In a recent New York Times column titled On Climate Change, Even States in Forefront Are Falling Short, Eduarto Porter begins by lauding California's claimed … [Read More...] about Eduardo Porter says states that close nuclear are going in wrong direction for climate
The Senate Energy and Environment committee, chaired by Senator Lisa Murkowski, held a confirmation hearing yesterday for former Texas Governor Rick Perry, the Trump Administration nominee for Secretary of Energy.
Sam Britton, the nuclear waste specialist from the Bipartisan Policy Center, produced a valuable resource by watching the full hearing and producing a series of Tweets summarizing each instance in which the questions and answers touched on nuclear topics.
Aside: I listened to most of the hearing while on a long walk, but I didn’t stop to take notes. End Aside.
Key points related specifically to nuclear energy production and its long term sustainability include:
- Support for continued investments in SMRs and advanced reactors
- Agreed that small and micro reactors might be especially useful in Alaska and at military installations. They might be the early adopters
- Major focus on developing and implementing a workable solution to used fuel that stops “kicking can”
- Recognized that Nevada senators and governor have said “No way in hell…” but he dodged making a commitment to keep waste out of Nevada
- Stated that he was a strong advocate for accepting high level waste in Texas and still continued to be reelected
- Agreed with Wyoming and Utah senators to take a hard look at DOE sales of uranium that have contributed to a market oversupply and price weakness that threatens the viability of domestic producers. Described the issue as a budget management and prioritization problem.
- Recognized the importance of DOE funds to the economy of eastern Washington. As Sen Cantwell pointed out, that expenditure represents 10-15% of the DOE’s total budget. In the polite public setting of a Senate hearing, neither Cantwell nor Perry pointed out that translates to roughly $3 billion per year in revenue to the state.
- Acknowledged the importance of DOE funds to representatives from Nevada, New York, New Mexico, and Illinois
- Pledged to work to protect science funding and recognized the government’s role in commercializing technologies like horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing to release oil and gas from shale formations.
If confirmed, Gov. Perry has the opportunity to take action that might end up pleasing almost every energy-interested group. He could seek agreement with the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency to take advantage of DOE research results to establish new clean-up standards based on modern research results instead of using the 60 year-old assumption that all radiation down to a single gamma ray carries a finite negative risk to human health.
Leveraging A DOE Science Program
A GAO report titled RADIATION STANDARDS: Scientific Basis Inconclusive, and EPA and NRC Disagreement Continues published in 2000 indicates that the money spent to move dirt around could be substantially reduced if the nuclear site clean up standard was elevated just slightly from 0.15 mSv/yr (15 mrem) to 1 mSv/yr (100 mrem).
Following the issuance of that report, Senator Dominici directed funds to the DOE office of science to research the effects of low dose radiation to help make the science a little more conclusive. From 2000-2009, Dr. Noelle Metting, a radiation biologist who had spent two decades developing her expertise in the field, managed a world-leading science program that used modern biological and computing tools to detect and document the actual effects that radiation has on living organisms.
Though the program was abruptly halted for no good reason, Dr. Metting’s Low Dose Radiation Research Program uncovered sufficient new knowledge about the biological effects of ionizing radiation to be able to support a consensus determination by experts that there would be no harm to people by moving the level to 1 mSv.
Though more completed research would most likely be demanded before a consensus on even less restrictive standards could be achieved, numerous experts believe we know enough now to assert that there would be no negative human health effect even if the standard was raised to 100 mSv/yr. Most of those experts say that an unbiased look at the data indicate that the more likely effect is a moderately beneficial health result for exposed people.
The savings from cleaning to a less restrictive, and significantly easier-to-measure standard could be invested in technology development or demonstrating new power/heat production facilities at existing DOE sites instead of cleaning already clean soil.
All rhetoric to the contrary, spending less DOE money on clean-up isn’t politically popular. The senators who are focused on ensuring that the DOE maintains cold war site clean up as a high priority are fundamentally concerned with keeping the associated jobs and expenditures. The win-win-win proposal to keep spending the money, but in constructive ways would be popular for most stakeholders. There is little doubt the same skilled workers now working on clean up would be happier if they were building useful infrastructure.
With an adequately resourced effort to widely share the research results in accessible ways and to describe the benefits of slightly relaxed clean up standards in terms of enabling energy abundance, energy affordability, air pollution reductions and climate change mitigations, most of the public would become more enthusiastic about supporting nuclear energy development.
Knowledge is the key to overcoming fear. After a long period of being afraid of radiation, the U.S. was fortunate enough to find a leader capable of and willing to invest money and time in low dose research. That investment gave skilled, qualified and curious scientists the resources needed to develop sufficient knowledge to justify a giant step forward in fear reduction.
Decision makers who are not rigidly connected to the old radiation risk paradigms should now leverage that investment and take the available step forward.
In a recent New York Times column titled On Climate Change, Even States in Forefront Are Falling Short, Eduarto Porter begins by lauding California’s claimed position as a leader in environmental consciousness. He points to recent political statements by the state’s elected officials indicating they plan to stubbornly resist any Trump Administration efforts to interfere with their actions to create more challenging goals for emissions reductions.
Porter then pointedly describes the disconnect between claims made by politicians and reality.
And yet for all the pluck of the Golden State’s politicians, California is far from providing the leadership needed in the battle against climate change. Distracted by the competing objective of shuttering nuclear plants that still produce over a fifth of its zero-carbon power, the state risks failing the main environmental challenge of our time.
California’s effort to close its remaining nuclear plant at Diablo Canyon is merely the last remaining act of a lengthy process to increase the state’s natural gas market sales. The effort has allowed for some fuel conservation assistance from wind, solar, hydro, geothermal and energy efficiency, but mainly it has been focused on pushing uranium out as an energy supply option.
By preventing or destroying the infrastructure needed to convert zero emission, cheap uranium fuel into electricity, people fighting nuclear power plants have ensured that the electric power grid is a reliable and growing customer for natural gas producers as well as a large market for solar installers and wind turbine manufacturers.
The visible and vocal front of the antinuclear movement has consisted mainly of politicians and groups that wrap themselves in Green clothing, but dedicated research efforts have exposed numerous conflicts of interest. Most of the largest Green groups and their political partners have received either financial support or have direct financial interests in competing sources of energy, including wind and solar but most importantly natural gas.
Porter points to important work that calculates what California’s emissions would be if the well-funded and effectively organized effort to force nuclear out of the market had not succeeded.
Consider this bit of counterfactual history. Environmental Progress, an advocacy group that aggressively supports the deployment of nuclear energy to combat climate change, estimated what California’s power sector would look like had the opposition from antinuclear forces — including Governor Brown — not undone the state’s deployment of nuclear energy, starting in the 1970s.
As Porter notes, experience has shown that the predictions of catastrophe that motivated many people to oppose nuclear have turned out to be false. Even with an occasional, highly publicized, accident, nuclear fission has turned out to be the safest form of large scale power generation.
As James Hansen and Pushker A. Kharecha documented in a peer-reviewed article titled Prevented Mortality and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Historical and Projected Nuclear Power nuclear energy has saved millions of lives already.
It’s time that Californians became true leaders in the effort to preserve and improve our shared environment. Citizens should demand that their decision makers engage with the public in thoughtful discussions about energy supply options.
Those discussions should include an understanding of the documented safety of nuclear energy, the obvious benefits in terms of reducing air pollution and CO2 emissions and the conflicts of interest that have been at least part of the motivation for fighting against both new nuclear energy projects and continued operation of already complete and reliable facilities.
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