Playing Politics with Nuclear Energy

Democrats are divided on using nuclear energy to stop climate change

 On Climate, Sanders and Warren Must Go Nuclear

 Why Nuclear Power Must Be Part of the Energy Solution

The 3,122-megawatt Civaux Nuclear Power Plant in France, which opened in 1997

In his latest denial of reality, Trump got out his sharpie and altered Hurricane Dorian’s direction to send it 650 miles west to Alabama. And naturally he refuses to admit he was wrong. The press is having a field day.

For a much longer timeframe, the opponents of nuclear power have engaged in a similar denial of reality and good scientific evidence. They have mounted protests and lobbied Congress for years and are now coming up against the overpowering reality of climate change. Nuclear will have to be in the energy mix, whether they like it or not. We cannot mitigate the problem without it.

Now, most of these deniers are Democrats and so the presidential candidates have walked on eggshells over this issue. Finally in the recent CNN climate town halls, Cory Booker and Andrew Yang came out in favor of pursuing nuclear and developing the technology. Others waffled; Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren said no. Perhaps, as their understanding of energy options deepens, they will change their tune. Or maybe not: there are lots of votes out there that might go against them if they go nuclear.

Nuclear now provides 20 percent of US total energy output. And yet, says the Union of Concerned Scientists, “nearly 35 percent of the country’s nuclear power plants, representing 22 percent of US nuclear capacity, are at risk of early closure or slated to retire.” The reasons? They are unprofitable, costly to operate, need upgrading. But you don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Nuclear produces near-zero emissions, its biggest selling point. It doesn’t shut down when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine. The two downsides people point to are: the accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima and the storage of waste. Storing nuclear waste is something we know how to do. The problem is political, per the evidence of Yucca Mountain.

And we have learned something from both meltdowns and their aftereffects. One, similar events could and should never happen again. Surprisingly, the health consequences have been much less severe than expected. Two, safety will not come cheap, and new power plants are expensive. New, smaller modular reactors may be the answer; thorium as a fuel poses less storage risk than uranium.

It will take a hardnosed view of energy policy and a commitment to state-owned nuclear power plants to get us to anything like scale in an effective climate policy. Scientists and many planners know this. France did it in the ‘80s, and the transformation worked.

I think the lefties on the Democratic side may be getting the message, slowly. Eric Levitz wrote a very good summary of the problems and processes here. He says:

The political center’s ideological hangups are a much bigger obstacle to rational climate policy than the left’s. As David Wallace-Wells writes, the gap between “political realism” and scientific realism on climate policy is vast and ever-growing. We have procrastinated past the point when incremental, nudge-based approaches to emissions reduction could be described as serious. . . . We have already put enough carbon in the climate to ensure that our planet will grow increasingly inhospitable for the rest of our lives, and the longer we wait to find an alternative means of powering our civilization, the more inhospitable it will become, and the more human beings will needlessly suffer and die. The available evidence suggests that decarbonizing at a remotely responsible pace will require us to transcend the neoliberal era’s taboo against ambitious state planning and industrial policy. . . .

We know what happens when a country committed to scaling up renewables decommissions its nuclear plants—it starts burning more coal.

P.S. The Future Looks Like Salt Reactors

P.P.S. Some of the real problems with nuclear that I didn’t address.

The Gasbag-in-Chief Is Leaking Methane

Scientists Underestimated How Bad Cow Farts Are

Trump’s Methane Rule Rollback Divides Oil and Gas Industry

Fracking May Be a Bigger Climate Problem Than We Thought

In its continuing war on all regulations—to include those on greenhouse gases and anything Obama passed—Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency last Thursday said it would basically allow “oil and gas operators to largely police themselves when it comes to preventing [methane] from leaking out of new wells, pipelines and other infrastructure.” It turns out that there are lots of leaks.

The big companies (Exxon, Chevron, BP, Shell) came out against the new rollback. They don’t want to be seen as “climate villains” or dirty well operators. The little guys, with thousands of leaky wells, can’t afford to clean them up, so they welcomed the Trump plan.

The methane scare got started a couple of years ago when it was revealed that cow farts were major contributors to global warming. The methane in animal burps and farts was seen to play a major role in the big heat-up because methane is eighty-four percent more potent than CO₂ in trapping heat and causes one-quarter of our present global warming. The notion that cow farts are funny sort of undercut the seriousness of these findings.

What got covered up was the fact that livestock and farming, plus landfills, were not the major source of methane. It was, you guessed it, the oil and gas industry. These guys, the drivers of our economy, were “creating one-third of all methane emissions,” says a science writer for ideas.ted.com. “As companies extract and transport oil and natural gas, methane leaks from their pumps, pipelines and wells at a rapid rate . . . leaking 60 percent more of the harmful gas than government estimates had predicted.”

Now we’re told that the recent spike in atmospheric methane could likely be caused by the preponderance of fracking, which produces vast amounts of shale gas and methane. Fracking is done mostly in the U.S. and Canada. The industry touts it as the best replacement for coal and is building out more than 700 fracked gas projects, LNG terminals, and gas-fired electricity plants.

Environmental advocates were universally opposed to the EPA’s action. “This is an unnecessary leap backwards,” adds Rob Jackson, an environmental scientist at Stanford. “Very few people in the public or the industry want this rollback.”

But to eliminate all fracking, as Bernie Sanders and Jay Inslee have proposed, would be to take on one of the largest, most profitable industries in America. The battle over that would be epic.

