by Michael Mariotte of NIRS
November 13, 2015
Thanks for the e-mail yesterday from your PR firm, notifying me of the press conference you’re planning on December 3 in Paris, in conjunction with the COP 21 climate negotiations.
Though I have to admit I was a little surprised to receive it, seeing as how you never responded to my last letter to you. Remember? It was the one where I asked to debate you about nuclear power and whether it could be a solution to the climate crisis you have so ably articulated over the years? I even offered a very nice potential debate location here in Washington, where we could make sure there would be an audience and some media to chronicle the event.
I, along with my colleagues from the Civil Society Institute (oh, and more than 300 other groups as I recall) asked for that debate after you and three of your colleagues published an open letter to us–all of us critics of nuclear power–in November 2013 where you essentially told us to either support new nuclear power or shut up and go away.
But I guess the idea of an open letter wasn’t the same as wanting an open debate, because from you (and your three colleagues) I got bupkus. Nothing. Nada. Frankly, I–and all those 300+ organizations–took your silence as an admission that you were afraid to debate us, because, again frankly, when it comes to nuclear power you don’t know what you’re talking about. And your lack of knowledge on the subject is getting to be an embarrassment for those of us on the frontlines of the battle to build an effective response to the climate crisis. You see, it’s not only that nuclear power isn’t going to help with climate, for all the reasons we detailed in our letter to you, it’s that trying to go the nuclear route would be counterproductive–it would actually make things worse.
So, when I first noticed your PR firm’s e-mail sent to me, I thought perhaps you had reconsidered your blind support for nuclear power. After all, why send it to me at all otherwise? And I have to admit, the first couple of sentences were pretty promising. It says the same four of you are issuing a “stark challenge to world leaders and environmental campaigners” warning of “the increasing urgency of fully decarbonizing the world economy.” I couldn’t agree more.
But then you lost me, because the rest of the e-mail doesn’t talk much at all about the climate; rather, it sounds the same message as your November 2013 open letter: that environmentalists must accept nuclear power, that we need a lot of nuclear power, that renewables can’t do the job, and so on.
But John, let’s look at what’s changed in the energy world since November 2013. It’s pretty easy to do, just flip through the pages of GreenWorld and you’ll get a pretty good sense of it. On the nuclear front, let’s face it: the news hasn’t been good for the industry. More reactors have announced permanent shutdown. As for new reactors, all of those being built in the West at least have experienced more schedule delays and more cost overruns. All of them: Vogtle, Summer, Olkiluoto, Flamanville. China’s nuclear construction has slowed, partly because of the problems with Areva’s EPR reactor design. Despite a lot of sound and fury (or is that smoke and mirrors?) there hasn’t been much solid from the Russian nuclear industry either, though they did finally manage to finish the Koodankulam reactors in India after more than 20 years. Kind of like TVA almost finishing its second Watts Bar reactor after more than 40 years.
Building nuclear reactors takes a long time, and that time isn’t getting any shorter. And that’s why it’s puzzling that you, of all people–after all, you’ve been warning about the urgency of dealing with climate change since 1988 now–would even look twice at nuclear. The idea of betting our collective future on power plants that take 10, 15, 20 years and more to build doesn’t sound like someone who thinks climate is an urgent problem. It makes one wonder if your allegiance to the nuclear power industry now outweighs your commitment to dealing with the climate crisis.
On the other side of the coin, what’s changed in clean energy since November 2013 is huge. The biggest change can be summed up in one word: storage. Cheap, effective electricity storage just wasn’t around two years ago. Now, thanks to Elon Musk and Tesla–and Musk’s growing number of competitors in the storage field, it is. And it’s only going to get cheaper and better; it’s on the same kind of curve that dropped solar costs over the past ten years to the point where solar is now cheaper than nuclear just about everywhere in the U.S. That’s true for most of the world too. And wind is even cheaper. And both solar and wind continue to become more efficient.
So the old canard about solar and wind not being able to hack it because the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow, well, that’s what it is: an old canard. With storage, every generating technology is reliable “baseload” power.
And if we’re talking about the urgency of addressing the climate crisis–and we are–then consider where our new generation is already coming from: earlier this week the International Energy Agency reported that half of all new generation in 2014 was renewables, and that renewables are now the second largest generating source globally. Putting up renewables is fast: onshore wind farms take a year or two to erect, offshore wind longer–but tend to be much larger; utility-scale solar power plants also take only a year or two, rooftop solar takes a team of 4 people about a day. Multiply that by thousands of such teams and that’s why a dozen or so new solar rooftops have been installed in the U.S. alone since I started writing this letter to you a couple hours ago (I took a break for lunch, you see).
The other big change, which we’ve also chronicled in these pages, is where the smart money is going. It’s really not me and other clean energy advocates you have to convince to support nuclear power; we may have the best arguments, but we don’t have the decision-making power. No, you have to convince the folks at Citibank, and Goldman Sachs, and UBS, and all the other investment houses and financial analysts who have decided to put their money on clean energy–not nuclear power.
