Sierra Club’s Michael Brune Offers Lousy Excuses About Nuclear Energy Position
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.
For years the Sierra Club advocated policies that would restrain the growth of population. A hedge fund billionaire made a substantial donation to the Sierra Club if they would reject a measure that would restrict immigration. They did. So who else has bought them off?
What would be an interesting figure is subsidies$$/MW for CO2 free power by fuel source. (solar, wind, hydro, nuclear)_
The solar and wind figures would also need corrected based on needing backed up (i.e. capacity factor).
I’m not a big fan of subsidies in general but if we wish to encourage CO2 free generation then we should reward based on production and efficiency.
You would think environmentalists would be for rewarding the largest and highest efficiency producer of CO2 free generation. Because that is the goal isn’t it? Reducing CO2/Watt?
Many promoters of wind, solar and gas that fly under the green banner of “Environmentalists”, believe that only inferior energy sources deserve subsidies. The superior sources should be able to succeed without help. They are redistributionists that believe all energy sources should be equally profitable, even the ones that simply cannot cut it.
However, sarcasm aside, the Energy Information Agency is a reliable source for historical statistics. (I’m not a fan of their ability to predict the future.)
“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”
– Yogi Berra
The irony is that the Sierra Club’s original motto was “Atoms Not Dams”.
Its anti-nuclear position was purchased. The directors and management are, for all intents and purposes, whoring the organization’s name and membership out.
Notably, Sierra Club funding comes from the Turner Foundation which is funded by Ted Turner and the Tides Foundation which is funded by George Soros.
They are just not going to be pro-nuclear.
Rob, I see no special evidence that Turner and Soros are even quietly anti-nuclear. In fact I see little evidence that they are strongly committed in either direction on the question.
If you are arguing they are anti-nuclear because of what the Sierra Club does, I’d have to give a yellow card for circular reasoning.
Ted Turner has long been campaigning against nuclear weapons and was one of the founders of the Nuclear Threat Initiative along with Sam Nunn. I don’t think either of those is evidence that he is opposed to nuclear energy. However, he was married for a number of years to Jane Fonda, one of the more vocal antinuclear activists and he supported her efforts.
For a while in the mid 2000s, he began to make some positive comments about nuclear energy, but after Fukushima, he joined the “it’s too expensive” camp.
An article in a major newspaper that actually states:
For the first time in five years, power plants across New England are producing more carbon emissions, dealing a setback to Massachusetts’ legally mandated efforts to reduce greenhouse gases and raising concerns that reduced production of nuclear energy will undercut environmental gains.
“We are over-dependent on natural gas for power in New England,” said Caitlin Peale Sloan, a staff attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation. “Natural gas is no longer a part of the solution in the fight against carbon emissions in New England, but part of the problem.”
Unless the playing field is leveled regarding subsidies I think 2016 will be a bad year for the operating fleet..
Fort Calhoun is virtually gone. Clinton and Quad Cities are on life support. If nuclear was given even a fraction of he credit that wind/solar get there would not be issues with the operating plants.
It certainly looks like the tide is beginning to turn. The man looked like a politician in a boxing match dancing against the ropes. Since windmills and solar can only yield a partial solution to today’s greenhouse gas problem, one of these big environmental / nature organizations is bound to go pro nuclear.
The members of these organizations are generally intelligent thoughtful people. I wonder if any of them are starting to pressure the positions of their organizations to change.
I wonder how John Muir would have reacted to wind turbines as far as the eye can see.
The Izaak Walton League has already started to move.
In their last national convention, they approved a resolution
favoring research into new nuclear, a major break from past policy.
Staff strongly opposed and succeded in watering down the
original resolution which simply supported new nuclear.
But when the resolution finally got to the floor, it passed 9:1.
The IWL are conservationists who tend to be hunters (gasp)
and fishermen who want their kids and grandkids to have
the same opportunities they have had to enjoy the wilderness.
The resolution was basically the work of one concerned man, Dave Zieverink.
He studied up on nuclear, came to the obvious conclusion,
and because he had the trust and respect of the other members
was able to go around the misnamed professionals.
Staff are politicians primarily interested intheir jobs.
You have to target the members, and you have to do it
with somebody they already know and trust.
Yes, I’m an IWL member and I noticed that too.
