Entries Tagged as 'environment'

NH GOP Splinters in Climate Fight

April 7th, 2011 at 5:24 pm 18 Comments

Andrew Jackson once noted that one man with courage makes a majority. In New Hampshire, one woman could do the same.

Republican State Senator Nancy Stiles is fighting to preserve New Hampshire’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multistate effort to cut down on carbon emissions. Since joining RGGI in 2008, New Hampshire has become a model of energy efficiency in the Northeast: according to RGGI.org, proceeds from the initiative “are projected to reduce consumer energy costs by $60.6 million over the lifetime of the installed measures.”

However, last week the Republican-led New Hampshire House voted to abandon its commitment to RGGI, due to what one Republican legislator called the “shaky climate science” that supposedly led New Hampshire to join the effort. In other words, because some members of the New Hampshire House want to pretend scientific facts don’t exist, the entire state must suffer.

Luckily, Sen. Stiles isn’t willing to throw away New Hampshire’s commitment to fighting carbon pollution. She says she prefers to revise certain RGGI requirements rather than walk away from them. It’s a common-sense statement—but considering the political environment she’s in, it’s one that requires tremendous courage.

Already, a libertarian outfit plans to apply pressure on the state Senate by running ads labeling RGGI a “cap and trade scheme.” The folks who put these ads together seem to have forgotten that it was a Republican, C. Boyden Gray, who originally came up with cap-and-trade as a means of limiting sulfur dioxide emissions. The “scheme” worked to reduce pollution then, and what these libertarians call a “scheme” is working now for the people of New Hampshire. That’s a truth Sen. Stiles recognizes.

What we are seeing in New Hampshire is a proverbial conflict of visions, a fight between an old-school Republican who remains true to the party’s wrongfully abandoned conservationist legacy and new-school Republicans who believe private industries have a divine right to pollute. This fight pits sensible conservatism against misguided libertarianism—and sensible conservatism has to win.

As New Hampshire resident Jim Grady recently noted, “What RGGI’s cap-and-trade revenue generation actually amounts to is a tiny tax on all — with all getting the benefit. The RGGI law requires the majority of its revenue to be invested back into our state to help reduce aggregate demand for electricity. This works for all of us because the price of electricity tends to decrease when we decrease our need for it.” Sounds pretty reasonable, no?

Sen. Stiles is behaving with absolute moral courage in her effort to maintain New Hampshire’s involvement in RGGI. She recognizes that the initiative is, if not perfect, than the least imperfect way to address the threat posed by excessive carbon emissions. She understands that caving in to the demands of hardcore libertarians could have catastrophic effects decades from now. She sees that the push for “limited government” ought not to be a suicide pact.

Yes, the opponents of RGGI believe that New Hampshire must abandon this commitment in the name of “limited government.” I respect their passion, but they are passionately wrong. Sometimes, government can be too limited—so limited that it doesn’t take necessary action to protect the health of human beings and the environment in which they live, so limited that it doesn’t make the strategic investments to benefit the economy, so limited that it ignores clear and present dangers to our ecology.

Sen. Stiles is cut from that old-school Republican cloth, the kind Teddy Roosevelt was cut from. It’s a vision that says capitalism cannot function if the capitalist doesn’t have clean air to breathe. It’s a vision that says no industry has a constitutional right to pollute. It’s a vision that is, in the truest and purest sense of the word, pro-life.

I have no idea which side will win in New Hampshire. The new-school vision—the one that rejects climate science as some vast left-wing conspiracy, the one that turns a blind eye to the dangers of pollution, the one that spits upon those who believe that conservation is conservative—is prosperous, pugnacious and powerful. Yet it is not right, not on this issue.

Best of luck to Sen. Stiles in her fight—and give me that old-school vision any day of the week.


Don’t Bank Our Future on Oil We May Not Have

April 5th, 2011 at 8:02 am 13 Comments

Over the weekend, salve I noticed that an op-ed in Investor’s Business Daily took me to task for citing “proven” oil reserves in my FrumForum post, The GOP’s Oil Drilling Pipe Dream.