Earlier this week, Citibank put out a report pointing out that moving to clean energy will actually save the world money–a trillion dollars or more. Goldman Sachs is putting up hundreds of its own dollars in clean energy investment. If you’ll scroll down through GreenWorld, you’ll find many more reports and analyses from these kinds of institutions. Stories like this one from March, headlined: Deutsche Bank: Solar has already won.
Meanwhile, John, despite your increasingly shrill support for nuclear power and against clean energy advocates (and yes, I’m not going to forget when you told climate funders not to fund us), your message is not resonating in another key sector: the world’s governments. Instead, Germany, with its increasingly successful Energiewende energy transition is leading the way. They’re showing the world how to move away from both nuclear power and fossil fuels, and building a nuclear-free, carbon-free energy system. Not that it’s easy, or immediate, but when you compare it to how long some nuclear reactors have taken to build, it’s not all that slow either. And, in fact, it’s so successful that even France–yes, France, the world’s most nuclear country–adopted a law this Spring to begin moving away from nuclear and toward more renewables and energy efficiency. As a climate change measure. We’ve been covering that here in GreenWorld too; here’s one of the most popular stories, titled The accelerating decline of French nuclear power.
I’m actually kind of honored that you would focus your ire on us clean energy advocates, that you think we have such power that we can turn around those governments, and all those Wall Street investment types, and the technologies themselves, and get them all to support nuclear power and somehow build new reactors quickly and cheaply enough to make a difference for the climate. Well, I’ll let you know when I get that kind of magic wand; though when I do I doubt I’ll use it to promote nuclear power. But I might put up a Tesla PowerWall in my house.
I was so impressed with your performance in those 1988 Congressional hearings, when you first came to national prominence by warning our elected officials about the need to take urgent action on climate. Your credentials and the science behind your statements were impeccable. I was paying attention then because, when you were testifying, I was working on my first article about nuclear power and climate, where I pointed out that the nuclear industry would certainly be attempting to use climate as a rationale for more nuclear. I also pointed out then that since it was the same utilities and companies that built and operated both nuclear and fossil fuel plants that it would be hard to take their nuclear-is-the-answer position too seriously–they were the guilty parties in the first place.
But it was easy to predict what would happen. Already back then, Colorado Senator Timothy Wirth was promoting an “advanced” reactor–his choice was the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) being touted then by General Atomics. It didn’t take a genius to figure out where the nuclear industry would be going. Nor did it take a genius to predict the failure of the whole concept of 4th generation reactors. Now, 27 years later, none of those 4th generation reactors are any closer to commercial deployment than they were back then. That’s because they’re either too expensive, or don’t work at all, or the whole notion of trying to make an inherently dangerous technology “inherently safe” is inherently absurd. These designs, whether they be thorium or integral fast reactors, or the PBMRs, or whatever (and some of these designs are more than 50 years old now) exist only on paper for a reason. Yet you continue to tout them as if they are real. I have to say, that kind of draws into question your expertise in this area.
And clearly energy economics isn’t your area of expertise either. Otherwise you’d know what the Wall Street types know: nuclear is simply too expensive to be viable in the clean energy world of the 21st century. To be honest, John, I wish you’d stick to what you do know: climate science, and leave the energy part of the issue–the how we’re going to solve the climate crisis part–to the energy experts. You’ve been the beacon, the warning sign, a modern-day Paul Revere warning our entire planet, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that. Really, we all owe you a very large debt of gratitude.
But now you’re calling a press conference at the most important climate negotiations ever, and you plan to tell environmentalists that we need to support nuclear power? That’s the sum total of your message now? That we should embrace the only low-carbon technology that releases toxic radiation into the air and water every day? That has a nasty habit of experiencing a major disaster once a decade or so that kills thousands and leaves parts of our planet permanently uninhabitable? That generates lethal and essentially eternal waste that our planet does not know how to store or isolate from our only environment for its hazardous life? That, for all the reasons stated above, is too slow to be useful in reducing carbon emissions and is so expensive that investing in it would crowd out the investments we could (and should and will) make in clean energy that will reduce those emissions faster and cheaper?
I’m sorry, John, but the only thing that has changed since your November 2013 letter is that renewables are even more viable and nuclear is even less so. Yet you keep repeating your tired old refrain as if repetition will change reality. It won’t.
So even if I make it to Paris next month (and for health reasons I’m afraid I probably won’t), I’m going to pass on your press conference. You’ve clearly got nothing new to say, and what you do have to say only exposes how little you know about the subjects you’re talking about. I really wish you’d stick to those that you do know. I wish you’d really bring home to the COP 21 delegates the sense of urgency needed. I wish, with the kind of clarity and force you’re capable of, you would get them to adopt really meaningful, stringent climate goals; goals that give our planet a chance. Then, please step aside. We already know the “how” part–that is a nuclear-free, carbon-free energy system. We can meet the goals if the world’s governments will only give us the opportunity. The technology is here; we need you to help provide the political will–not to come in bearing false solutions from a failed industry.
It’s too bad. This should be your time, and instead you’re wasting it. The problem isn’t me, John. Nor the rest of us working for a clean energy future. The problem is you.
Nuclear Information and Resource Service