and for generations people have adapted to them. However, the increases in extreme weather conditions, deforestation, population, and large infrastructure projects like mega-dams have created huge vulnerability. Both the Pakistani and the Indian governments resorted to massive water releases from their flood-swollen reservoirs in order to “save” their dams.

Friends of the Earth International reports that these water releases proved fatal to scores of people around these dams. For years, communities and civil society groups opposed these mega-dams, pointing out that they were catastrophes waiting to happen. They predicted that in the event of extreme weather, as we are seeing now, communities located along so-called “protected” rivers would suffer the most severe impacts. Sadly, in the last few weeks these predictions have been realized.

The engineering of the Mississippi River carries important lessons for Pakistan and the rest of the world. Big dams on the Mississippi’s longest tributary, the Missouri River, have blocked the flow of sediment downstream. The massive dikes and levees along the banks of the Mississippi itself prevented the river from spreading out and depositing silt during flood stages. The end result is the lack of silt for the delta at the mouth of the Mississippi in Louisiana – home of the nation’s greatest wetlands, which are eroding at the rate of two football fields each hour. The loss of these outstanding wetlands means less natural flood protection for New Orleans and other susceptible areas.

To move to a healthy steady state economy, civilization must not repeat the engineering mistakes of the 20th century. In Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth report, the author stresses the need for appropriate infrastructure and maintenance of ecosystems. The problem with the “big dam and levee approach” is that it ruins productive river ecosystems that contain abundant fisheries, bottomland forests, and fertile land. To make the transition to a sustainable economy, scarce financial resources must not be spent on counterproductive infrastructure that traps governments in a worsening spiral of flood relief, damage repair efforts, and environmental degradation.

Throughout most of the 20th century, politicians and the construction lobby disregarded the annual cycles and natural dynamics of rivers and did not care about impacts of giant dams on fisheries and forests. The big dam builders created an unsustainable and highly destructive infrastructure.

A little noticed phenomenon is the dam removal movement in the U.S. Since 1970, communities and governmental agencies have taken down over 500 dams. The cruel irony is that just as the U.S. began to protect rivers and to remove dams that were doing more harm than good, the rest of the world failed to learn from our experience.


Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, where native fish have been almost totally replaced by non-natives.


Captivated by stories of the gigantic Hoover and Grand Coulee hydropower dams, many nations chose to emulate the big dam and levee approach without critically assessing what was and wasn’t working. For example, of the 64 dams built by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), an ex-post analysis showed that only 4 actually produced benefits in excess of costs (see The Myth of the TVA by William U. Chandler).

Massive flooding has also occurred this summer in China despite the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest, and the claims that it would control the 1,000-year flood. To “control” flooding, this dam permanently flooded out hundreds of towns and cities, forcing the relocation of over one million people.

If transnational construction companies and river engineers have their way, major rivers around the world will be loaded with dams. The implications for fisheries are devastating as migratory fish passage will be destroyed. For example, on Southeast Asia’s Mekong River, over 3 million fish per hour during migration season pass the spot where a gigantic dam is planned. In Cambodia the large lake Tonle Sap increases six-fold during flood stages on the Mekong. Dams on the river will wreck these centuries-old flood patterns and destroy the fisheries that one million people who live near the lake depend on.

We will never get to a sustainable and prosperous economy if scarce economic resources are spent on wrecking great river basins that provide enormous benefits when they are maintained in a more natural condition. Big dams are the equivalent of putting giant doses of cholesterol in the arteries of planet earth and have no place in the infrastructure for a prosperous steady state economy. So it is time to cease giving foreign aid to the transnational construction industry for more “dam” foolishness.