It’s an encouraging sign. Personally, I believe that it’s better to support conservation groups such as IWL than “environmental” groups (really, pseudo-environmental groups full of old hippies) like the Sierra Club.
“(really, pseudo-environmental groups full of old hippies)”
Yes, the planet is populated by small little niches of stereotypical members, all consigned to their various roles by the master minds such as Brian. Liberals, anti-semites, lefties, greens, democrats, etc., all perfectly placed in their roles, similiar in every respect to the other members in their niche.
I can’t help but wonder, in such a world, why a herd of jackasses consists of a myriad of different colors. I wonder, when Brian goes to work, do all his co-workers have dark hair?
Rod….when you specifically criticise someone, such as on this thread, do you ever invite them to comment? A disappointment here, at least for me, is that these people don’t engage, offer rebuttals. I tend to believe that you’d welcome rebuttals, engagement. Have you ever thought that perhaps the way some of the participants here respond to people like Brune is part of the reason for their reluctance?
I often ask and they sometimes participate. Long time readers will remember some lengthy engagements with Ben Sovacool, Peter Bradford, Amory Lovins and Jerry Taylor, to name a few off of the top of my head.
In other cases, where I do not have good contact information or I simply forget, I depend on “vanity searches” by the individual or their staff to suggest that their participation might be beneficial.
As we have discussed many times, I am not responsible for the way that other people comment, although I will delete abusive comments once I have found them. This comment section does not have automatic moderation, though there are a few filters that will put some comments into a moderation queue.
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.
This is the most damning example of the illogicality of most mainstream “environmentalists”, renewables should be being used to displace fossil fuels first – get the CO2 emissions down as fast as possible.
There’s either a deficit of brains or a lack of backbone at the top of the Sierra Club.
The problem is laymen making judgments on technical issues. Engineers and scientists think its obvious that low power density intermittent sources of generation cannot replace high power density reliable generation. It’s not to the laymen.
Its just not the Sierra club its the electorate in general. Folks make idiotic statements but their idiocy is not pointed out. And politicians follow the idiocy of the electorate. Thus you have solar/wind being subsidized in the name of CO2 prevention but not nuclear or hydro for that matter.
Unfortunately renewable subsidies push nuclear to the economic edge and once facilities are closed natural gas and higher CO2 emissions ensue. The article I linked in a post above was one of the first I’ve seen where this is pointed out in the mainstream media.
It will be up to the states to level the playing field. It seemingly is a non-issue for Hillary, Trump or congress at the moment.
@ Jim Doyle
You are quite right Jim. The general public’s awareness of the challenges of reducing CO2 emissions is woefully misguided. Much of the media coverage claims to provide balanced views of the technologies available to address the challenges.
Although the article you linked does factually state the increased emissions resulting in a significant measure to the closure of Vermont Yankee, the author takes no strong position in support of sustaining existing nuclear facilities or providing a level playing field for low carbon technologies. Rather, it merely states that Massachusetts will need to import a greater quantity of electricity from renewable sources if it hopes to attain its emissions reduction targets.
Perhaps, efforts by organizations such as the Breakthrough Institute, Third Way and the Nuclear Innovation Alliance (itself headquartered in Cambridge, MA) and Nuclear Matters will slowly have an effect on media coverage through their advocacy of Nuclear Power.
Kudos to the Wall Street Journal’s Russell Gold as he made a valiant attempt, though unsuccessfully, to get Michael Brune to concede that Nuclear has a role. As Eino points out, you will not achieve change from the leadership of “Environmental Organizations”, it will derive from the membership (bottom-up) becoming informed, if it ever happens.
It’s a good point, but the merits of low-density vs. high density power sources is at least a step above the basic point I was making – why not dispace fossil fuels first?
Perhaps the problems are with the people appearing in front of the media: they have no visible background in science or engineering: Russel Gold has a degree in History, Michael Brune one in Economics and Finance.
Another problem is that the mainstream reporters (note mainstream, there are some “beat” reporters who are better) in the media are for the most part incredibly lazy. They’ll take statements from people like Brune without questioning or even making an effort to validate them or find an alternate viewpoint. That is why the public by and large thinks its no problem to simply swap on a one for one basis a windfarm for a nuclear plant. You start talking about things like intermittency and capacity factors and their eyes glaze over, and they just fall back on what they’ve heard from reporters parroting people like Brune. How do you cure laziness? We don’t face pushback so much as inertia. There is a huge inertial block of ignorance that I and others have spent a lifetime chipping away at and the mountain is still there.
