The climate crisis and the risks of nuclear power
- Feb 3, 2022 7:34 pm GMT
It was 108 degrees in the shade in Seattle last June; the climate emergency now has the attention of the usually temperate Puget Sound area. The following December’s cold snap may also have to do with climate-related disruptions that climatologists tell us are weakening the polar vortex. As the crisis grows, it attracts the nuclear industry’s purveyors of false solutions, with a barrage of calls for further investment in nuclear power.
As I write, nuclear promoters are trying to sell a group of small municipal utilities, the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS), on a “new, improved” nuclear technology, known as small modular nuclear reactors. Supposedly the reactors will be mass produced, but first they must be proven in the field, at high startup cost. Who will want to be the first to put up money that can never be recovered in electricity sales? Of the initial subscribers, about 10 have reduced their commitments or pulled out altogether in the past year and a half. That just leaves the rubes, who have signed up for only a quarter of the project’s electrical output.
An effective approach to climate change requires the quickest and cheapest choices to reduce carbon emissions. Nuclear power, the slowest and most expensive, takes time and resources away from the available solutions, namely energy efficiency, solar, and wind power. And, conversely, with rising sea levels and the wildfires that have already been a threat to the Hanford nuclear reservation in Eastern Washington, the climate crisis poses a threat to nuclear power itself.
A Seattle Times headline “Next-gen nuclear reactors: oversold or world-changing? (November 8, 2021) hinted that nuclear power can help the climate, but it should have proclaimed the opposite. The Web version of the headline is worse, leaving out the “oversold” part.
The article exposes a real scandal, but under the misleading headline, with seven promotional introductory paragraphs, it left the important details to the inside pages or omits them. Included among those details:
- The Utah reactor project described above has struggled with delays, design changes, and escalating cost projections.
- A Bill Gates project to be built in Wyoming will get half its projected $4 billion cost in federal subsidies. The design uses enriched uranium that would be an attractive target for terrorists. This highly speculative project, if it ever succeeds, will take years before it produces any power. These billions could produce quick results if invested in energy efficiency and clean, renewable energy sources.
- The Times quotes a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who said, “I’m frankly speechless at the success that the proponents of these plants have had in bamboozling … a lot of government officials.” That should have been prominently reported on page 1.
Would-be, should-be, wouldn’t-be, and wannabe environmentalists are being heard promoting new nuclear power stations as an essential part of the decarbonization process. But it’s time to take a close look at why that approach is doomed.
The scandal the Times reveals is that Congress, and some local jurisdictions, are passing multi-billion-dollar giveaways to the nuclear industry for schemes unlikely to accomplish anything but propping up an industry that should be allowed to collapse of its own weight. They continue to promote unproven technologies that won’t provide low-carbon electricity in the next decade; create nuclear waste with no disposal solution; and take money away from clean, safe, renewable projects that could come online quickly.
Even if these projects could work (doubtful), they would not be legal in Washington State. The CEO of X-energy, quoted in the Times, cited the state’s Clean Energy Transformation Act, which calls for all fossil-fuel power to be off the grid by 2045 and sets firm limits on what can replace it. The law requires our utilities to pursue all cost-effective conservation, efficiency, and demand response before building new power plants.* Energy Northwest, which operates the state’s only nuclear power station, and its member utilities, are subject to this standard. New nuclear power is not going to make the cut. Somehow this restriction has been overlooked in all the recent Times articles.
Forty years ago, I worked with the author of the Times nuclear power series, Hal Bernton, on a government-supported project to build an alcohol-fuel still in Washington’s upper Skagit Valley.
Each day, I drove through the valley to the job site in my alcohol-powered Volkswagen Beetle, whose engine I modified myself. In a report on my engine project, I wrote that combustion of fossil fuels causes the earth to retain more heat, eventually causing drastic environmental changes. That was in 1982.
This region was similar to other remote agricultural areas in the US – rich farmland, but too far from markets for farmers to become prosperous. The dilemma dates to the 1790s, when farmers in remote western Pennsylvania turned to alcohol production (for human consumption) because they couldn’t make a living shipping produce to the cities. The farmers resisted taxes on alcohol, leading to the Whiskey Rebellion.
The Skagit plan was to use waste food crops to distill alcohol that could fuel farm equipment locally, reducing the region’s reliance on fossil fuels. Process heat for distillation was to be provided by scrap wood from local cedar shake mills.
Unfortunately, when the still brewed its first batch of fuel alcohol, innovative plastic components in the distillation column melted – they had not been manufactured properly. The good news was that our meltdown, unlike one at a nuclear power plant, harmed no living beings and didn’t render the county radioactive for thousands of years to come. But that was the end of our budget, and the still was never repaired.
Meanwhile, the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS, now Energy Northwest) was trying to build five nuclear power plants. Old timers in Washington remember that two of the projects went bankrupt, two more were abandoned, and only one was completed: WPPSS-2, now known by the sanitized name Columbia Generating Station.
Of the billions wasted on those projects, a tiny fraction thrown our way would have cured our plastics problem. The experiment with an integrated farming and energy system could have been the useful model that it was intended to be for similar communities regionwide.
Not just small projects have been starved by expensive nuclear power. The city of Port Angeles buys all of its electricity from the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets the output of WPPSS-2. That expensive power impacts Bonneville’s wholesale rates. A planner for the Port Angeles electric utility told me that, if Bonneville dropped nuclear power, the rate reductions could fund conversion of a substantial number of houses in his city from antiquated electric baseboard heaters to high-efficiency heat pumps. This is what energy conservation looks like.
The misdirection of energy investment continues, with a barrage of government-funded proposals without a chance of success (except to prop up their promoters). And they are enabled by papers like the Times, which put the positive spin on the front page, burying the scandalous details deep inside.
If the media were to lead with an exposé of the billions being diverted from real energy solutions, perhaps our elected representatives would take notice. But instead, they often promote the nuclear industry – the Times featured a column by the head of a nuclear industry trade group and the Congressman whose district includes the Hanford nuclear reservation.
The appropriate headline for the November 8 Times article, which would better represent its substance: “The same forces that almost bankrupted Washington State 40 years ago are at it again, undercutting efforts to address climate change.” WPPSS/Energy Northwest, until recently one of the movers behind the UAMPS nuclear project described above, has jumped ship and is now promoting yet another new nuclear project at Hanford.
* RCW 19.405.040 reads, in part, as follows:
(1) It is the policy of the state that all retail sales of electricity to Washington retail electric customers be greenhouse gas neutral by January 1, 2030.
(a) For the four-year compliance period beginning January 1, 2030, and for each multiyear compliance period thereafter through December 31, 2044, an electric utility must demonstrate its compliance with this standard using a combination of nonemitting electric generation and electricity from renewable resources, or alternative compliance options, as provided in this section. To achieve compliance with this standard, an electric utility must:
(i) Pursue all cost-effective, reliable, and feasible conservation and efficiency resources to reduce or manage retail electric load, using the methodology established in RCW 19.285.040, if applicable; and
(ii) use electricity from renewable resources and nonemitting electric generation in an amount equal to one hundred percent of the utility's retail electric loads over each multiyear compliance period.
In summary, utilities must pursue all cost-effective, reliable, and feasible conservation and efficiency resources before adding generating resources, as of 2030.
What are the chances of nuclear generation being designed, licensed, funded, built, and operating before 2030?
The author has worked professionally in energy conservation, solar energy, and alternative fuels since 1979. He lives in Seattle.
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