On April 28, 2011, Roland Kupers, a former Royal Dutch Shell executive and current visiting fellow at Oxford University, published an opinion piece titled The end of nuclear power that exposed his dislike of nuclear energy. Here is an example quote from that piece:
That dream always contained the seeds of a nightmare. While the risk that nuclear power could fuel nuclear proliferation seems to have receded as a cause of public angst, by many accounts we have simply been lucky so far: the larger the nuclear economy becomes, the higher the chances of a mistake. Even in the absence of proliferation risks, leaving dangerous trash for future generations is morally dubious. We would judge Alexander the Great differently if his conquests had left a toxic legacy that we were still living with today.
Most advocates of nuclear energy now endorse solar and wind, but in the same breath claim that renewables alone simply are not a practicable solution for the necessary reduction of carbon emissions. Every day brings another editorial arguing that nuclear energy is fundamental to a decarbonized power system. But is it really true that a renewable power system is impossible?
Of course a renewable power system is “possible”. That is what humans had before they discovered fire and began building cities. I do not want to go back to that primitive lifestyle and I do not want the massive population reduction that would be required to allow it.
I am pretty sure that Mr. Kupers knows enough about human nature to realize that no one else wants that end result either. An effort to slow nuclear fission development leaves just one choice – burning more fossil fuels. That is a profitable choice for his personal portfolio, which I am fairly confident would still contain a significant investment in the stock of his former employer.
One of the interesting parts of Kuper’s pieces is his assertion that nuclear power plant prices have increased ninefold since 1970. What he hopes that his readers will not think about is the fact that a barrel of oil could be purchased for less than $3 in 1970. Even when you adjust for inflation, I am pretty sure that todays price is a bit more than nine times higher.
Rarely is there such a clear example supporting my theory that the strength behind the antinuclear movement comes from established energy interests whose wealth and power is threatened by the prospect of competition from a clean, concentrated, abundant, and affordable source of power. It is really hard to compete on any objective measures against something that is 2 million times more energy dense, produces so few emissions that it can run inside a sealed building, and is able to be purchased for 57 cents per million BTU when your product costs $4 to $20 per million BTU.
However, most fossil fuel folks are pretty cagy about their fear of competition from nuclear and couch it in “damning with faint praise language” that talks about maintaining current nuclear supply, with the distant future potential of improved nuclear systems that do not compete against current sales.
Like Kupers, fossil fuel pushers often talk a good game about using wind, solar and biomass energy sources, so they sound like they are willing to work towards a cleaner, utopian future. However, wind and solar, despite many decades worth of extensive encouragement, aggressive research programs and direct subsidies have not been able to overcome fundamental disadvantages. They are still diffuse and weather dependent, meaning that they require large, expensive collection facilities that are idle much of the time. Because their power output is unreliable, they put a huge burden on the grid that negates the value of any power that they produce and they require other generators to run inefficiently so they can fill in the gaps.
As Robert F. Kennedy Jr. told the Colorado Oil and Gas Association last summer, large wind and solar projects are really just natural gas projects with a good cover story and excellent marketing. (Actually, his words were a little different, but he did say that “wind plants and solar plants are gas plants”.)
Thanks to Robert for the link.