Author blurb: Paul Lorenzini earned his PhD in Nuclear Engineering from Oregon State University and later earned a JD. He had a distinguished career in the electric utility business and was the Chief Executive Officer for NuScale Power for its first five years. He is now retired and sharing some of his thoughts about energy issues.
By Paul Lorenzini
Perhaps the most persistent criticism of “Pandora’s Promise”, the recently released documentary on nuclear power by producer-director Robert Stone, was its failure to give screen time to a credible anti-nuclear spokesperson. We got a glimpse of what we missed following the film’s recent opening at the Jacob Burns Film Center in New York, where Andrew Revkin of the New York Times arranged and moderated a debate between Stone and Robert F. Kennedy jr. On substance, we didn’t miss much. Yet it spoke volumes about the character of the nuclear power controversy itself.
Having shaken the foundations of established environmental dogma when it was released earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, “Pandora’s Promise” features five well respected environmentalists who have changed their minds about nuclear power. They tell their story and explain how and why they changed their position. While it is clearly pro-nuclear, “Pandora’s Promise” is not an attempt to make the case by providing a documentary on nuclear power per se. Rather it does so by looking at the issues through the eyes of these environmentalists, operating on the premise that the intellectually curious will want to see just how they processed Fukushima, the waste issue, proliferation, radiation fears and so forth. That’s the whole point.
Yet it is fair to say one does get curious about how someone like Kennedy will respond as one watches the documentary unfold, so the debate served a useful purpose.
Kennedy is identified by Revkin as “the Pace University law professor and environmental firebrand”, a claim validated by his performance. As expected, Kennedy opens his attack with a broadside: the documentary is “an elaborate hoax”, “dishonest”, and “almost every fact that is presented as fact is either untrue or misleading”. He then proceeds to offer a bromide filled with dishonesty and facts that are presented as facts that are either untrue or misleading.
He begins with a statement no one believes: “I am for nuclear power if we can make it economic and safe” – he is clearly not open to proof of either.
On safety, he starts with an old canard, the Price Anderson Act. “In this country, “ he says, “a nuclear power plant cannot get insurance … people on Wall Street have said you are too risky to insure.” This means, he implies, we are not protected from nuclear accidents: “… so every homeowner’s insurance policy has a provision which says this policy does not protect you against radiation damage to you or your property against radiation from a nuclear accident.”
Originally passed in 1957, the Price Anderson Act does give owners and manufacturers a limit on their liability in the event of a nuclear plant accident. But it also requires owners of nuclear plants to purchase insurance – which they can and do – and it requires these owners to add to that by participating in a $12 billion pool to assure that anyone affected by a problem at the plant receives financial protection. The existence of the pool is the reason nuclear accidents are excluded from normal homeowners policies – they are already covered.
And it works. The only time it was ever really called upon was after the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island, when funds were immediately made available to people who were evacuated. The total paid by these insurance pools from the beginning of time has been $71 million. Yes, coverage exists, you can buy it, and it is grossly misleading to claim you are not protected: you are. Urging its repeal today, as Kennedy does, might be worth debating points, but it would only remove a massive piece of protection for consumers.
Kennedy then turns to economics. Cherry-picking the world’s most expensive nuclear plant, the first-of-a-kind Finnish plant at Olkiluoto, he makes anecdotal economic comparisons between nuclear power, solar and wind. There are 69 nuclear plants under construction world-wide — all of them coming in well below the costs of the plant in Finland, the largest number being in China. Why would China pursue an uneconomic resource? But leave that aside.
The real test is what has happened to prices where renewables have been subsidized and mandated by legislation. We have three clear cases to consider: California, Spain and Germany.
In California, wedded to a renewables-only energy policy since the 1970’s, prices have soared while industries have been fleeing the state. Industrial electricity rates are 50% higher than the national average while all of the nine surrounding western states are lower than the national average. The pattern is similar for commercial and residential rates.
In Spain, renewables have been fueled by subsidies funded with government deficits. The deficit was $7.3 billion in 2012 alone, with recent downgrades from financial institutions as the accumulated deficit grows. The subsidies have become so costly they have been halted.
Germany is perhaps the most salient example. After passing the National Energy Plan in 2000, calling for an all-out commitment to renewables and a phase-out of their nuclear plants, wind and solar have grown, dramatically fueled by generous subsidies, legislated mandates and preferences on the grid. So have prices. According to the International Energy Agency, “Electricity prices in Germany, especially for household consumers, are among the highest in Europe.” Between 2007 and 2011 constant prices increased by 40%. Only Denmark is higher.
To recover the higher costs of wind and solar projects, investors receive a guarantee that the electricity they produce will be purchased at a fixed price for a period of several years. Last year alone, owners of wind and solar farms were paid EUR 14 billion ($18 billion), with an estimate that an additional EUR 100 billion will be paid by 2022 for facilities that have already been installed. These subsidies are recovered through a surcharge on household electric bills, 14% of bills last year. The environmental minister recently estimated the overall cost of the program, to include massive transmission system upgrades, will approach EUR 1 trillion. It’s not complicated – as Der Spiegel reported “contrary to earlier forecasts, solar and wind farms are a long way from being able to produce energy at prices possible in coal-fired and nuclear plants.”
