Patrick C. Doherty
February 10, 2005
While politicians are scrambling to address Iraq and Social Security, the nuclear power industry and the Bush administration are charging ahead with a dangerous plan. Patrick Doherty looks at the false promises of nuclear energy and the massive economic opportunity we'll lose if Bush has his way.
Patrick C. Doherty is senior editor at TomPaine.com. Previously, he spent a decade working on conflict and economic development in the Middle East, Africa, the Balkans and the Caucasus. His column, Quo Vadis, focuses on America's big picture: where we are, where we're going, and how to get there.
Bush’s second term will include many historic decisions, but none may be more detrimental for long-term American prosperity—and go as quietly unnoticed—than a large-scale federal commitment to nuclear power.
The nuclear industry has launched a concerted campaign that, if successful, would allow the two halves of the energy industry—oilmen and power companies—to preserve their market dominance. That’s dangerous. Preserving the energy status quo will cripple any chance that America will escape from our debt-ridden consumer economy. For America to both grasp the emerging vision of a more equitable and prosperous “innovation economy” and achieve true energy independence, this nuclear assault must be stopped.
The new year saw the launch of a well-orchestrated, multi-pronged campaign calling for America to end its dependence on oil through massive federal investments in nuclear energy. On Jan. 1, the American Enterprise Institute published an article ominously entitled,“The Solution,” by William Tucker. In the February issue of Wired Magazine , Global Business Network president Peter Schwartz echoed the same argument, but geared toward that magazine’s more libertarian and tech-savvy readers.
Then, last week, President Bush singled out nuclear energy in his State of the Union speech. This week, he increased the budget for the controversial Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada and requested a 50 percent increase over last year’s budget for advanced nuclear power research. But most tellingly, Senate Energy Committee Chairman Pete Domenici is out selling his new book: A Brighter Tomorrow: Fulfilling The Promise of Nuclear Energy .
The argument Tucker and Schwartz use is radical for conservatives but commonplace within liberal and centrist circles. They state that America’s dependence on oil in an increasingly tight market with supplies in unstable regions makes our nation massively insecure. In addition, they remind us that nuclear power is climate friendly, as it releases no carbon into the atmosphere. Therefore, to satisfy the dual imperatives for energy security and climate change mitigation, we must make America independent of oil for transportation and carbon-laden coal for electricity.
Incredibly, in the three months since our elections, the mainstream debate in energy policy has shifted from whether security and climate change were even worth considering to full acceptance of the dual threat and laying out proposals to deal with it.
Nuclear Industry’s Power Grab
But in shifting the lines of the nation’s energy debate, the nuclear industry is also trying to obscure its real objectives. Since the 2004 campaign, energy security and climate change have produced policy options that talk about how much oil consumption would be eliminated and by when. In the 2004 campaign, John Kerry adopted the labor- and environment-led Apollo Alliance’s 17 percent reduction in oil consumption by 2020—at the time, a more liberal stance. In December, previously uncommitted centrists (from both parties) have embraced the bi-partisan, National Commission on Energy Policy agenda calling for 15 percent reductions in oil consumption by 2025. In late 2004, the Rocky Mountain Institute mapped a path to reduce oil consumption by 76 percent by 2025 and 100 percent shortly thereafter—using proven technology to increase energy efficiency and shift to renewable energy sources.
Nuclear power advocates are avoiding the transparent and market-friendly “X percent reductions by Y date” formula to hide the weakened position of their industry. The reason is simple. They cannot promise any reductions for at least a decade, perhaps longer. Nuclear power in the United States has been on the verge of collapse since the accident at Three Mile Island killed new construction. With aging reactors needing retirement, in the current regulatory environment the nuclear industry will soon have to shut down its heavily subsidized and privately lucrative power plants. Any new reactors built in the next 10 years would merely replace aging reactors, doing nothing to reduce our oil dependence. In essence, the industry is merely fighting to preserve its 20 percent share of the domestic electricity market.