The author, an economics professor at George Mason University (GMU) named Donald Boudreaux, makes the case that government estimates of “proven” or “proved” reserves are irrelevant because the estimates of “unproven” reserves are so much higher.

Different agencies and groups have slightly varying definitions of “proved” reserves, but the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) sums it up nicely:

Proved reserves are those quantities of petroleum which, by analysis of geological and engineering data, can be estimated with a high degree of confidence to be commercially recoverable from a given date forward, from known reservoirs and under current economic conditions.

Estimates of “unproven” reserves mostly refer to “undiscovered, technically recoverable oil.” In other words, oil that geologists estimate might be in the ground and recoverable using existing or reasonably foreseeable technology. Such estimates are intriguing, but too speculative to take to the bank. They do not take into account the quality of the oil that might be there or the economic profitability of production.

Such numbers can change as we learn more. For example, while the United States Geological Survey (USGS) has dramatically increased its mean estimate of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil in North Dakota and Montana’s Bakken Formation from 151 million barrels to 3.65 billion barrels, the same agency recently revised comparable estimates for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPRA) downward from 10.6 billion barrels to 896 million barrels—roughly 10 percent of its 2002 estimate.

Considering that the U.S. currently consumes roughly 7 billion barrels of oil per year, the notion that we can bank our energy future on unproven reserve estimates represents little more than an imprudent roll of the dice.

Then, of course, there is economics. A significant fraction of undiscovered oil reserves, assuming that they really exist, are in remote locations and consist of heavy oil, both of which are not profitable to produce if prices are low. How high does the price of a barrel of oil need to be before this oil could be economically produced? Is it $100 per barrel? $150 per barrel? We are not talking about cheap or easy oil.

Cheap and easy oil, to the extent that it remains, is mostly located outside of the United States.

Anyone who claims that unproven reserves are the answer to high gas prices is either uninformed or trying to hoodwink the public.

Mr. Bourdreaux, echoing a common refrain of petro-peddlers like Sarah Palin and Congressman Joe Barton (R-TX), contends that government restrictions are the only thing preventing our nation from producing all of the oil we could ever need.

It is a claim driven far more by special interests and political agendas than by anything approximating reality.

Unproven reserves are just that, unproven.

While the amount of proven reserves will fluctuate based on the price of oil, new discoveries, and technological advancements, the current proven reserves estimates remain the most prudent guide for making decisions about our energy future—along with the knowledge that oil is a finite resource.

In addition to being more certain, proven reserve numbers exist for all of the major oil producing countries.  We can see how we compare with other nations and better assess our economic and strategic vulnerabilities. That is not the case for unproven reserves.

In making policy decisions, we must evaluate  the risks of perpetuating dependence on oil and exposing our economy and security to price spikes and supply uncertainties caused by events over which we have little control.

Mr. Bourdreaux teaches at GMU, whose team nickname is the Patriots. I think that true patriotism requires us to pin our country’s energy future on something more reliable than unproven reserves.


Obama Energy Plan Won’t End Our Oil Addiction

March 31st, 2011 at 11:55 pm 55 Comments

Cutting oil imports by one-third, as President Obama proposed, is a fine goal. The biggest energy security problem we face, however, is not dependence on imported oil. It’s dependence on oil, period.

Oil dependence is a strategic liability because oil is traded in a globally integrated market, where events over which the U.S. has little or no control – rising demand in Asia, civil commotion in dysfunctional petro-states – can roil the market and drive up prices.

Sure, we could import more oil from those nice Canadians and hand over our public lands and territorial seas to oil producers. For anyone who believes Doc Hastings’ rhetoric that doing so would translate automatically into lower gasoline prices and less vulnerability to OPEC machinations, we’d be happy to mail you a prospectus about buying Brooklyn Bridge time shares.

The problem is that the U.S. is not an island unto itself. Oil produced here would enter a global pool for purposes of price setting. Further, we consume 25 percent of global production – which is three times what we produce – and hold only a 2 percent share of global reserves. U.S. dependence on the world market wouldn’t go away even if Congress acceded to every item on the American Petroleum Institute’s wish list.

