Many of my friends and colleagues in the nuclear energy community think I’m am on a quixotic mission. Though I have not made any decision on how to vote in November, Bernie Sanders is the candidate who is currently delivering messages that align with my thoughts on the direction that the US needs to move in the next four years.
My main reservation about his message is that he is confused about energy policy. Though he has a long standing, sincere distrust of the nuclear industry and its product line, I believe his misunderstanding has been a result of living in a bubble where everyone he trusts has accepted the same instruction program about nuclear energy.
He and his friends believe that nuclear energy and nuclear weapons are inextricably linked, that nuclear plants have unresolved safety issues that can produce unacceptable consequences, that there is no solution for “nuclear waste” (aka reusable fuel), that uranium mining has remarkably high negative consequences, and that new nuclear plants take more than a decade to build and cost about $10 billion or more for each GW of power capacity.
He and his friends also believe that wind, water and sun are sufficient to meet the needs of the society that they want to create. They’re envisioning a country with good jobs paying at least $15 per hour; where all qualified students can attend public universities with free tuition; where roads, bridges and rails are being aggressively repaired and improved; where electric cars and trains replace gasoline and diesel fuel, and where extra electricity is available to create clean hydrogen as fuel to replace natural gas.
That society cannot be powered by only wind, water and sun. I don’t care how many studies and model runs Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark Diesendorf perform. Their calculations have bad inputs, bad assumptions, and incomplete economic projections.
Rather than dismiss a candidate who is accurately pointing to sources of much of our discontent because he is confused about energy, my quixotic mission it to do whatever I can to penetrate into his groupthink bubble to share accurate information about nuclear energy. I want to help Bernie and his team understand that what they think they know about nuclear is mostly untrue.
I optimistically believe that if they began to recognize that they have been misled by cunning people with a goal of continuing to ensure that hydrocarbons remain the unshakable foundation of modern living, they will be able to look at nuclear energy through a less distorted lens.
Apparently, however, Bernie’s misguiding energy advisors recognise that there are some ecomodernists like me who are seeking “their” candidate’s attention. Their apparent strategy is to increase the volume of their advice to reassure their candidate that they haven’t been steering him in the wrong direction. They have better access than I do, but continuing to fight what appears to be a losing battle is nothing new.
Here’s an example volley. Grist published a March 28 piece by Ben Adler titled Bernie Sanders wants to phase out nuclear power plants. Is that a good idea?. Ben is a decent writer, but he is part of the group that thinks ill-advised thoughts about nuclear energy.
Nuclear energy has plenty of problems: reactors can melt down, they are ripe targets for terrorists, they are wildly uneconomical, mining the uranium that feeds them is dangerous and environmentally destructive, and no one wants the spent fuel stored nearby. These are the reasons Sanders has long been an opponent of nuclear energy. A few decades ago, that was a widespread view on the left. But now climate change has become the main concern of many environmentalists, and nuclear energy’s saving grace is that it has virtually no carbon emissions.
Nearly every statement he makes isn’t inherently true, in fact, most of them are false. What might be the most important misstatement is that the only saving grace for nuclear is that it has virtually no carbon [dioxide] emissions. That is only one of its many advantages over the competition.
Ben’s article concludes as follows.
While Sanders’ nuclear power phaseout might not be the best idea from a climate perspective, it’s not actually the shallow hippie caricature that his critics describe.
Ben might be surprised to find out that I agree with what he wrote. There is nothing shallow or hippie about Bernie’s currently solid antinuclear position. In fact, there was never anything “hippie” about the strong support that has been given to people fighting nuclear energy and to those promoting all non-nuclear alternative energy sources.
I submitted the following comment on the Grist discussion thread.
I began my quest to try to understand the antinuclear movement in 1991. I had just completed a 40 month assignment as the Engineer Officer of a nuclear submarine and had been transferred to a shore duty assignment at the US Naval Academy.
My primary hobby during that assignment was auditing engineering classes, especially those focused on energy production. One of my favorite professors was a real leader in alternative energy systems, Dr. Chih Wu. He had co-authored the primary reference book about Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion and had published hundreds of papers on refinements in wind and solar technology.
To summarize what I learned then and have been continuing to learn ever since – the push for non-nuclear alternatives to fossil fuel began during the Nixon Administration (1968-1973). Nixon, as a southern California bred politician, had career-long ties to the petroleum industry the most profitable industry in his home state at the time.
Nixon was a cunning politician who knew that the public was unlikely to be moved to oppose nuclear energy with an argument that slowing it would help the oil and gas industry to protect its markets and drive up the cost of petroleum products by restricting supply.
I have not found minutes from the meetings – yet – but I have a library full of history books and journal articles that indicate support from the petroleum industry to push for non-nuclear alternative energy sources like the wind and the sun. Those sources were chosen as known weaklings whose maximum reliability was governed by the whims of the weather. They did not threaten the petroleum industry’s primary markets.
Petroleum interests, including foundations like Rockefeller, Pew, and Mellon, began heavy investments in building antinuclear organizations like the Friends of the Earth and the Aspen Institute. They also infiltrated large, established conservation groups like the Sierra Club.
This support from hydrocarbon interests for antinuclear opponents continues today. For example, Mark Z. Jacobson is a researcher employed by Stanford’s Precourt Energy Institute. The primary funder of that institute might not be a household name, but Jay Precourt made enough money in oil and gas to give nearly $100 million to the university that gave him a start in that career with a BS and MS in Petroleum Engineering.
Several years ago, there was a Time Magazine expose of a series of large donations to the Sierra Club from Aubrey McClendon, the flamboyant CEO of Chesapeake Energy. Over a three year period he gave $26 million to the group, ostensibly to fund its “Beyond Coal” campaign. Money is fungible; those donations also freed up resources to continue battling nuclear energy, natural gas’s other competitor in the electricity supply sector.
The currently embattled, oversupplied natural gas industry knows that the quickest way to increase sales is to force shutdowns of large power plants. They are aiming at both coal and nuclear. The problem for all of us is that coal plants can be temporarily laid up, ready to return to the market WHEN natural gas prices begin their next climb. Nuclear plants that are shut down because they “cannot compete against cheap gas” are permanently retired because owners cannot afford to keep paying the on-going costs of keeping them ready to restart.
Bottom line – please check your premises. The biggest beneficiaries of actions to restrict alternatives to fossil fuel are the people involved in the fossil fuel industry. They even benefit by actions to restrict the supply of NEW sources of fossil fuel because pushing supply below demand is the best way to increase prices and profits.
Publisher, Atomic Insights