Monday, August 1, 2011

Anti-Nuclear Environmentalist are on the Wrong Track: 2007

Believe it or not a few years ago I was briefly a big fan of Gristmill, the environmental blog. But during the spring of 2007, I realized that the thinking of David Roberts and Joe Rom whose posts frequently appeared on Gristmill, was deeply flawed. I weighed the case for renewables which was being laid out on Grist, and realized that it relied on assumptions that were highly unlikely at best. In addition Grist represented a type of environmentalism that rejected the use of nuclear energy as a tool for post carbon energy. During the Spring of 2007, Senator Jeff Binghaman attempted in Congress to pass legislation mandating that utility companies all over the country be required to generate 15% of the electricity from renewable energy sources. Although Environmentalists like to portray this is a green verses carbon issue it is not. The truth capacity to generate electricity from renewable sources varies greatly in different parts of the country. Some states have Reilly reliable winds, but others do not. There is a rule of thumb that the more reliable the wind, the further it is from electricity markets. The west coast has geothermal resources, as toes the Yellowstone area of Wyoming. The rest of the country is a long way from having practical geothermal resources. Binghaman proposed that the parts of the country that lacked renewable resources simply pay a subsidy to the the parts of the country that do, thus bringing about a vast transfer of wealth from Eastern rate payers to western power companies. Over the next 12 years that subsidy would have amounted to billions of dollars.

Binghaman proposed that the parts of the country such as the Tennessee Valley that lacked renewable resources simply pay a subsidy to the the parts of the country that do, thus bringing about a vast transfer of wealth from Eastern rate payers to Western power companies. Over the next 12 years that subsidy would have amounted to billions of dollars.

So why beat up on the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and its rate payers simply because the Southeast lacks renewable power generating resources? And why should Southern rate payers be forced by legislation to subsidize Western ratepayers?

Southern senators approached Binghaman offering an amendment that would allow the substitution of nuclear power for renewable energy in states which lack renewable energy sources. Binghaman refused to back down in his efforts to force Easterners to subsidize Western power companies. Binghaman told the Southern senators that Southern forests should be cut down and the trees burned, to supply the renewable energy his legislation demanded. This proposal raises a question about how eco-friendly the environmentalists who have backed the Binghaman legislation really were.

Needless to say, Binghaman's impractical legislation was defeated by Congress. Binghaman later became a supporter of nuclear power, but this was too late for his mandate legislation.

David Roberts of Grist was a supporter of Binghaman's legislation. He was also bitterly opposed to the one thing that might have brought passage to it, the inclusion of nuclear energy in the Binghaman mandate. In addition to his anger following the failure of Renewable mandate legislation, Roberts was angry with congress because of the passage of legislation to provide massive subsidies for coal liquefaction, a process that would contribute to the increase on atmospheric CO2.

Following passage of the coal liquification legislation, I wrote David Roberts a letter:
David, Rather loosing patience with congress, we ought to focus on what can be learned from this fiasco. First we ought to recognize who we are. There are two different constituencies that are concerned about the CO2/Global warming problem. One might be called the post-carbon based economy constituency. The post-carbon based view wants practical solutions for transferring the energy economy from carbon-based fuels, to non-carbon based fuels. The post-carbon view holds that environmentalist goals like habitat and species diversity preservation are likely to be untenable if there is significant global climate change. The post-carbon view is that priority should be given to proven solutions to the carbon-fuel replacement problem. The post-carbon viewpoint is not opposed to alternative energy sources, including wind, tidal, solar generation of electricity. But the post-carbon perspective harbors serious doubts that a successful transition to a post carbon economy can occur without a replacement of coal fired electrical generating plants by nuclear reactor generated electricity.

The second constituency is the environmentalist community. To say the least, environmentalists seem to be confused. I have pointed out that global warming will defeat many environmentalists’ goals. Environmentalists have traditionally opposed nuclear power. In light of the CO2/Global warming crisis, continuing this opposition seems highly irrational. Environmentalists seem to think that nothing has changed since Three Mile Island. We are now a generation later. There have been a lot of changes in thinking about nuclear safety. New reactor designs are both safer and cheaper to build. Practical solutions for the disposal of nuclear waste are available as well. In light of these developments, environmentalists ought to rethink their opposition to nuclear power. Some have. But many have not.

We see coming from the environmentalist community proposals that we turn to unproven technologies as replacements for carbon-based technologies. Thus we see claims being made for geothermal power that are quite unrealizable with current technology. We see questionable claims being made about the potential for biomass energy sources. We see claims about the cost of wind power, that reflect the costs of wind power as a part time supplement to coal based power generation. The basic problem with wind that in most places the wind only blows part of the time. To have electrical power available when the wind is not blowing is going to be very expensive.

The problem with the part of the environmentalist community that opposes nuclear is that their thinking about other power options is weak. What seems clear is that the anti nuk environmentalist community has no practical alternative to coal. Thus the anti-nuk message of environmentalist like you David, serves the interest of the coal industry. People who are concerned about global warming need to get their message straight. They need to focus on practical solutions. They need to speak with a single rational voice.
David Roberts never bothered to respond to my letter, and he still is opposed to the use of nuclear power to fight global warming.


Anon said...

Title: Anti Nuclear Environmentalist are on the Wrong Track
Don't you really mean don't exist?

Given that nuclear power is the most eco-friendly power source developed as well as the only carbon neutral power source which can scale up far enough to run our civilisation it's pretty clear that every environmentalist must by definition support nuclear power.

LarryD said...

Yet only a handful actually do.

It's not an empty list, but it is a short one.

People are "environmentalists" for all kinds of different reasons, as a result there is more than one "environmentalist" agenda.

Some just want to feel good about themselves, and have picked environmentalism as their "faith". They recycle, etc. because thereby they can think "I am Good Person". There is no arguing with them, they've chosen their Authority, and they don't want to have to think.

Some others loath our technical civilization (perhaps they just loath other people), environmentalism gives them a rationalization for them to crusade against technology. No point in arguing with them, either.

And this is a far from exhaustive list, but I don't want to write the huge post it would take to even try and be exhaustive.

Charles Barton said...

Larry, I am an environmentalist because the Earth is our home. I take care of my home, because a well cared for home contributes to my well being. I am a conservationist. I believe that protecting soil and protecting water contributes to human well being, and effects our ability to earn a living and to take care of ourselves. I also believe that wisely using global resources will insure that human beings can live in comfort and prosperity on this planet for a long time to come. Not just a few, but everyone. I believe hat the free market contributes to the creation of wealth, but it is not the only or always the best tool for its distribution, and some times market activities should be regulated to protect human well being. Regulations that protect the earth and the physical resources that we need for our well being, to produce our wealth, and to enjoy our home need to be protected mistakes caused by the market. Such mistakes include over fishing of the seas, failure to protect the soil from erosion, and fertility loss, failure to protect waters and the atmosphere from pollutants.

The care of the earth is our responsibility. First because it is our home, and care for our home is a part of our well being. We are stewards of the earth as well as its owners. As individual property owners out property rights do not extend to uses of propert that will harm other people. The creation of pollution on our property that will adversely effect the wellbeing of other people, and earth resources, is morally wrong and may rise to the level of civil and even criminal wrongs.


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