Mark Hertsgaard, the author of Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, appeared on Democracy Now on Friday, April 15, 2011. He made several important statements that lead me to believe that he might be one of the next influential environmental writers to be swayed by evidence to become a nuclear energy supporter.
The question in the title of this article is an important one that was inspired by his own words during the interview. As he described, a skeptic can be persuaded by evidence, but a crank is someone who, for financial or ideological reasons will remain stubbornly insistent that they are right. So the challenge I am posing to Hertsgaard and others with similar views is “Are you a nuclear skeptic or a nuclear crank? Will you take the time now to review the evidence that shows how wrong you might be about the potential for nuclear energy to provide far more emission free energy than Amory Lovins and his fans believe is possible?”
This past weekend, I had the pleasure of sharing a couple of meals with Gwyneth Cravens, author of Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy. Like Patrick Moore, George Monbiot, and Stewart Brand, Gwyneth was once an active member of the nuclear opposition who participated in protests against nuclear energy development.
Aside. Gwyneth is so careful to ensure that there is no basis for anyone to call her a nuclear industry shill that she grabbed the check both times. Apparently, my current employment in the nuclear industry overcomes the fact that we began developing our friendship while I was still in the Navy. End Aside.
Like many others who were part of the antinuclear movement in the 1970s and 1980s, Gwyneth was partially motivated by a misunderstanding that is sometimes purposely encouraged. She was very worried about the effects of atmospheric nuclear weapons testing and nuclear weapons proliferation. Her misunderstanding was in confusing energy production facilities and nuclear weapons production; they are about as closely related as gasoline stations and napalm factories. However, there are people who oppose nuclear energy for less than honorable reasons who continue to diligently use rhetoric to keep those two separate aspects of nuclear technology linked as closely as possible in the minds of their followers.
As Gwyneth describes in her book and in speeches that she gives around the country, she was persuaded to take a new look at nuclear energy when she found out that a personal friend of hers was a nuclear professional and an expert in probabilistic risk assessment who had been applying his skills to solving nuclear waste disposal challenges for several decades. She spent almost a decade asking probing questions, weighing the evidence and visiting various energy production facilities. As she reminded me again this weekend, one of the most convincing parts of her journey of discovery was when she visited both a nuclear energy facility and a coal energy facility on the same day. The contrast between the two remains bright in her mind.
During the interview, Hertsgaard provided several hints that he is open to learn more, though he currently hews to the Lovins mantra that “energy efficiency” is 7 times as cost effective as investing in nuclear nuclear energy from a climate change point of view. One bit of evidence that might help to dissuade him of that misguided notion is the fact that Lovins has been making a similar argument since at least 1976, when he wrote his landmark article titled “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken.” I hope that Mark pulls out that article and reads it closely enough to discover that Lovins suggested it would be fine to double coal consumptions if it allowed nuclear energy to be eliminated from the US electricity grid.
Hertsgaard also repeated the often claimed lie that wind and solar are growing fast enough to make a difference – even after decades worth of very generous direct payments to industrial developers, renewable energy portfolio standards that set aside a portion of the market, and even some attempts at feed in tariffs that pay an elevated price for whatever energy wind and solar systems can manage to deliver, the total amount of electricity produced by those two technologies in the US is less than the output of 10 moderately sized nuclear power plants. There was a time – in an era of slide rules, triangles, compasses, and manual welding – when the US was able to add 10 or more nuclear plants to the grid each year.
I have some additional evidence that Hertsgaard needs to understand. Even though he is correct that it takes far too long and costs far too much to build a new nuclear energy plant in the US right now, there are some stubborn engineers, technicians, businessmen, regulators and financial specialists who accepted the challenge to make that process better and faster about 15-20 years ago. They did not wait until mounting evidence of real issues associated with burning fossil fuels built up to a crescendo of support for nuclear energy development – they started designing new systems several decades ago and began the licensing, manufacturing and construction processes at least 5 years ago.
A swell of support from people like Hertsgaard cwould have a dramatically positive impact on projected nuclear project costs. As an insider, I know that the cost projections for new nuclear plants in the US include a large allowance for the risks and uncertainty caused by the Shoreham Syndrome. The possibility of investing large amounts of money in a project carrying a significant risk of late term delays or even cancellation before the start of revenue production makes investors very nervous. Nervous investors demand a far higher rate of return on their capital. Since nuclear projects are capital intensive, with a large portion of the lifetime costs being paid up front, financing costs are a BIG deal that can add several billion dollars to the cost of a $10 billion project.
Reducing uncertainty by building a broad base of support can result in other cost saving opportunities. If manufacturers see the potential for multiple orders, they will make investments in their productive capacity that will lower the amount of time required to produce each component. Much of the cost of large manufactured items is a result of low production volumes where inescapable overhead costs have to be covered with a small number of product sales each year. I have seen the effect of production volume on unit cost in action as a former manufacturer and as a Navy financial analyst. I have also engaged in enough conversations with a former shipmate who now runs a large shipyard to know just how important that aspect of cost can be for products like power plants and ships.
The economic advantage of increasing unit production volumes should be something that everyone can understand, simply by having watched what happens to consumer products like computers, personal music devices, and large screen televisions.
Unlike Hertsgaard, I do not have a young daughter. Instead, I have two twenty something daughters and a baby granddaughter. Like many of my colleagues in the nuclear industry, I care very deeply about their future and the world that we are leaving them. I share a sense of personal responsibility to do the very best that I can to give them the tools that will allow them to thrive, not just survive. Nuclear energy is one of the most important tools that humans have developed in the past 200 years.
I hope that Mark takes the time to learn more about it from people who have been working hard to make it better for the past 50 years. That work has continued in spite of a well-organized campaign that I believe was inspired by the same people who finance those that he now calls climate cranks. In both cases, the motivation is both financial and political – nuclear energy and other measures to reduce the impact of fossil fuel consumption threaten the wealth and power of the purveyors of petroleum products.