During the promotional period leading up to CNN’s initial airing of Pandora’s Promise, Michael Brune, executive direction of the Sierra Club, and Robert Stone, the director of Pandora’s Promise, engaged in a meaningful discussion about nuclear energy hosted by Kate Bolduan.
During the discussion, Brune explains that the Sierra Club believes that nuclear energy projects are too expensive and cannot be implemented quickly enough to make the kind of difference that is necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change. He claims that wind and solar costs have dropped far enough in the past four years that those technologies are replacing fossil fuel and helping to reduce the US emissions of CO2 to its lowest level since 1992.
Brune also appeals to authority by pointing to Warren Buffett’s Mid American Energy decision to stop investigating the potential of building a small modular reactor in Iowa in favor of continued development of its wind energy portfolio.
Aside: Brune left out a few details, but we’ll get back to that later. End Aside.
Robert Stone challenged the Sierra Club’s position by explaining that wind and solar energy provide a small portion of the world’s energy and by making the statement that US emissions have fallen because we have replaced coal with natural gas, not because we have started producing mass quantities of electricity with wind or solar. He describes how manufacturing and mass production can be used to drive down the cost of any technology, including nuclear technology, but that we currently have an expensive nuclear option because we have not been building nuclear plants for more than 30 years.
Stone points out that the world’s energy demands are increasing every year and that wind and solar growth is not even covering the growth in energy demand. According to Stone, a decision to avoid using nuclear energy inherently results in a decision to continue using as much fossil fuel as we do today, with all of the negative implications that has on the risk of steady damage to the earth’s climate stability.
Stone did a good job, even though he made an incorrect statement about Chernobyl unit 4. It was not a crazy, one off plant, there were 17 similar RBMK reactors built in Russia, Lithuania, and Ukraine. Russia is still operating 11 RMBK reactors and recently decided to extend their allowed period of operation. The design can be operated safely; it is not inherently unstable.
In fact, there was a time when light water-cooled, graphite-moderated reactors were produced inside the US. The last one, Hanford’s N Reactor, included some design features that were similar to those of the Soviet-designed RBMKs. At one time, that reactor’s dual use capabilities were so popular that President Kennedy visited Hanford and gave a speech praising its ability to provide for both national security and electrical power. The N Reactor was shutdown for refurbishment in 1987 and never restarted. That decision was driven by pressure from people who pointed out its design similarities to Chernobyl; the plant’s owner and operator, the US Department of Energy (DOE), apparently decided to allow the reactor to fade quietly into history.
Michael Brune is a capable debater whose points make him vulnerable to additional challenges.
If given the chance, I would point out that Warren Buffett has invested a lot more money into coal and coal-related transportation companies than he is into wind — and the Sierra Club knows it.
I’d also mention how organizations like Beyond Nuclear have claimed credit — and stating that they received help from Sierra Club, AARP, Friends of the Earth, and Green State Solutions — for discouraging Mid American from continuing its involvement in SMRs. They claim that it was an “environmental victory” enabled by three years worth of focused lobbying and activism designed to ensure that the Iowa legislature maintains the current limitations that prevent construction work in progress payments by electricity rate payers.
I’d remind Brune that Sierra Club might have stopped taking money from natural gas companies like Chesapeake Energy, but there is no record of them having given back the $25 million that the organization accepted from Chesapeake for its Beyond Coal campaign. The Sierra Club has been deeply involved in the effort by the gas industry to market its product as “clean” even though it is at least half as dirty as coal, especially when the risk of fugitive methane releases and damage from rural industrialization from hydraulic fracturing (tracking) is included in the calculations.
The Sierra Club once supported nuclear energy development and even ran a campaign called Atoms, not Dams. As James Hansen, Ken Caldeira, Kerry Emanuel and Tom Wigley said in their now famous open letter to environmentalists, it is time to go back to that 1960s vintage position. The fate of the planet’s climate rests on coordinated action to remove the barriers that contribute to making nuclear energy “uneconomic” and help make nuclear projects take too darned long. With the kind of coordinated support that wind and solar have received, it is quite possible for many of the world’s developed nations to replicate the twenty to thirty year transition away from fossil fuels in power and heat generation that the French, Swedes, Swiss, Vermonters and South Carolinians have all demonstrated is possible.
Historical Note: The Sierra Club’s support for nuclear energy in the late 1960s resulted in a rift within the organization, which at one time had both nuclear engineers and oil company executives on its board of directors. The rift resulted in David Brower, one of the leaders of the organization, getting fed up with the nuclear advocates. He left to form Friends of the Earth, a group that has been adamantly opposed to the development of nuclear energy since its initial inception in 1969.
That new group was enabled with an initial $200,000 contribution from Robert Anderson, the CEO of Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO), an oil and gas company that is now a part of BP. Soon after Brower left and demonstrated the money raising potential of opposition to nuclear energy, the Sierra Club became antinuclear. So did most of the other perennially underfunded groups advocating for the environment. End history note.
PS: The nature of Internet advertising ensures that each viewer has the potential to receive a different sequence of ads. However, I was bemused by my experience. At the end of the debate, the bots decided to show me an ad that ended with the tag line “Shale: The Power To Do It Right.” It asked viewers to visit a site called energyfromshale.org. That ad was sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute. Hmmm