In the years ahead, as a 2010 research brief from Resources for the Future pointed out, the oil market will be influenced by trends with worrisome implications for energy security – rising energy demand in Asia, more production from OPEC, more control over oil by national oil companies serving political as well as economic agendas, and longer, more vulnerable supply lines bringing in oil from costly, difficult production areas in the remote Arctic and in deepwater.

In March 17 testimony before the House Natural Resources Committee, Energy Information Administration chief Richard Newell tried to insert a few facts through the ideological filters that most members of that committee have stuffed into their ears.

“Long term, we do not project additional volumes of oil that could flow from greater access to oil resources on federal lands to have a large impact on prices given the globally integrated nature of the world oil market and the more significant long-term compared to short-term responsiveness of oil demand and supply to price movements.”

There is another thing to consider, Newell told the committee. Given the outsize importance of OPEC oil in the supply-demand equation, “another key issue is how OPEC production would respond to any increase in non-OPEC supply, potentially offsetting any direct price effect.”

In other words, if the U.S. insists on speeding up depletion of its 2 percent share of global oil reserves in a vain attempt to drive down prices, the House of Saud could dial back the valves to ensure that prices stay within the Goldilocks range that serves the kingdom’s interests – not too low, so the regime has enough money to smother domestic discontent with fiscal largesse, and not too high, so that the U.S. and other addicts in the shooting gallery don’t get uppity ideas about aggressively expanding use of oil alternatives.

Getting out of the oil dependence pickle will not happen overnight, on Obama’s watch, or on that of his successor. We would start moving in the right direction, however, if Congress were less interested in partisan games and more interested in seeking out energy policy agreements that both sides could live with.

Yes, more domestic oil production without giving the store away to oil producers would help a bit, but we’ll need tighter fuel efficiency standards and adequate funding for R&D into fuel and motive technologies that could compete with oil.

Someday, Congress might be willing to have a rational discussion about a revenue-neutral carbon tax. If and when that day comes, we’ll be closer to solving the energy security riddle.


How America Lost the Green Tech Race

March 31st, 2011 at 5:18 am 14 Comments

The good news from the latest Pew Charitable Trusts and Bloomberg New Energy Finance clean energy investment report is that the sector shook off the recession blues in 2010. Investment in wind, generic solar, and other clean energy technologies grew 30 percent, to nearly a quarter trillion dollars, last year. The bad news is that the U.S. – the land of innovators and entrepreneurs where the modern energy economy took shape – fell from second to third place, behind top dog China and runner-up Germany.

We’re Number 3! No surprise why we’re getting that sinking feeling. Congress – wallowing in a noxious mud pit of overwrought ideology, destructive partisanship, and scientific illiteracy – is sending investors a clear message: the U.S. doesn’t have a coherent energy strategy and don’t bet on seeing one anytime soon.

Instead, Republicans would rather spend time searching for the chimera of energy independence through increased domestic oil drilling, bashing EPA, and rehashing climate science for the umpteenth time. Democrats would rather play to type, run scared, and let teacup-rattling troglodytes set the terms of the debate.

As the Pew-Bloomberg report noted: “Investors have noted ongoing uncertainty in United States policy as a key reason that capital is sitting on the sidelines, or looking for certainty and opportunity abroad. Concerns include a lack of clarity on the direction of energy policy, uncertainty surrounding continuation of key financial incentives … and disproportionate government support for century-old fossil energy sources.”

Here are the details:

Total invested in the clean energy sector last year: $243 billion. Of that amount, the top three were China: $54.4 billion, Germany: $41.2 billion, and the U.S.: $34.4 billion. China’s spending, fueled by an ambition to dominate the clean energy manufacturing and power generation sector, is equal to the global total for 2004.

Among the energy technologies, solar investment grew fastest, by 53 percent to $79 billion. Installation of solar generating capacity totaled 17,000 megawatts last year. Wind remained the leading recipient of investment capital, $95 billion in G-20 member countries, which resulted in 40,000 megawatts of wind capacity installations, 17,000 of which were in China.

Total global capacity of wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, small hydro, and ocean energy – 388,000 megawatts, equal to about one-third of total U.S. electric power generating capacity as of 2009.

