This is a guest column from KC Golden, Policy Director for Climate Solutions, a Northwest-based nonprofit focused on tackling global warming (though not yet tackling its own website’s frames-based layout, which was awful in 1998 and still is … but I digress). It originally ran in Methow Valley News.
These are the early days of an economic revolution: our weaning from fossil fuels.
Most of what we know and expect about how we make and use energy is up for grabs. Myths, taboos, sacred cows — all will be skewered.
Here are some soon-to-be unsafe assumptions about energy:
"Cheap" gas: The gig is already up. But c’mon, it was a lie anyway. The price at the pump is a small fraction of the true cost of gas — in dollars, blood, and climate disruption. Expensive gas is just the ugly truth about fossil fuel addiction: it’s unaffordable.
"Free"ways: If you use more power or beer, you pay more. How come roads are all-you-can-drive? We pay for them up front in taxes, whether we use them or not. So if you’re a cheapskate like me, you almost feel obliged to use them more! If we want solutions, we can’t keep subsidizing the problem. We’ll see more tolls on bridges and congested freeways.
One-way utilities: Information and communication technology can make the power system more like an energy web. Homes with solar power can feed the grid. Cars can run off electricity and their batteries can store power and make it available when utilities need it. In the future, utilities will pay their customers for home-grown power.
I’ve probably ticked off almost everyone by now, but just to be sure no one feels left out, let’s play fair and take a fresh look at nuclear.
If you’re thinking about nuclear power the same way you did in 1985, then you haven’t fully grocked the climate problem. Reducing fossil fuel dependence would have been a good idea in 1985, but now, with the climate crisis hot on our heels, it’s an ultimatum to civilization. That’s a different context for evaluating nuclear.
In part because I wanted to stare this question in the eye, I serve on the Executive Board of Energy Northwest, which operates Washington’s only nuclear plant.
The level of technical sophistication, human organization, and discipline necessary to operate a machine like this is mind-boggling. I have the utmost respect and admiration for the people who do it.
But is expanding nuclear wise? Three big issues remain: cost, waste, and weapons proliferation from the diversion of nuclear materials.
A new "Joint Fact Finding" report was issued last week by experts from the nuclear industry, environmental groups, regulators, and academics who worked for a year to see if they could find some common ground. Washington was well-represented by Patrick Mazza, Climate Solutions‘ prolific Research Director, and Jim Harding, former director of power supply for Seattle City Light.
They found that new nuclear will be pricey, and that we haven’t successfully disposed of the waste we already have. They concluded that the Bush Administration’s Global Nuclear Energy Project — designed to unleash nuclear development by reprocessing spent fuel, possibly at Hanford — is a bad idea.
To me it seems unlikely but possible that the cost and waste problems can be overcome. But the one that keeps me up at night is weapons proliferation. The more nuclear material circulating through international commerce, the more likely it will fall into the wrong hands.
Nuclear engineers are some of the most capable, dedicated people I’ve ever met. But inevitably, somebody somewhere is going to get it wrong — either on plant security, or waste disposal, or securing the commercial fuel cycle. And as they say, one nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day.
Short of a weapons nightmare, nuclear plants present enormous financial risks, as we discovered in the 1980s when the WPPSS nuclear program touched off the largest municipal bond default in history. We’ve got one functioning nuclear plant to show for it, but we’re still paying debt for five.
A nuclear plant is one heckuva lot of capital and power in one place. Even small malfunctions can and do take a plant down. That’s no big deal for a wind machine. But when a 1000+ megawatt nuke goes on the fritz, replacement power can cost upwards of $1 million a day.
Being mistake-prone myself, I prefer technologies that allow you to screw up with modest consequences. (If you’ve ever seen my car, you would not want me running your nuclear plant.) In an increasingly uncertain world, it just doesn’t feel smart to create more opportunities for things to go catastrophically wrong.
I also believe there are many smaller, cheaper, less risky ways to live a good life with enough energy. A good way to sort through these options is with a technology-neutral policy that limits global warming pollution. Let nuclear, efficiency, solar, wind and other options compete to meet a firm cap on climate pollution, and we’ll see what happens.
I’m dubious about nuclear, but I’m looking at all the options, because I know how desperately and quickly we need to move away from fossil fuels.
The one thing we can’t afford is clinging to the same assumptions and prejudices that keep us hurtling toward climate disruption.