During the ECO:nomics Conference held in Santa Barbara, CA April 6-8 2016, the Wall Street Journal’s Russell Gold Michael Brune peppered Sierra Club’s Executive Director with direct questions about his organization’s current and potential position vis a vis nuclear energy and climate change.
Brune’s dismissive responses insulted the thousands of hard-working people who have been devoting their lives to pushing enabling legislation, designing improved nuclear power plants, improving public acceptance, forming new support groups, investing in innovative project teams and creating a renewed, well-informed discussion about the value of nuclear energy as a tool for solving some of the world’s most wicked problems.
TRANSCRIPT OF ABOVE VIDEO:
Russell Gold: I did want to ask you, because there is a source of clean energy out there. It’s been around for fifty years, more. It’s baseload, it can be very large and yet, the Sierra Club…
Michael Brune: (Interrupting) We support geothermal
Gold: (Laughter) Well played. No. I’m going to ask you about nuclear. Because the Sierra Club has said for many years that it is unequivocally opposed opposed to nuclear. But folks like Jim Hansen, Stewart Brand, as you know, have changed their… not just they’ve changed their mind, but they’ve come out quite publicly recently, talking about the need… What do you stand on that? Why can’t you support nuclear? I mean if climate is the defining issue of our time, it should be a no brainer.
Brune: Nuclear power doesn’t need our support. It needs a lot more that what the Sierra Club would say. We’re opposed to nuclear… The Sierra Club has been opposed to nuclear power since the late 60s for concerns about safety, storage of radioactive waste, etc.
If there was an actual debate about nuclear power in this country that was a serious one, if you had financiers who were really going to put serious money behind nuclear power, then it would be a different question. It’s not an active question.
There’s the Vogtle plant
Gold: We’re building a nuclear plant right now…
Brune: That’s one. Maybe two, perhaps there will be three or four. We can focus the national debate on a couple of units if that is useful, but honestly there is not a serious proposal, particularly in the US to scale up nuclear power in any way that would make a big difference.
Gold: If you came out on stage tonight and said, for climate reasons, I support nuclear, we should build more nuclear plants, what would happen? What would your members do? Do you think you’d continue on as Executive Director for much longer?
Brune: Uhh… Well, I wouldn’t do it, so it’s, it’s…
Gold: Well, that’s my way of asking. You’re a grassroots organization. You depend on your members. Is that a step too far? I guess what I’m asking is it a step too far to ask the Sierra Club to support nuclear? And does that influence your decision at all?
Brune: No. I respect what our members believe and of course, you know, I enjoy my job and I’m not going to throw it away. But I’m not going to agree that nuclear power, the expansion of nuclear power is a real, pragmatic, serious solution.
Gold: What about keeping plants open?
Brune: That’s a different question.
Gold: Okay, there it is.
Brune: So to talk about that, that is something that we’re wrestling with right now.
Gold: The Sierra Club as an organization?
Brune: A proposal here in California. We’ve already taken off the San Onofre natural gas plant [sic]
Gold: Diablo Canyon
Brune: Diablo Canyon is up for discussion right now. If…
Gold: Where do you think the Sierra Club is going to come down on that? Where do you come down on it?
Brune: Well this is what we’re… We’re trying to figure this out right now.
Gold: So what about you? You’re the leader. Can you give us any sense as to where you’re coming down on it?
Brune: I would like to see nuclear plants come off line, in California or elsewhere, right at the earliest point at which solar, wind, efficiency, renewables, clean energy can fill in. I would not want to see…
Gold: Are we there yet?
Brune: Any significant expansion of gas in order to fill behind nuclear power.
Brune: So, we made an argument when San Onofre came off line, on an accelerated timeline that we in an ideal world would have benefitted from, that we were arguing for… We advocated quite strenuously with Southern California Edison and others to show how, particularly using storage and demand response, as well as solar and a little bit of wind that we didn’t need the major build out of gas.
So we think the technology is there. Southern California Edison’s own studies showed that those technologies for which we were advocating came in at a lower cost than new gas, but we weren’t able to win the policy…
(Emphasis in original discussion.)
It’s a well worn technique among people who believe they hold a powerful — but logically shaky — position to attempt to avoid engagement by asserting there is no argument or by dismissing their opponents as not being serious or pragmatic. That is a very difficult argument to make against companies like Southern Company, Scana, Westinghouse, and Fluor. It is also difficult to make against individuals like James Hansen, Bill Gates, Michael Shellenberger, Rachel Pritzker, President Obama, Tom Fanning, Danny Roderick, Jack Devanny, Bob Hargraves, Simon Irish, Jose Reyes or Robert Stone.
I’m not sure where Brune has been for the past dozen or so years as the national discussion about nuclear energy, especially as an ultra-low emission, proven technology has continued at both the highest and lowest levels of government, NGOs and private industry. Perhaps he missed the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and the continuing debates on this year’s update to that act. Perhaps he missed the White House Summit on Advanced Nuclear Energy.
He’s far too modest about the potential influence of his venerable organization on the national debate. I’ve been pitching nuclear energy technology to potential investors since the early 1990s. There is plenty of interest, but also very legitimate concerns about cost and schedule uncertainties. Many of those uncertainties have been imposed on the technology as a result of public wariness and pressure from competitors to impose as many extra costs as possible.
Every “crisis”, even those with only tangential relationship to nuclear energy, is seized as an excuse for regulatory ratcheting, leadership distraction and schedule delays.
There is indisputable evidence supporting the assertion that nuclear plant construction is a financially risky proposition that is currently only possible under state utility commission regulatory regimes that credit long term planning, system reliability and fuel diversity as factors that can overcome certain cost disadvantages.
However, uncompetitive cost did not prevent the Sierra Club from strong advocacy for wind and solar energy, even though both of those diffuse and unreliable sources of power require industrialization of the remote and pristine areas that the Club’s founders and thought leaders — like Ansel Adams — wanted to protect.
Active advocacy from groups like the Sierra Club enabled the wind and solar industries to make the cost-saving improvements in production, supply chain management, and distribution that are always possible during the early and mid stages of ramping up a new product line. It could do the same for nuclear technology.
I’ve been in and around nuclear energy technology since 1981 and writing about it since 1995. I’ve visited a lot of facilities, talked to a lot of people and been a member of a number of teams. There is no doubt there there are enormous opportunities for cost-reducing efficiency gains.
Our ability to capture those efficiencies would be greatly assisted by the strong political and rhetorical support of pragmatic, rational, serious environmentalists that actually prioritize clean air, clean water, resource conservation for future generations and open spaces.