My interactions with mainstream Americans, defined as those people that live outside of bubbles like the DC beltway, the SF Bay area, and Manhattan, is that they all recognize that the weather changes all the time. They immediately grasp the notion that depending on the wind and sun to power their refrigerator, HVAC unit, television, vacuum cleaner and even their electric car charger is a really bad idea.
They also have plenty of experience with the tension that comes from a battery charge level that drops precipitously, even if that experience is limited to their cell phone or tablet. They get it immediately when I pose the question “If battery technology solves the problem of providing power at night when the wind isn’t blowing, why can’t my state of the art phone make it through a work day.”
Rod….to call SF a “bubble”, where the people residing there are not “mainstream” , telegraphs a deep lack of knowledge about the demographics in the state of California. I would dare say the liberalism that SF is known for is the prevalent mindset in California. If in fact there is are “bubbles”in the state, that differ from the “mainstream”, it would be areas such as Bakersfield or Fresno where staunch conservatism still has a tenuous, but lingering foothold.
Since arriving here I have given much thought to this premise and perception that the left is much more “anti” than the right. In some ways, it is impossible for me to disagree. But in agreeing to this premise it begs the question..”why”. And if the science presented here is sound, the two possibilitiez present themselves; One, that those people holding a liberal mindset are simply in denial, have been exposed to the sound science, and have chosen to reject it. Or, two, they have been exposed to a less than sound mis-representation of the science, and because of no countering argument, have accepted the deception as fact.
So…how does this dynamic within the liberal community become reversed? By treating all liberals as adversaries, greenies, antis, and idiots, as seems to be the favored technique by a few of the commentors here? Or, by speaking in as loud a voice or louder, than those peddling the FUD, in an attempt to replace false information with facts?
Theres where the Catch 22 kicks in. The opposing faction, those conservatives belittling and insulting the left, is the very faction that stands to gain by maintaining our dependence on fossil fuel. Who can deny that the right is joined at the hip with the oil industry? So who is left to put the correct science in the minds of the left? Those mimicking the insulting and adversarial approach favored by some here? Those that seek to maintain and perpetuate this divisive “right versus left” mindset that is bringing our nation to its knees?
I don’t envy you, some of your best friends are your worst enemies.
Until we counter the nonsense in Mark Jacobson’s Solutions Project, with a science-based path towards compliance with EPA Clean Power Plan and California AB 32 emission mandates, these “lousy discussions” will continue…
http://instituteforenergyresearch.org/analysis/eia-forecast-fossil-fuels-remain-dominant-through-2040/, https://www.epa.gov/cleanpowerplan/fact-sheet-clean-power-plan-opportunities-nuclear-power, http://thesolutionsproject.org.
If we focus our Climate Change discussions on GGE mandates, significant increases in nuclear power production will clearly be the only option for timely compliance. It’s the law, which can be enforced through the courts, and could finally help focus the public on the only timely path towards lifting billions our of poverty, and stopping the annual deaths of tens of millions from energy poverty and air pollution.
Have those proposing Geothermal looked into the problems associated with its use – in depth. Sacramento Municipal Utility District has (had/) a geothermal plant. SMUDGEO Google comes up with lots of history and pre-construction Environmental stuff, but not much else. Thus not sure if it is still in operation. Did find out that they are building another though. When I worked there it was considered a PITA. The impurities in the geothermally heated steam were bad news to the turbine, greatly shortening its life. The off gas was worse than planed for and would not be allowed to be discharged at any coal or even gas power plant. Even with water separators on the steam the water carry over and the particulates were lake a sandblaster. Worse than the caustic/acidic (forget which) eating away at the piping, separators and turbine. The steam purity must be different, better, for this one, perhaps because it is in a different location.
Does the Sierra Club really support geothermal power — specifically enhanced geothermal power. I have seen very little actual support from Greens for it.
More news about Ivanpah. Fire destroyed a tower.
And they are building another?
Read the above link and then you will understand why the Heliostats must have power 24/7/365 whether they plant is generating power or not. Assuming these Heliostats draw about 10 watts an hour there is another 2,436,510 watts times 173,500 heliostats = 42,273,448,500 watts of power wasted, (and that is an extremely low estimate. I have searched the internet and can not fins the actual power draw of each heliostat.)
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