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Nuclear Power Is a Victim of the Culture Wars. It Needs Rescuing

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Llewellyn King's picture
Executive Producer White House Media, LLC

Llewellyn King is the creator, executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle,” a weekly news and public affairs program, airing nationwide on PBS and public, educational and government...

  • Member since 2018
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  • Nov 20, 2021
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If the Biden administration genuinely wanted to get serious about weaning the electric power sector from fossil fuels, it would get serious about nuclear — not just patting it on the head, as it is doing with the government equivalent of “There, there, baby.”

Nuclear was an early victim of the culture wars which started in the late 1960s, and it remains so to this day.

It is incredible that a source of power, a cutting-edge technology, should have been sidelined for more than 50 years because of fear, suspicion, ignorance, and politics.

In the late 1960s, nuclear power became the target of an environmental and political left lash-up. It became part of the environmentalist catechism that nuclear was an evil source of power and must be expunged from the national list of options. The political left didn’t so much as embrace environmentalism as environmentalism embraced the left.

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Some environmentalists have had an epiphany, like the Union of Concerned Scientists, which was founded by Henry Kendall, an activist whom I knew well. We were friends who didn’t agree about nuclear. Now the Union of Concerned Scientists is pro-nuclear, but it was at the barricades against nuclear for decades.

It isn’t that the environmental movement doesn’t want to do the right thing. It does. But it has thought that it alone should decide what was right and good for the environment, and often it has been totally wrong.

The environmental movement turned the nation from nuclear to coal. In the 1970s and 1980s, environmental groups advocated for fluidized bed combustion coal plants. I remember them saying that coal eliminated the need for “dangerous nuclear.” I sat through innumerable meetings and had sparing friendships with anti-nuclear activists like Ralph Nader and Amory Lovins.

All presidents have said they favor nuclear power, even Jimmy Carter, who was the most reluctant and did huge damage to the United States’ position as the world leader in nuclear energy and technology. Carter wouldn’t say he was opposed to nuclear, but he did talk about it as a last resort and stopped the plans to build a fast breeder reactor. He also ended nuclear reprocessing, necessitating the disposal of whole nuclear cores, instead of capturing the mass of unburned fuel — thus creating a much larger waste disposal challenge, as well as the need to mine more uranium.

If you believe — and I do — what was said at the COP26 summit in Glasgow, Scotland, now is the time to fix the electric power industry. It can be fixed by building up nuclear capacity so that electricity can be the go-to, clean fuel of the future. It could replace fossil fuels in everything from cement making to steel production to heating buildings. That potential, that future, is awesome and possible.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm should ask her national laboratories to make recommendations on a nuclear power future, not to the detriment of wind and solar power, but embracing them.

Wind power is valuable. But depending on it is a little like having a trick knee: You never know when it is going to go out on you.

Europe has just learned that lesson the hard way. It is in the grip of a major energy crisis with electricity prices quadrupling and natural gas prices headed into the stratosphere as winter approaches. One of the causes of this crisis is that wind speeds through the summer fell to their lowest recorded levels in 60 years, with a total wind drought in the normally gale-wracked North Sea.

We won’t get to a carbon-free future unless we have a robust, committed plan to deploy state-of-the-art nuclear plants across the country. We built them in the 1960s and into the 1970s – 100 of them.

Granholm needs to declare a purpose and to pick the proven winner. It is nuclear, and it has been gravely wounded in the culture wars. She needs to rescue it – with word and deed.

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Nov 20, 2021

Good points all, Llewellyn. Couldn't agree more, except on this one:

"Now the Union of Concerned Scientists is pro-nuclear, but it was at the barricades against nuclear for decades."

In February. UCS published Diablo Canyon is Shutting Down. Is California Ready? In it, the group acknowledges

"...UCS analysis shows that, between now and 2030, California’s electricity sector will emit an extra 15.5 million metric tons (MMT) of global warming emissions due to the retirement of Diablo Canyon."

then produces a litany of debunked talking points to argue against it staying open:

"Does this mean Diablo Canyon should stay online? Absolutely not. That is definitely NOT the take-away here [note caps-lock emphasis]. Since the very beginning, the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant has been plagued by seismic safety concerns...."

All were addressed by a comprehensive seismic analysis decades ago, the findings of which were re-confirmed after Fukushima.

"And as with any nuclear power plant, there are the challenges of nuclear waste disposal..."

Any such challenges are the products of fevered anti-nuclear imagination.

"[Diablo Canyon's ] cooling technology is so destructive to ocean ecosystem that the technology is being completely phased out of power plants in California."

More mythology. A 2013 Bechtel Corp. study found that 708 lbs. of fish were "entrained" (trapped) in Diablo Canyon's Once-Through Cooling (OTC) system each year. Translation: in the process of borrowing 2 billion gallons of water from the Pacific each day, Diablo Canyon's OTC kills one two-pound fish.

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Nov 29, 2021

There’s a reason for nuclear’s failure: They’ve managed to abuse every category of stakeholder: employees, communities, utilities, consumers, regulators, politicians, financial backers. This has gone on for over six decades. And you wonder why no one is in their corner?

It is almost ironic that there is likely to be a role for some nuclear in order to reach decarbonization goals, likely some amalgam of old and new technology. But, it is just as likely that the nuclear industry will continue to disappoint.

They have no one to blame but themselves. I wish the «left», as you say, could be a tenth as effective on other issues as you give them credit for with nuclear!

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Nov 29, 2021

Please explain why Diablo Canyon should be shut down. The benefits, particularly reducing CO2 emissions, are immense.

There has been a lot of abuse in the power industry, but a lot of it comes from the “green energy” fanatics who believe they have a god-given right to line their pockets with money from everybody else. I am speaking directly to the topic of “ temporary” subsidies that were suppose to disappear years ago. Works out to be approaching 100 billion dollars with no end in sight.

Please note, I am aware of the abuse that occurred in Ohio with bribes paid to subsidize nuclear power. Those crooks (including politicians) ended up in jail. The “green energy” crooks continue to line their pockets.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 12, 2021

Is that your personal position, Mark, or that of your employer?
Royal Dutch Shell certainly has an incentive to portray the Nuclear Renaissance as a "failure", the nuclear industry as abusive. In the PR industry it's known as misdirection, a common technique for companies that are failing themselves. Especially, ones with a an abysmal record on human rights.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Nov 29, 2021

Not so sure about your “want to do the right thing observation”. Perhaps early on, but the environmental movement has been largely taken over by those with a political agenda aimed at spreading virulent socialism. The “environment” is more of a means to an end.

Nuclear power’s plight is primarily financial; it is too expensive. Anything using a lot of steel and concrete is going to be relatively expensive. However, in the case of nuclear power, that cost is increased significantly by mind numbing overregulation on the part of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

One would expect that the passively fail-safe advanced reactor’s under development would see more reasonable regulations. Alas, that is definitely not the case. This is not just my view, but those of the Nuclear Energy Institute and US Nuclear Industry Council. I know you are quite familiar with both organizations.

The Biden administration needs to direct the NRC to actually implement the Nuclear Modernization Act passed by Congress last year, as opposed to using the Act to create vast numbers of new regulations to unleash all manner of long held wishes and desires.

With a proper regulatory environment, nuclear power can compete on a more-or-less level playing field. Does that guarantee success? No, but at least the industry can actually reach the playing field.

 

 

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