Despite continuing its global lead in venture capital and private equity investment, the U.S.”will have substantial difficulty keeping pace with China” and other hungry competitors “absent adoption of predictable, ambitious, long-term clean energy policies,” the report noted.

Money goes where it’s welcome. Money to invest in clean energy is more welcome in Asia and Europe than it is in the U.S. – that’s the message, unintended or not, that investors get when leaders of the world’s largest economy can’t figure out what sort of energy future the U.S. should have and show no inclination that they’re willing to have a serious debate on the matter.


Topics:  , ,

Pawlenty’s Cap and Trade About-Face

David Frum March 30th, 2011 at 7:52 am 16 Comments

Here is what I don’t understand about Tim Pawlenty’s reversal – not only on cap-and-trade – but also on any concern for climate change whatsoever:

It would make sense to say:

“Back in 2007, I supported cap-and-trade. That was before the recession. In these difficult times, our economy cannot support an additional burden. Let’s get back to full employment and strong economic growth. Once our economy is prospering again, it will be time to decide what to do to protect our environment.”

Or else:

“Cap-and-trade is a conservative idea, originating with free market economists, that was successfully used by the first Bush administration to stop acid raid. But the actual cap-and-trade bill that emerged from the Democratic House of Representatives was stuffed with gimmicks and giveaways to Democratic constituencies. I could not support that. So as president I’ll be looking for other ideas to protect our environment.”

But whoever is president after 2013 will inherit both an improving economy – and also an accelerating climate-change problem. Why put yourself on record now in ways that will inhibit responding to environmental challenges in the future?


The Dems’ Climate Change Dodge

March 25th, 2011 at 3:10 pm 4 Comments

Leave it to the Democrats to come up with weasly alternatives to Senator James Inhofe’s bill that would prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions and repeal a scientific determination on which regulations would be based.

Instead of pushing back against the Inhofe bill by calling it what it is – a crass attempt to substitute a political agenda for science – the Democrats are likely to allow a Senate vote on two alternatives to Inhofe’s bill – Jay Rockefeller’s legislation to delay regulations for two years and Max Baucus’ amendment that would exempt agriculture and small industrial facilities from greenhouse gas emissions rules.

While Inhofe and others are hell-bent on swimming upstream against science and the laws of physics, cure Rocky and Baucus are simply content to dig up some cover for themselves and the other coal-state Democrats who fret that Mr. Peabody’s coal train will haul away their political careers.

Instead, remedy the weaving and dodging Democrats who purport to support the Clean Air Act should take the dose of calcium offered by former EPA Administrator Russell Train, whose March 16 letter to Senate leaders bluntly said, “Arguments that it should be left to Congress solely to decide how to regulate greenhouse gas pollutants ring hollow, since Congress has consistently failed to take meaningful action in spite of the clear scientific evidence of the dangers these pollutants pose.”

Further, Train continued, arguments that the Clean Air Act was not intended to regulate greenhouse gas emissions “misrepresent Congress’ original intentions in passing the act. Precisely because existing knowledge of air pollutants and their potential effects was so limited at the time, Congress did not enumerate the pollutants that should or should not be regulated under the Clean Air Act.” Instead, the term was defined broadly and discretion was left to EPA scientists to evaluate pollutants and determine whether regulation was necessary.

Train, who headed EPA during the Nixon and Ford years, was present at the Clean Air Act’s creation. He has no patience for the revisionist historical smog that the climate change denial crowd is spewing about the Clean Air Act, and neither should the law’s supporters in Congress.


Nuke Energy Support Still Strong

March 23rd, 2011 at 7:23 am 23 Comments

Opposition to expanded reliance on nuclear energy has edged upward among Americans, polling shows, since Tokyo Electric’s Fukushima Daiichi reactor complex started laying very large radioactive eggs following the mammoth earthquake and tsunami.

No surprise there. Dramatic, edge-of-your-seat events that command undivided public attention have a way of moving polling numbers.

