Yesterday, February 26, 2008, I had the opportunity to take a couple of hours off of my day job to attend an event sponsored by the Progressive Policy Institute titled PPI Debate: Is Atomic Energy A Cure for Climate Change?. PPI had invited four speakers, each of whom have significant credentials as Environmentalists. The slate included:
Gwyneth Cravens, author of “The Power To Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy”
Patrick Moore, Co-Chair, CASEnergy Coalition, founding member of Greenpeace
Thomas B. Cochran, Director, Nuclear Program, National Resources Defense Council
Christopher Flavin, President, Worldwatch
The event moderator was Will Marshall, the president of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).
It might be surprising to some of the more conservative Atomic Insights readers to find out that the PPI has already decided that supporting nuclear power development is now the right public policy choice for America. Here is a quote from the organization’s document titled A Progressive Energy Platform:
Expand nuclear power, which produces no greenhouse gas emissions. New plant designs can produce power more safely and economically than first-generation facilities.
It gives the audience a clue about what is going to happen when the moderator for a debate states his opinion in the introductory remarks. Of course, I am a big fan of the benefits of nuclear power, so I was not set on edge by the fact that there was no secret made of the sponsoring organization’s entering position.
During the opening remarks, Mr. Marshall asked each speaker to be “pithy”, and to try to keep comments to “5-10 minutes” to allow time for audience engagement. The event started reasonably promptly so the first speaker, Patrick Moore began talking at about 9:40. He made some very good comments, but anyone who has been reading his work over the past few months in op-ed pages in various newspapers around the country would recognize each one of his points. He finished speaking at about 10:05. Gwyneth Cravens was the next speaker and she shared some of the more eye opening experiences of her several year long voyage of discovery about nuclear energy. Her talk lasted until about 10:35. Neither Patrick Moore or Gwyneth Cravens used the available projector for visual aids.
Thomas Cochran spoke next and made a comment about trying to actually follow the time guidance so that there might be time for questions from the audience. Since I was kind of squirming in my seat by that time, I had to agree with him. Mr. Cochran’s organization has a fairly nuanced position regarding the use of nuclear energy. It acknowledges that the currently operating plants are providing good service with moderate operating costs, low emissions and an excellent safety record. He is adamant, however, that there is no good reason for the US taxpayers to subsidize companies like Exelon, whose president made more than $11 million dollars last year, GE, Hitachi, Westinghouse, or Areva – which is almost 100% owned by the French government.
He provide a list of policies that he considered to be industry subsidies. I disagree with the often repeated notion that loan guarantees and Price Anderson insurance qualify, since they have not cost taxpayers any money. However, there were other items on the list that have transfered money directly from the federal budget into the hands of some very large and prosperous corporations whose executives live in a world that most of the suppliers of those funds can only dream about. Some examples of these real transfers of wealth include DOE sponsored early site permitting processes, and DOE sponsored design license processes for third generation reactors. It is possible to find the costs of those programs as items in the Department of Energy budgets over the years and to find the asset produced by those programs on the balance sheet of the receiving corporations.
That is my definition of a subsidy, where money flows directly from taxpayer supplied government funds to an entity that can then use those funds to become richer. One of the things that I learned about money a very long time ago was that “money is fungible”. That means that it can be used for any purpose once it moves from one pot to another. When money moves from the government into private hands real wealth gets transferred.
Don’t get me wrong – I have been cashing government checks (actually I am on direct deposit) for a long time. Taxpayers have generously provided me with the resources (time and money) required to get a good education and they have also supported the educations of both of my daughters. I am forever grateful for the opportunity to serve. I hope my bosses would agree that I have worked hard and provided value back. I am not a rich man by American standards, but my salary allows a comfortable way of life.
I have spent enough time on a factory floor, in ship engine rooms, and on college campuses to recognize, however, that there are a whole lot of Americans who pay taxes that are painful enough to affect their choice of housing, meals, and health care with the hope that they will be fairly distributed and wisely used. I am positive that most cannot even imagine how many hundreds of millions of dollars of their money has been put into private hands that live in mansions and fly on company aircraft. I find it difficult to swallow the position that the NEI takes on subsidies – they repeatedly claim that all energy sources are subsidized and that they are simply asking for their share to make the playing field level.
I liked Mr. Cochran’s suggested policy – stop providing subsidies to established energy producers and start charging for the service of allowing them to discharge their waste products into the atmosphere. Yes, air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions taxes will raise prices, but if they are applied based on the quantity of emissions, they will level the playing field to allow better technologies to more fairly compete. Those emissions are causing real damage to the world that we all share, but the damage certainly varies from plant to plant. There should be penalties for being a public hazard, not massive rewards for being somewhat less of a hazard.
Mr. Cochran did allow that there are some legitimate areas for subsidies, like early stages of R&D.
Though we agree on how subsidies should be directed, the NRDC and I substantially different views of the actual danger of nuclear proliferation, and the health effects of low level radiation. Mr. Cochran implied that making a bomb from used reactor fuel is pretty easy (it is not), and fully accepted the notion of computing hazards of radiation exposure by applying “collective dose” computations. (Collective dose computations for low levels of exposure are simply wrong and have no basis in science.)
Mr. Flavin of Worldwatch gave a talk that used carefully chosen graphs to present a completely unrealistic view of the world energy markets and the prospects for various technologies in the future. His graphs confused nameplate capacity with power production, assumed that growth that has never happened for established technologies like wind and solar is right around the corner, assumed that the kind of growth that actually occurred for nuclear power in the 1960s-1980s can never happen again, stated that there is little chance of even keeping nuclear’s contribution level, and assumed that there was a solution for the electricity storage problem that currently limits the growth of intermittent sources. It is pretty obvious that Worldwatch is an adherent to the pie in the sky energy policies advocated by
Amory Lovins and fully supported by the natural gas industry.
After all of the speakers were finished, there was a time for “rebuttals”. By the time that the moderator opened up the floor for questions, there was less than 15 minutes remaining on the clock and only time for three questions from the floor.
I collared Mr. Flavin after the panel was dismissed – there were too many people between me and the other speakers. I asked Mr. Falvin what he would think of distributed nuclear generation since his talk portrayed a vision of an America with a new kind of distributed energy production system that did not rely on centralized power stations. I told him how I had operating small nuclear power plants right in the downtown area of Fort Lauderdale and how similar power plants continue to operate in major cities all over the world. He told me he did not think that the public would accept such plants. I am not sure that he understood that I had just told him that the public already accepts such plants.
I challenged his statements about wind and solar by talking about just how much land they would require. He showed me a couple of pictures from a booklet produced by his organization.
One had a map of the US with a large orange dot in North Dakota. He said that represented the land that would be required to host enough windmills to provide all of the electricity needed by the entire US. I asked him to show me the lines that represented the transmission system required to move all of that power. He did not like the question. He also showed me a picture that had a similar dot that covered part of Arizona, New Mexico and southern California. I asked the same question and then asked where the batteries were that provided the power at night. Again, he did not like the question.
My opportunity for personal engagement on energy did not end there. As I headed back up Massachusetts Ave to the Dupont Circle metro station, I saw three Greenpeace canvassers. We had an entertaining discussion about the value of wind and solar power – it happened to be a very still, overcast, rainy DC day. That was kind of fun, especially when I provided them each an Adams Atomic Engines, Inc. business card.