Flying in the face of these remarkable facts, Kennedy then whines about the lack of subsidies in the U.S.. “On a level field,” Kennedy claims, “we would beat nuclear power hands down.” Then later, “We aren’t getting government support – if we got a tiny fraction of what they got …” transitioning mid-sentence to another topic, but clearly implying federal subsidies are the only thing standing in the way of renewable development. But renewables are getting subsidies that dwarf anything being given to nuclear power today. According to the U.S Energy Information Administration, in FY 2010, the total subsidies to nuclear power through direct expenditures and tax incentives were $2.5 billion. The comparable figure for renewables was $14.7 billion. Of the tax preferences granted, according to the CBO, 4% went to nuclear and 68% went to renewables.
On substance, Stone finally retorts “I will not put documented untruths in my documentary.” Yet there is more to this debate than the substance.
What is on display here is an ideological hatred of all things nuclear. The thread running through Kennedy’s rant is that only anti-nuclear advocates can be believed – on anything. Nuclear proponents are simply bad people who can’t be trusted. There is no room for two legitimate sides to this controversy. The producers and players in the documentary, he charges, were dishonest and basically lied. Plus, they are not even true environmentalists. In the end, the person who complained regularly during the debate about being marginalized spent most of his time marginalizing the documentary.
In one sense, it’s the ultimate cheap shot — any fair-minded person can see these are genuine people who have been dedicated to environmental causes for years and who came to their decisions at a very personal level. We may not agree, but let’s at least respect their authenticity.
Nevertheless it is part of the overall pattern, demonstrating how distorting the ideological lens can be. It is especially apparent in the discussion of radiation risks. Virtually every nuclear power issue runs through the core issue of radiation – just what risks does it pose? The documentary addresses this in the most factual way possible – it takes a radiation detector around the world to show just what natural radiation we receive wherever we are and just how widely varying the levels of exposure are. We find people walking the street unconcerned in Rio de Janeiro at higher levels than Japanese living near Fukushima who, because of fear, will not let their children play outdoors. Higher levels were shown in several places, not the least of which was a pristine location in the mountains of New Hampshire.
Perhaps the most contentious issue related to the consequences of the accident at Chernobyl. The documentary bases its conclusions on a study conducted by eight United Nations agencies and the three most affected governments in Belarus, Russia and the Ukraine, supported by roughly 100 public health experts from around the world. Kennedy argues they can’t be believed because they are biased. Stone rightly defends it as the most comprehensive study available and accuses Kennedy of doing what climate -change deniers do – cherry-picking studies from groups and individuals who have an ideological bias to dispute what the mainstream scientific community is saying.
It is a critical issue for Kennedy and anti-nuclear advocates because it neutralizes their central issue – fear of radiation – so by whatever means, it must be disputed. Make people afraid. The unfortunate reality is, by clinging to and exploiting the issue of fear, they have caused more human misery than any release of radiation from these accidents ever did. That was true at Three Mile Island, at Chernobyl and now at Fukushima.
But the larger concern, the one that motivated Stone in the first place, is the ideological hatred of nuclear power which has caused us to lose focus on the real goals – decarbonizing our energy portfolio by moving off fossil fuels, and making energy available to impoverished people throughout the world. “We need everything” Stone says – yes wind, yes solar, but also nuclear, if we are to achieve these purposes. “Is the goal simply more wind and more solar”, he asks, or is it to achieve these goals? Coal, the resource that dwarfs all others both on the question of health effects and carbon emission, is accelerating throughout the world (see here as well). How will we reverse this?
Kennedy’s anemic response is that he is fighting coal also. But is he? The reality is the policies he and the anti-nuclear community are pursing are resulting in more coal, more carbon and more health consequences, not less. There is anti-nuclear rapture that California’s San Onofre nuclear plant was just shut down, taking roughly 2200 MW of capacity off line. It is being replaced in part by restarting retired fossil facilities. When Japan shut down its nuclear plants after Fukushima, coal consumption went up. In Germany, they are shutting down there nuclear plants but building new coal plants. In each of these cases, the clear priority is not global warming, it’s shutting down nuclear power at any cost. That trumps everything else.
We must ask why? At one point during the debate, moderator Andrew Revkin calls attention to a recent study by Paul Slovic, The Feeling of Risk. One of the world’s most renowned experts on this subject, he argues that feelings about risk are strongly influenced by the feelings we have that come before we assess the risk. Ideology can predetermine our views of these risks.
One cannot watch this debate and not be impressed by Kennedy’s passion and conviction. At one point he puts his head in his hands evidencing his frustration. I was left wondering what ideology fuels such passion and such willingness to hang on to so many positions that simply fail on close examination – what causes one to care more about stopping nuclear power than stopping coal? What accounts for the callous willingness to promote irrational fear of radiation, knowing full well the human toll it is taking?
One reviewer summed it up as “baby boomer environmentalists whose fear of anything nuclear grows from deep historic roots and whose self identities are too tightly bound to the expected tribal opposition to nuclear power.” Perhaps.
We are torn today between two views of our energy future and the only thing that separates them is whether or not nuclear power should be included. Nuclear power is critical because of the contribution it can make. Stone’s plea is that this documentary will permit a more rational discussion of these very important questions. Let’s hope it does.
PS from Rod Adams I think Paul is too generous by ascribing Kennedy’s reaction to “passion and conviction”. I cannot get past the fact that he makes luncheon speeches to fossil fuel trade organizations like the Colorado Oil and Gas Association in which he essentially asks them for money to support his causes (and his investments). His pitch is that his large, taxpayer subsidized wind and solar installations are actually just gas installations that will consume more of their product.
I think that Kennedy, like many people that claim to be concerned about the environment, is more concerned about the impact that increasing nuclear energy output would have on his personal wealth and power.