What’s encouraging in a new CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll is that a significant majority of Americans – 57 to 42 percent – support nuclear energy. By a 2-to-1 margin, Americans support continued operation of all 104 commercial reactors in the U.S. nuclear fleet, which generates about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity.

The poll shows that public opposition to new nukes has moved up 6 points to 53 percent following the Japanese disaster, but CNN’s polling director indicated that Americans’ attitudes about nuclear energy are more positive than they were after the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island accidents.

That’s encouraging because a panicky stampede away from nukes would mean greater dependence on energy sources that have their own baggage.

Such as coal. While nuclear power conjures up scary fears among some about invisible death rays, nuclear power plants don’t kill people by the thousands year in and year out. Coal plants do. Burning coal emits sulfur dioxide (SOX) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), which are precursors of ultrafine particles that burrow deeply into people’s lungs, where they can impair pulmonary function, inflame lung tissues, and trigger heart attacks.

Coal pollution can be cleaned up. Unfortunately, politicians who have painted the Environmental Protection Agency as an ogre stomping across the land in search of jobs to destroy have made it politically incorrect to talk about the benefits of pollution regulation – such as the estimated 14,000 to 36,000 premature deaths that would be prevented by 2014 through EPA’s proposed “transport” rule affecting coal-fired power plants in 31 states east of the Rockies.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu once said that he’d rather live next to a nuke than a coal plant because the former have strong safety records and are cleaner than the latter. Smart choice. In the years ahead, nuclear power likely will be safer still as a result of new standards designed to minimize the chances of a Fukushima in the U.S.

Keeping a place for nuclear energy on America’s energy menu is critically important for keeping the air clean and the climate stable. That the public is still on board, in spite of the wrenching images from Japan and the breathless television coverage, is a good sign.


Nuke Energy: The Next Casualty of Japan

March 17th, 2011 at 10:01 pm 12 Comments

It’s like watching a Japanese Monster B-Movie: Battered by two epically-scaled natural disasters and now a human-made emergency in the form of an ongoing nuclear crisis, the only thing missing from the unfolding Japanese scenes, it seems, is the eruption of Mount Fuji and a rubber-suited monster emerging from the summit and rampaging towards Tokyo.

The situation at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant is already factoring into any number of nightmare reports and prognostications, a new and potent Japanese symbol of our collective fears about science. Fukushima is further demonizing — or monsterizing — an industry which might actually offer the only clean, sustainable energy source for a world simultaneously preoccupied with Godzilla-sized carbon footprints and climate change.

The 1979 partial reactor core meltdown at Three Mile Island and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster which set the previous benchmark for nuclear annihilation anxieties, served to curtail public and political debate on atomic energy in the United States. Not a single new nuclear power plant has been built here for decades. This unofficial moratorium came about not just because of concerns about the safety of reactor designs and the difficulties associated with disposing of waste material but also as a result of the costs. Astronomical costs.

Second-generation commercial nuclear plants like the one at Fukushima and all of the stations built in the US in the 1960s and ’70s pushed the engineering capabilities of the day further than they should have been pushed. They also shoved cost efficiency into the realms of fantasy. Generating electricity at second-generation nuclear plants costs twice what it does to produce power at oil- or coal-fired facilities. In the US as in other countries, only vast state subsidies make existing nuclear power programs possible (this is particularly true of France, dependent for almost 80 percent of its electricity on second-generation plants).

But science has changed markedly in recent years. And so has the safety and cost-effectiveness of nuclear power. In engineering terms, the fourth-generation nuclear plants now being developed are as far removed from their expensive, awkward second-generation progenitors as a B1 bomber is from the second generation of motorized box kites which sputtered over the Western Front during World War One. The technology hasn’t so much been refined as re-invented.

New designs must satisfy four essential criteria: no accident, systems failure or human error can set off a technological chain reaction culminating in the release of radioactive material; the uranium used cannot be enriched to weapon grade-level; spent fuel must be easier to dispose of than the current unwieldy and unsafe radioactive rods; and, the costs of producing electricity must be substantially cheaper than those associated with plants using fossil fuels.

