nuclear

Llewellyn King: 'Renewable energy' is a disingenuous phrase

Solar-energy facility in Andalusia, Spain.    -- Photo by BSMPS

Solar-energy facility in Andalusia, Spain.

-- Photo by BSMPS

 

I’m a tree-hugger. Yep, an environmentalist, but I wouldn’t care to be known as such. Just the word suspiciously signals virtue, and environmentalists and their movement haven’t always been on the side of the environment.

In the 1970s and 1980s, I sat through many meetings when environmentalists advocated for coal over nuclear. That’s like their original sin.

Today, quite a few who care about the environment realize that that was a mistake – a bad mistake. Reluctantly, many have come to see that nuclear is a carbon-free and a very compact source of a lot of electricity.

But long years of environmental opposition have taken their toll on public acceptance and on the economics of new plants. Delay, obfuscations and untruths about both nuclear safety and nuclear waste came together to hobble the industry over the past 40 years.

Waves of anti-nuclear campaigners, like Ralph Nader and Amory Lovins, have been so keen to oppose nuclear that they’ve allowed the environment to receive untold millions of tons of carbon, which wouldn’t have been the case if they hadn’t chosen to wage war on a single technology.

Blame some of this on the 1960s. It was the decade in which the establishment was under attack as never before.

It was a decade in which the young, faced with the draft and Vietnam, started to look at society and the powers that controlled it. They found that the establishment and its institutions could be held accountable for much that was wrong.

Foremost was the war in Vietnam. Then there was the civil rights movement, where it was seen that large institutions had condoned, if not promoted, racial segregation and oppression. Along the way, there was the start of the women’s movement with books like Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, published in 1963.

And, of course, there was the environmental movement itself, ignited by Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, published in 1962. The establishment, the grownups, had been weighed and found wanting.

Meanwhile ,the utility industry was happily buying into nuclear power. Growth rates in electric demand had been at 7.5 percent a year for most of the post-World War II period, and utilities thought they needed a huge amount of new power. Actually, demand was leveling off. Nuclear looked like the solution, and the utilities were unrecognizing of the complexity of the technology. One Atomic Energy Commission member, Lewis Strauss, even predicted electricity “too cheap to meter.”

Proponents of nuclear gave its enemies a devasting advantage, a lethal handle. They created a licensing procedure that gave the public unrestricted access to intervene in nuclear licensing.

Nuclear was a fundraising gift to the environmentalists -- a gift that kept on giving.

The environmental movement, having found the devil back then, has found twin holy grails today: solar and wind. The movement is promoting them with the same fervor, the same blind certainty with which they once opposed nuclear.

Is the movement going too far again? Certainly, improvements in batteries will overcome the intermittent nature of both sources. But they can’t overcome the second law of thermodynamics: You can’t get more electric energy out of a square meter of a solar cell than sunlight falls on it. That’s absolute. Likewise, with wind: No more energy can be extracted from the wind than it contains. More research won’t change that.

On the other hand, more nuclear research will produce everything from better power plants, to ships and submarines, to nuclear waste-eating reactors. That’s saying nothing about medicine or space exploration.

A few windmills are delightful. Thousands of them are terrifyingly ugly. Hundreds of thousands of them are being installed.

Likewise, solar panels. Those on the roof at Walmart are great. Thousands and thousands of acres of Southwest desert or good farmland anywhere going down to solar farms is less appealing.

Low density in electricity production means heavy, possibly abusive land use, as demand for wind and solar is pushed. By contrast most nuclear problems will be solved by science, including waste.

Group-think in the environmental movement severely impacted nuclear as an option. Now the group passion for “renewables” may be another wrong environmental turn.

"Renewable'' is a disingenuous word: All those wind towers, turbines and solar panels will have to be dismantled and disposed at the end of their productive life. That detritus isn’t renewable.

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of White House Chronicle, on PBS. His email is llewellynking1@gmail.com.

Robert Whitcomb: Drawbacks of deregulation and DIY

  For years, deregulation and the Internet have been pulling us into a more decentralized and freelance economy, in which there’s wider consumer choice, albeit with stagnant pay and a decline in person-to-person service that forces us to do more tasks ourselves that were previously done by those dinosaurs called “employees’’.

Consider Uber. As I discovered when one of my daughters pulled out her iPhone a couple of years ago on a busy Manhattan street to summon an Uber driver, it’s sometimes faster to find one of these mobile freelancers than it is to find a regulated Yellow Cab in a big city.

But the cabs, being regulated, function as a public utility. They have to meet certain basic minimums of availability, cleanliness and safety that can’t be imposed on the likes of Uber, whose drivers are, of course, not obligated to provide services in the same way as cabbies. I don’t think that we want unregulated drivers to totally replace generally reliable and regulated cabbies.

Long before Uber, of course, there was the partial deregulation of the airlines. While this led initially to lower prices for many travelers, it has also made travel more chaotic and unpredictable. And deregulation, the “Hub-and-Spoke’’ system and relentless airline mergers mean that mid-size cities get shorted on flights.

While better electronics systems make planes less likely to crash these days than three decades ago, air travel itself is increasingly miserable.

In the old, tightly regulated days, figuring out airline schedules and fares was comparatively easy. Now it’s an ordeal, and conditions within airplanes are increasingly crowded and unhealthy. And as the airlines, like other businesses, seek to outsource service to computers so that they can lay off more people, addressing problems by communicating with customer-service humans gets tougher.

Then there’s the new do-it-yourself, deregulated and decentralized energy world. Consider that many affluent folks are saving money and reducing their carbon footprints by having solar panels installed on their roofs. Good in itself! But this takes business away from the utility companies, which could jeopardize the viability of the huge electric grids that utilities maintain. We’ll continue to need that grid to support modern society, with its ever-increasing supply of electronic devices.

Might not it be better if we put more focus on producing green electricity with huge solar-panel arrays and wind-turbine farms maintained by utilities that serve everyone – rich and poor?

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The Obama administration has worked very hard to craft a deal with Iran to try to get it to at least postpone continued work on nuclear weapons.

But the administration’s effort will probably turn out to have been in vain. For one thing, the corrupt theocratic dictatorship that runs Iran will cheat and cheat as it evades inspections. It may receive technical help in this cheating from the likes of fellow police states Russia and China, two of the signatories to the nuclear deal, which will happily sell them militarily useful stuff.

Iran will almost certainly use the billions of dollars freed up by the ending of economic sanctions to increase its troublemaking. Iran’s regime seeks to dominate the Mideast – partly to protect and promote its fellow Shiites and partly because domination is fun and profitable for its leaders. And Tehran hasn’t really toned down its “Death to America and Israel’’ rhetoric.

Now we have made the mullahs more macho. No wonder Iran’s neighborhood is scared.

Some complain that America, as the first nuclear power, is hypocritical in trying to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of other nations. That seeks to make an equivalence between a democratic nation like America and a dictatorship like Iran. And remember why we started our nuclear-weapons program in the first place – to defend ourselves from Germany’s mass-murdering Nazi regime, which was working hard to create an atomic bomb.

Some say that expanding trade with Iran will somehow make it kindlier. They said that about Germany before World War I and China now. Nations have other reasons besides economics to be nasty – for instance, paranoia, power for the sake of power and religion.

Robert Whitcomb (rwhitcomb51@gmail.com) oversees New England Diary. He's also a Fellow at the Pell Center, in Newport, and a partner at Cambridge Management Group (cmg625.com), a healthcare-sector consultancy. He used to be the editorial-page editor of The Providence Journal, the finance editor of the International Herald Tribune and an editor at The Wall Street Journal, among other jobs.