To do that, the industry is employing a cynical ‘bait-and-switch’ campaign. Industry advocates are promising the safety, cost and oil-replacing potential of generation-after-next “pebble-bed” reactors, but these designs still need years of research and development. In the meantime, the nuclear industry is working with its congressional allies, like Sen. Domenici, to lift the restrictions on and deliver the subsidies for less-competitive, more expensive 1980s-era nuclear designs to merely replace 30 and 40-year old reactors. These subsidies will cost the taxpayer $8 billion. It’s all smoke and mirrors.
In reality, we won’t see pebble-bed reactors replacing oil for 20 years—which may be the Bush administration’s goal. Oil companies are making record profits from high oil prices right now—profits that are possible only so long as America sees oil as a commodity worth fighting for. That requires continued dependence. Yet those companies also recognize that Asian economic growth will, within 20 years, drive oil prices through the roof, making alternatives unavoidable. It all adds up to a well orchestrated hand off from one powerful industry to another. Markets be damned.
Denying An Innovation Economy
This preservation of the status quo denies America the opportunity of a century: A chance to build an “innovation economy” that delivers not only energy independence but a booming era of growth—growth in large part made possible by transforming our energy infrastructure.
Economists and business leaders are increasingly talking about the next economic boom being based on innovation, on the application of knowledge to solve problems and deliver higher-quality services and products. To the extent that America can exploit our scientific and technological advantage to produce the energy and resource efficient products and services the developing world needs, we will be able to dig our way out of the insecurity, indebtedness and inequity that defines today’s consumer economy.
The outlines of that “innovation economy” are emerging slowly, but distinctly. Information technology is driving revolutions in biotech, nanotech and materials science. Combining those technological innovations with innovations in the housing market known as ‘smart growth’ —ending sprawl by integrating efficient transportation and healthier communities—America is poised to enter a new economic boom period.
That innovation economy requires clean, reliable, flexible and efficient energy. Clean, to mitigate climate change and improve public health. Reliable, to power the high-technology industries and services that require high-quality, uninterrupted power. Flexible, to accommodate the innovations in land use and transportation and the advances in efficiency that make turbines smaller and smaller. And efficient, to reduce overall cost and environmental impact.
Nuclear Can’t Deliver
Nuclear power can’t deliver on these requirements. When the current system was designed, clean, reliable, flexible and efficient were not priorities. Oil was plentiful, carbon emissions were a non-issue, and our technology was rudimentary and dirty. As our economy grew, we increased scale, not efficiency. The simple truth is the system we’ve got is getting older and more fragile. Crises like California’s rolling brownouts and the big northeastern blackout are only going to become more commonplace.
Nuclear power does nothing to fix this fractured system. In fact, it would only reinforce this inefficient system by creating a new generation of massive plants located far from the customers they serve. Consumers would have little choice and the industry would have government over a barrel.
There are better answers. Technology and design advances have opened up a new way to organize our energy grid that encourages high-quality energy and healthy markets. Right now, small natural gas turbines combined with better grid design can capture much of the wasted energy by distributing clean generating capacity closer to consumers. Instead of putting one massive power plant tens of miles from the customers and taking five years to build, ‘distributed’ micro-turbine power plants of any size can drop in incremental capacity onto the grid where it’s needed when it’s needed. Since they’re affordable, they eliminate the need for market-corrupting and deficit-worsening subsidies.
The resulting vision is quite elegant. Build a new building or housing development, and you can put a clean new power source with it. And it’s not only dependent on natural gas. Wind turbines already allow rural communities to buy a town-sized wind farm and make money when they sell excess power back to the grid. As solar cells become more efficient, middle-class homes and urban rooftops could be generating—and selling—their own electricity. If that were to happen, big centralized plants couldn’t compete with a network of distributed power generators. David will have killed Goliath.
The nuclear industry wants to abort that vision of a clean, efficient and distributed energy future before it is born. With the help of George Bush and Pete Domenici, they might just succeed.