There are a number of emerging reactor designs which fall under the fourth-generation umbrella. Graphite-moderated pebble bed reactors, in particular, might one day fulfill nuclear energy’s long-held promise of providing virtually unlimited, cheap and clean electrical power. Heating helium gas to temperatures of 900C to power turbines, there’s an orders of magnitude difference between the electrical generating efficiency of pebble bed reactors and second-generation water-cooled reactors.

Compact by the standards of today’s “Metropolis”-scaled nuclear plant machinery (a pebble bed reactor can fit into a shipping container), a single 200 megawatt device could power a large town. Multiple reactors run from a single site could provide a large city’s electrical supply. Enough of them could help countries in the developing world make the leap to fully developed infrastructures without becoming dependent on carbon fuels: aside from meeting their electrical needs, gas-cooled reactors would also be ideal for mass producing the type of hydrogen fuel cells which could power everything from homes to automobiles — allowing emerging economies to bypass oil and coal just as cell phones have allowed them to bypass land lines.

The technology is not entirely risk-free — no technology ever is. But as Dr. James Martin, founder of Oxford University’s interdisciplinary James Martin 21st Century School, has said, extensive use of fourth-generation nuclear power would be incomparably safer than allowing the public to drive cars.

Prototype pebble bed reactors — so-called because they use billiard ball-sized and -shaped uranium fuel elements — are being built to standards which their designers like to call “walk-away safe”. In other words, should anything go wrong, the control staff can literally walk off and a system as close to being fail-safe as it’s possible to engineer will automatically prevent a meltdown.

At a nerve-jarring 2004 demonstration for journalists, the operators of a small Chinese pebble bed reactor abruptly closed down its coolant system. And then quite literally walked away. At Three Mile Island a minor cooling system malfunction led to the near-catastrophic emergency; Fukishima is providing a real-time case study. When a cooling system failure occurs at a conventional nuclear plant, the fuel rods overheat, radiation levels spike and the nightmarish prospect of a meltdown goes from being a remote theoretical possibility to a distinct probability.

In Beijing, slack-jawed reporters watched as gauges showed the temperature in the pebble-bed reactor soaring to 1600C. Then it began to fall back to normal levels. No human intervention had taken place. None was necessary.

Each of the billiard ball “pebbles” in the reactor contained thousands of tiny, ball bearing-type uranium pellets, each sealed in silicone-carbide shells which serve as individual containment domes of sorts. The pebbles’ outer casings provide further protection. The uranium — just nine percent enriched and impossible to weaponize — is processed to slow neutron production if the reactor temperature begins to rise, automatically dampening the chain reaction. Pebble bed reactors are, in effect, meltdown-proof.

The fourth-generation technology is still a work in progress. But it’s demonstrably no longer a theory-based concept. And it’s certainly not an example of mad science as its critics — ranging from professional eco-warriors to professional lobbyists for the coal and oil industries — have claimed.

The hysterical aftershocks being produced by the Japanese earthquake are making themselves felt around the world. Nuclear energy programs are being suspended with knee-jerk swiftness and little or no forward thought. If the funding and development of fourth-generation technology is disrupted or even ended, this might prove be the second man-made nuclear disaster to result from last week’s tragedy.


Nuke Critic: U.S. Has 23 Fukushima-Type Reactors

March 16th, 2011 at 5:02 pm 16 Comments

Could a Japanese style nuclear disaster happen here?  There are currently 23 GE nuclear plants currently operating in the United States with a design that is identical to the Japanese Fukushima Daiichi installation which has been in the news. Even more troubling, many of the plants are operating past their intended 40-year operating life. This is only one of the many concerns of Henry Sokolski, the Executive Director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.

Sokolski’s advice for those concerned about Japan’s apparent nuclear failure is to slow down, expect the worst, and be willing to reconsider everything. In an interview with FrumForum, Sokolski emphasized that no one can possibly know yet the extent of the destruction that will be caused by the Fukushima crisis.

Sokolski has problems with both the optimists and the pessimists. He blamed media outlets and pro-nuclear politicians for jumping quickly to calm the public and hide the potential scope of the disaster. “Here in Washington, there’s lots of spinning going on. The New York Times was trying to downplay this before… but they’re not anymore,”

He also pointed out that it is still too early to compare it to a disaster such as Chernobyl, “Does it have to be Chernobyl to be important? We’ve had three explosions in three days.” Sokolski added, “It’s not Chernobyl, but it’s no Three Mile Island either.”

