I knew it was going to be an interesting night, worth stretching my already long day to the point where I did not even leave DC until after my normal bedtime.
The event was nearly custom designed to provide excitement, at least for a pro-fission geek like me. The headline acts at last night’s Energy Conversation were David Hawkins, Director of Climate Programs at the Natural Rescources Defense Council (NRDC) and “a senior policy staff member of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming” who apparently worked directly for Congressman Ed Markey.
Both speakers came through admirably and completely met my expectations – as skilled lawyers and political types they managed to present more than 50 minutes of ideas, programs and concepts about what to do about the challenges of energy and climate change as related to the need for environmental protection, national security and economic growth WITHOUT SAYING A SINGLE WORD ABOUT NUCLEAR POWER. In my book, that takes some serious, self-delusional, political and legal talent. Hawkins used a presentation with lots of pretty graphs and suggestions for ways to reduce CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050, but he also spent more than half of his time promoting policies designed to pay the coal industry to attempt to clean up the act of burning coal through something he called CCD.
Aside: Just in case you have not been around the policy business for very long, one of the techniques that lobbyists use when recycling failed ideas is to give it a new name. CCD is exactly the same set of technologies that has been known for years as Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS); it stands for Carbon Capture and Disposal. Based on the results of a quick search, my initial guess was that Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) might have coined this phrase itself. I thought it was even possible that Hawkins chose the new wording. As a former english teacher, he might have felt that the reason that CCS had not been well received was that the word Sequestration was too hard to explain.
After I wrote the above paragraph, I was curious so I turned back to my favorite means of feeding that curiosity addiction (Google) and found a policy analysis study titled Initial Public Perceptions of Deep Geological and Oceanic Disposal of Carbon Dioxide. You see, there really is some science involved in the NRDC’s energy policy recommendations, but the sciences chosen are not physics, chemistry and thermodynamics, they are a bit softer than that. Here is a quote from the study:
On the basis of these earlier studies, one might have anticipated that carbon separation with geological sequestration will be acceptable to the U.S. public. But the results displayed in Figure 5B, in which even (emphasis added) nuclear power ranks as a more preferred option, should be enough to give one pause, and at a minimum, suggest that the way in which the public becomes informed about this technology, the way the technology itself performs, and the way in which the public debate gets framed could dramatically shape future public perceptions.
As you might expect, especially if you are a regular here at Atomic Insights, I could not let those speakers have all of the fun, so I was standing at the audience mike before the applause stopped for the performance. It was a pretty short trip; I had somehow managed to sit right next to one of the mikes – go figure.
Here is a paraphrase of what I said: “My name is Rod Adams and I guess you could say that I write about the elephant in the room at Atomic Insights. My question is: Does the NRDC see any role for new nuclear power plants in the battle against climate change?” I then made a tactical mistake and sat back down to wait for the response.
Hawkins looked me right in the eye and started off by saying that the NRDC has two main issues with new nuclear power plants. He said that the organization is worried about nuclear proliferation. I think he got a hint from my body language because he quickly went on to explain that the organization recognized that it was a bit of a stretch to think that building new nuclear plants in the US had anything at all to do with nuclear proliferation (after all, we already own more nuclear weapons than we really know what to do with – my thoughts, not his words) but that if the US turned to a nuclear renaissance as a way to address climate change there were dozens of other countries that have already indicated their interest in nuclear technology. He pointed to Iran as an example of why the NRDC was worried about that effect.
Aside: Iran is on solid intellectual and legal ground in its assertion that it has a treaty based right to develop nuclear technology, including enrichment technology. Like Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, Egypt and Jordan, Iran also has many sound logical reasons for wanting to develop a fully capable indigenous industry while it still has a means to finance that development through oil sales. End Aside
Hawkins told the crowd that the second reason his organization does not talk about new nuclear power is that the nuclear industry is a mature industry that should be able to stand on its own and not ask for policy assistance. He boldly claimed that the industry has been receiving subsidies for more than 50 years; a fact that is demonstrably false. As he made his statements I visibly squirmed in my seat as I rapidly thought about the following:
Any subsidies that the nuclear industry received came many years ago in the early stages of technology development and deployment; nuclear plants have been operating and supplying vast quantities of electricity for more than 20 years without any subsidies.
In fact, the industry is heavily taxed. The plants throw off huge amounts of free cash flow that is taxed at the corporate rate. Nuclear plants are valuable capital assets and often represent a major portion of the local property tax base in their host communities. In addition the industry pays more than $700 million per year in NRC “fees” to support the costs of enforcing a discouraging regulatory regime and it pays another $800 million per year in waste disposal fees for a service that the government has so far refused to provide, despite contracts signed under duress more than 20 years ago with a deadline to begin the service of more than a decade ago.
Most importantly, compared to all other emission free energy sources with the exception of large hydroelectric dams, nuclear power has repaid any and all of the initial investments in its development with the valuable dividend of dependable, low production cost, low environmental impact electricity. Every year, nuclear plants in the United States produce about 35% more electricity than all of the power plants in the country did in 1957, when the very first nuclear plant began producing power. Even after decades worth of subsidies and investments in research and development, the ancient technologies of wind and solar together represent less than 1% of the country’s annual electric power consumption.
Of course, I did not have the floor, so I could not share all of those thoughts with the audience, but I could not let Hawkins make that kind of assertion without rebuttal. I again made a tactical error out of emotion and shouted out that the industry has not received any subsidies for more than 20 years. He then s
aid something about the $18.5 billion in loan guarantees that were promised by the Energy Policy Act of 2005.
What he did not say was that the loan guarantee program has not yet cost a dime – except for the cost of the bureaucrats who spent about three years trying to figure out how to implement congressional direction and have come up with a plan that resulted in applications from projects that total up to about 10 times the available authority. There is at least a 50-50 chance that the program will never result in a check being cut from the taxpayers to any part of the nuclear industry; loan guarantees often simply assist borrowers with the real, but hard to prove ability to repay a loan to cut a slightly better deal with lenders.
Perhaps my vocal, undisciplined behavior was not as bad a tactic as I initially thought. After the show was over and the other questions had been answered, I had several people come up to me and thank me for asking the questions and not backing down. I even got introduced to a new web site by the author of a book titled Global Warming: The Answer. Please go and see what Will Chandler has to say about a “revenue neutral, carbon tax”. One of the other enjoyments of the evening was meeting some bloggers and commenters like A. Siegel face to face and to engage in some spirited discussions.
All in all, it was a great evening of entertainment and interaction.