A friend of mine recently sent me a clipping that included an opinion piece from the June 2007 issue of Foreign Policy. In case you are not familiar with the publication, here is how they introduce themselves in their About the Magazine page:
Founded in 1970 by Samuel Huntington and Warren Demian Manshel, and now published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C., FOREIGN POLICY is the premier, award-winning magazine of global politics, economics, and ideas. Our mission is to explain how the world works—in particular, how the process of global integration is reshaping nations, institutions, cultures, and, more fundamentally, our daily lives.
The title of the Foreign Policy op-ed piece was “Why Nuclear Isn’t the Great Green Hope”. It was written by Charles D. Ferguson, who is a fellow for science and technology at the Council on Foreign Relations and is the author of the Council Special Report “Nuclear Energy: Balancing Benefits and Risks.” (That information is taken right off the bottom of the article. I have not included a link, because it is only available to subscribers.)
The piece is a litany of the same digs against nuclear power that I see over and over again. Like many people, Mr. Ferguson works hard to avoid directly stating that he is opposed to nuclear energy; he simply provides a number of reasons why he believes it is not going to be very successful as a solution to climate change. He sounds a little like Al Gore, or Allison MacFarlane, a recent guest on the Atomic Show. Here is a refresher in the arguments used by “atomic agnostics”.
- Reactor construction stagnated in the United States
- Large uncertainties in capital costs
- Red tape and legal challenges in obtaining a license to operate a reactor
- No orders for a new nuclear power plant since 1978; that order was subsequently canceled
- The last completed U.S. reactor was Watts Bar 1, which was ordered in 1970 and began operations in 1996
- By 2030 the reactor fleet will be in serious disrepair if no further reactors are built
- Because the incentives in the 2005 legislation are limited, only a handful of new reactors will probably be built, but not many more than that
- China and India can realistically aim to boost this share up to 4 to 5 percent by 2030 but both countries will continue to rely primarily on fossil fuels for electricity generation
- It’s doubtful that nuclear energy, which produces its own unpleasant waste, can really be a major solution to climate change—or even the coming energy crunch, for that matter
- Worldwide electricity demand is predicted to grow by 85 percent by 2030, nuclear power would have to almost double its capacity just to maintain its current share of the energy mix
- Even the most optimistic projections of nuclear power expansion do not foresee a much larger share for nuclear energy globally. (Obviously, Mr. Ferguson does not read the Atomic Insights Blog or listen to The Atomic Show.)
- A nuclear renaissance will take too long to have a significant effect
- A quick ramp-up of nuclear capacity will run into industrial bottlenecks
- Only a few companies in the world can now make reactor-quality steel
- Shortages in the skilled workers
- Shortages in skilled engineers
- Increasing capital costs, which are already higher than other electricity options
As is often the case with anti-nuclear arguments, there are some elements of truth to the above litany, but my response as a problem solver is to think and act on ways to overcome as many of the obstacles as possible. Fortunately, many of them are imposed by humans, so they can be solved by humans. It seems to me that it is easier to solve a problem like excessive licensing delays or lack of a sufficient skilled work force than it is to solve the basic physics, chemistry, supply or weather related shortcomings of other energy sources.
Nothing I can imagine any humans doing is going to make the wind reliable, the sun shine at night or through clouds, crops grow in winter or reduce the fundamental challenges of finding enough oil fast enough in a world where about half of all available oil has been consumed. Though there is easy talk about carbon sequestration, the fundamental challenge of separating, transporting and storing tens of billions of tons of a gaseous waste product each year seem pretty mind boggling.
Mr. Ferguson has a proposed solution to our energy problem – “There’s a better solution: energy efficiency.”
If we are really serious about energy efficiency, we can make a difference. In my mind, that would be a good thing. It would reduce the challenge of building enough nuclear plants to eliminate the need to burn coal for electrical power and overcome the statement that Mr. Ferguson made about the fact that nuclear cannot expand fast enough to meet a predicted 85% growth in demand.
Here is a little groupthink information for you. Mr. Ferguson’s parent organization, The Council on Foreign Relations, also publishes a foreign policy magazine for wonks. Foreign Affairs has this to say about itself:
Since 1922, the Council has published Foreign Affairs, America’s most influential publication on international affairs and foreign policy. It is more than a magazine—it is the international forum of choice for the most important new ideas, analysis, and debate on the most significant issues in the world. Inevitably, articles published in Foreign Affairs shape the political dialogue for months and years to come.
Foreign Affairs has published some influential articles about energy over the years. That is no surprise; energy is certainly an important issue that has helped to define international relations since the beginning of the Industrial Age.
One of the most interesting (on many levels) was an article published in October 1976 titled Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken by my favorite serial college drop out and Friends of the Earth campaigner – Amory Lovins. (The various levels on which that article is interesting include timing, source, authority, politics, etc.)
It is pretty obvious where Mr. Ferguson and his organization get their intellectual inspiration on the subject of energy. (Here is an interesting statistic. During the period from 1980-2004 (a period with decent world wide statistics on energy), world energy consumption increased from 286 to 446 Quadrillion BTU. I am sure that Mr. Lovins and CFR would simply tell us that we are not trying hard enough.)
The CFR has been a very influential organization almost since its inception. Here is what it currently tells people about its membership – “Its 3,400 members include nearly all past and present Presidents, Secretaries of State, Defense and Treasury, other senior U.S. government officials, renowned scholars, and major leaders of business, media, human rights, and other non-governmental groups.” It is definitely an organization of the rich, famous and powerful.
Of course, it was designed that way by its founders (members of the Rockefeller and Morgan families and enterprises) who were intimately involved in the international fossil fuel business. As I have told you many times, I am not a believer in conspiracy theories, but I have been associated with powerful people for long enough to know that they seek to protect their position, resources and interests, often with tactics and strategies that are not immediately visible.
There is a very logical reason why the CFR has always been offi
cially doubtful and dismissive of the potential for nuclear power to have a large effect on fossil fuel consumption and now on greenhouse gas production – there are a lot of members of the organization that will lose market share, wealth, power, and influence if it does. By seeking to minimize the potential, talk down the excitement, raise the barriers to entry, throw up straw men (like weapons proliferation) and other tactics, the CFR and its members have succeeded in slowing down the inevitable dominance of a seriously superior energy fuel. As can be seen by the recent profit reports from oil companies, the balance sheets of oil exporting nations, and the profit reports of railroads, coal mining companies, gas pipeline enterprises, and oil drillers, their efforts are working well.
The real losers are all the rest of us who get to pay the extra financial and environmental costs of a failed mantra of conservation over serious efforts to remove those human imposed barriers to the smooth shifting of the economy from a fossil fuel combustion base to a heavy metal fission base. For me, the good news is that there are a hell of a lot more energy consumers in the world than energy producers. It is no longer a world where the only people that can get their ideas widely distributed are those with the resources to produce focused circulation foreign policy magazines.
The even better news is that there are other problem solvers in the world that recognize that the barriers that limit nuclear growth can be moved, though it is going to take some effort. The same friend who sent me the Foreign Policy clipping followed almost immediately with a June 26, 2007 article from World Nuclear News titled NRC to cut COL application review time. It looks like some of the barriers are already being pushed aside.
Aside: In a Naval Academy leadership course (back in 1978), we discussed a book titled Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascos. written by Irving Lester Janis. I will never forget how he explained the phenomenon of how people in certain kinds of organizations end up repeating each other in both words and thoughts. I have seen that happen so many times during my career – in fact, I am fighting that very phenomenon in my day job again.)