The scope of the disaster can’t be understated. Even the American military has taken action in response to the disaster. As of Tuesday morning, radiation dosage levels around the plant had been reported as high as 400 millisieverts per hour. A dose of 400 millisieverts per hour is generally adequate to induce mild (relatively speaking) radiation sickness after less than two hours of exposure. Sokolski noted to FrumForum that the US Navy’s aircraft carriers, which had been sent to help, had been repositioned to 100 miles offshore, ostensibly to avoid radiation danger to the sailors on board the (nuclear-powered) vessels.

Sokolski had the most to say about the potential policy implications of the Fukushima disaster, telling FrumForum that even pro-nuclear advocates are taking a collective breath about the future of nuclear power. “Everyone’s going to have to review stuff – even Lieberman’s taking a second look,” Sokolski said. He related the story of a Republican congressman who confided in him that “it’s not clear” that the House GOP caucus would still be supporting President Obama’s plan for the expansion of the American nuclear energy program, an outcome which was previously a foregone conclusion.

It is unclear how much the Japan disaster is attributable to “acts of God” and how much can be laid at the feet of “operator cock-up.” (Sokolski added that it’s increasingly looking like both.) However, there are still changes to its energy policy that America should take.

Sokolski is set to testify on the Hill on Thursday on nuclear export regulations. The US needs to make sure that anybody to whom it sells nuclear technology must be able to safely operate it. He warned that until the disaster, the US government was preparing to sell nuclear energy technology to the governments of both Jordan and Saudi Arabia, neither of which possesses adequate operational expertise.

Sokolski also quoted approvingly a speech given by John Rowe, the CEO of Exelon Energy (a large electrical utility provider), at the American Enterprise Institute. In the speech, Rowe said that of all the various problems facing the United States, energy is the one where the government would do good if it would just get out of the way, cease picking winners and losers with subsidies and taxes, and “stop telling us how to boil water.”

If nuclear power turns out to be what a fair, free market considers the best way to boil water and turn a turbine, then so be it, said Sokolski. But one gets the sense that, in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, Sokolski wouldn’t bet on it.

Follow Shawn on twitter: @shawnfs33


The Right Way to Defend Nuke Power

March 16th, 2011 at 2:17 pm 36 Comments

The tragedy in Japan has led to much criticism of nuclear energy (mostly by the left), patient attempts to defend it (mostly by the right), cheap and a lot of confused and worried people in the middle.  The accident in Japan — however serious — is not sufficient reason for us to completely abandon nuclear energy.  However, find many of the “industry pundits” defending nuclear power this week have failed to present arguments which will convince the American public.  Talking down to or talking past those who are worried about the incident in Japan won’t work.

Here are a few of the poorer arguments I’ve seen from nuclear power defenders since the Japan disaster, and my suggestions for more productive approaches:

Argument #1: “More People Died from the Tsunami and Earthquake than from the Nuclear Power Plants”

This is a red herring: true, but irrelevant.

One reason this is a bogus comparison is that we can’t control whether or not we have natural disasters, but we can control whether or not we build nuclear power plants.

The other is that the concern with nuclear power accidents is not immediate deaths, but the impact on long-term health, and the poisoning of the environment, which can last for centuries. Not very many people died immediately at Chernobyl, but eventual death totals could reach the thousands among those who were exposed. And the entire area was transformed into a wasteland.

There really isn’t a way to improve this argument, because it’s flatly fallacious. It would be better to focus on comparing the safety of nuclear to other options (see point #6 below).

Argument #2: “These Plants Used an Older Design; Ours are Newer and Better”

Again, this is true, but it’s not convincing to many people. The plants may have been old, but at one time they were new, and undoubtedly were portrayed as being the latest and greatest that technology had to offer. More modern plants are safer, sure, but they are also enormously expensive, and they require decades of use to recoup their costs. Materials and mechanisms degrade over time, and we discover things we didn’t know before. Again people will wonder: “Will we hear the same thing about newer plants being safer after a disaster in, say, 2041?”

A better approach here is to point out in terms that people can understand why and how newer designs are safer. How specifically would they prevent the problem that occurred here from happening again? What are the differences between types of fuel used in plants, methods of cooling, and safety measures? And this should be done without complex schematics and terminology, much of which even engineers and technology writers can’t always readily comprehend.

Argument #3: “The Plants Survived the Earthquake, Just Not the Tsunami”

Correct, but the designers knew from the start that they were putting the plants in an area that was threatened by tsunamis. Heck, there’s a reason why the English word for “destructive waves caused by an undersea earthquake” is Japanese in origin! Not only are tsunamis common in Japan, but the plants affected were built right on the ocean, in what appears on satellite imagery to be a flood plain. So why didn’t they have a plan to deal with what was, really, only a matter of time?

People don’t want to hear excuses. They want to hear how all of the reasonable potential risks are being addressed. Nobody expects every risk to be covered fully, but they want to know about how risks likely to a particular region will be addressed. A plant built in Kansas doesn’t need a tsunami contingency plan, but can it survive a direct hit from an F5 tornado?

Argument #4: “It’s Just Steam Releases, Not a Real Meltdown”

To most people, radiation is radiation is radiation. Also, being told “radiation was released but it’s not a real meltdown” strikes the average American about the same way as being told “you have cancer, but it could be worse.”

If there’s an important distinction between radiation released as steam and that coming from direct exposure of fissile material, then this needs to be explained to the public much more clearly. Far greater emphasis also should be placed on explaining the role of containment buildings—but not pretending that these are perfect or impermeable, because they aren’t. Discussing what we do when a serious event leads to a cracked containment vessel would be a good idea: what happens when the safety measures fail?

Argument #5: “The Radiation Leaked Isn’t That Bad”

Humans are terrified of things that are dangerous, things that can’t be seen, and things they don’t understand. Radiation is a direct hit on all three counts. When officials and pundits try to minimize the danger with hand-waving about how the radiation “isn’t that bad”, the natural reaction of most people is to get more scared.

The solution here is a combination of detailed information and education. Don’t tell people “radiation is at safe levels”. Nobody knows what that means, and it sounds sort of like “the amount of cyanide in your water is at safe levels”. Be specific. Use charts. Teach people more about radiation, how it works, and how it is measured. Compare the level of radiation released by these accidents to radiation we receive from other sources, such as the sun, to put it in perspective. And above all, be honest with people, because they can tell when you are trying to snow them.

Argument #6: “Everything Has Risks. Thousands Die in Car Crashes Every Year”

This is the nuclear power version of the classic argument in favor of air travel over road travel. It’s strictly speaking, correct; yet it ignores human nature. We are notoriously bad at risk assessment: just ask anyone who runs a lottery. We also tend to put far too much focus on splashy, attention-grabbing disasters, no matter how infrequent they are. So it doesn’t matter how rare these events are, or how many fewer people they kill than car accidents: they are newsworthy and they grab headlines.

The other problem here is that most of us do not have alternatives to traveling on the road; we do have alternatives to building nuclear power plants.

The proper approach here is a simple one: cost/benefit analysis. Don’t compare nuclear power to driving cars, but to other forms of energy production. How many people die each year on oil rigs or in refineries? Or mining coal? How about installing solar panels and wind turbines?

The same applies to longer-term issues such as health risks over time due to radiation exposure. How many ill health effects do Americans suffer from pollution due to burning coal and oil? This can even be more indirect: if a lack of nuclear power leads to a reduction in available electricity, or an increase in its cost, how many more people each year will become sick or die due to untreated conditions, lack of air conditioning, lack of access to other beneficial technology because of funds paid for electricity, etc.?

In the case of alternative energy, it is also important to explain how much power is generated by nuclear and how many solar panels or windmills would be needed to replace one plant. That adds important perspective. I hear many nuclear power opponents suggesting renewable energy options that, while often worth pursuing, are simply not feasible on a scale necessary to replace nuclear.