The Unreality of Climate Change

Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement

Bill McKibben, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?

Ganges delta flooding

For many of us, climate change is simply beyond imagining. These two excellent books offer quite different ways of understanding what it is, how the threat grew, and what if anything we can do about it.

Ghosh is an acclaimed Indian novelist; McKibben has been writing for at least thirty years about climate and fighting for recognition of the crisis. In these books, Ghosh is the Platonist, looking at the history, artistic rendering and power politics of climate change through a meta lens. He moves us through vast areas of space and time to uncover trends and events that we never suspected controlled the evolution of climate.

McKibben is the Aristotelian here, writing a detailed story of his investigation about why and how we’ve failed to do anything. A reviewer sums up the message:

“Our lives now are only part biological, with no clear split between the organic and the technological, the carbon and the silicon,” McKibben writes partway through. That transition feels like the heart of the book, which he frames as a look at what he calls the “human game”: How do we balance technology and the natural world? What dark, selfish parts of human nature got us here? And what are the options that might make things better, from installing solar panels to genetically engineering more altruistic babies?

McKibben’s book is more accessible; Ghosh writes of grand, sweeping trends, connections you never thought of. For instance, he explores how literature moved from concern with the epic and the supernatural, the presence of unpredictable nature, to exploring the personal, the subjective, and how that has kept us from seeing climate change developing.

Politics has undergone a similar change, becoming focused on identity and personal (moral) development rather than pushing for the collective action that is essential. The economics of capitalism created the carbon economy, but so did the 19th-20th century drive for empire. Industrialism came late to China and India but their vast populations rapidly brought the crisis to its present peak.

For Ghosh, the imaginative, psychological and cultural failures keep us from talking about climate change or confronting it. So does our concept of time as something linear, progressing, moving always forward. In fact, progress is the spurious idea behind modernity, which fostered the separation of mankind from nature.

Climate change thus remains something beyond our ken, something uncanny, to use his word. Language—and our present use of it—has become inadequate to deal with its strangeness. Finally, however, Ghosh has found ways to describe our great derangement, our divorce from the natural world and, just maybe, turn our despair into at least a wisp of hope.

The scale of the climate challenge is beyond enormous, and Ghosh is not an easy read because he forces you to think in complex new patterns. If you make the effort, you’ll find the patterns make sense and some of the clouds will part.

Hansen’s Recent Thoughts on Climate Change—and Some History

Saving Earth (June 27, 2019)

Thirty years later, what needs to change in our approach to climate change (June 26, 2018)

Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change (August 1, 2018)

Once one of the few scientific voices crying out about climate change, James Hansen has become a renowned, and sometimes vilified, spokesman. That trek took him more than thirty years, as he documents in a Boston Globe editorial. He’s a controversial figure still—both in his political views and in his opinions on nuclear power (with which I concur; see below)—but to many he is the father of climate change awareness.

A journalistic history of the climate change threat, its people, politics, and science is parsed in Nathaniel Rich’s lengthy New York Times piece, “Losing Earth,” published a year ago. It is a dramatic account in which Hansen is naturally a principal figure. I list it here as essential background reading on Hansen’s role in how the climate issue developed.

I got an early copy of “Saving Earth” forwarded from a friend. It struck me immediately as the most authoritative yet personal view of where the climate change arguments came from and how they need, in Hansen’s singular view, to be implemented.

It’s eleven pages long in pdf form and I doubt most of you will plunge into that. So I’ve excerpted some of the more significant passages.

It is wonderful that more people are waking up to the fact that we have a climate emergency. The emergency was clear more than a decade ago when it was realized that the long-term safe level of atmospheric CO2 was less than 350 ppm. Already, we were well into the dangerous zone. . . .

[The threat of an ungovernable planet] derives mainly from two large-scale climate change impacts. First, low latitudes during the warm seasons could become so hot and inhospitable to human livelihood as to generate an unstoppable drive for emigration. That potential future is emerging into view for regions as populated as India, Bangladesh, Southeast Asia, and huge swaths of Africa. The tragedy would be that these regions are, in a ‘less than 350 ppm climate,’ among the most spectacular and livable regions on the planet.

The second climate impact is sea level rise, which is an ominous threat on multi-decadal time scales. This sea level threat may be less immediate than the low-latitude, over-heating, climate-change threat, but it is more ‘non-linear,’ implying that it has the potential to grow exponentially, becoming unstoppable and irreversible. Note that the sea level threat is near-global, because most of the world’s large cities and infrastructure are located on coastlines. Nations that would be devastated by large sea level rise include the greatest economic powers of the 21st century, the United States and China. These two climate impacts are the heart of the ‘existential threat.’ . . .

Most of the warming still ‘in the pipeline’ is associated with deep-ocean warming. Thus most of this ‘in the pipeline’ warming will not occur this century. This permits the possibility of avoiding most of that warming, if we reduce the amount of gases in the air on the time scale of a century or two. . . .

Faced with realization that we could hand young people a climate system running out of their control, political leaders took the easy way out. With the Paris Agreement in 2015 they changed the target for maximum global warming from 2°C to 1.5°C. A temperature ‘target’ approach is ineffectual. It has practically no impact on global emissions.

Global energy policies remain inconsistent with professed emission targets. Emission targets will never overrule the desire of nations to raise their standards of living. Effective energy policies, not professed targets, are the crucial requirement for phasing down fossil fuel emissions. . . .

The two essential energy policy requirements are: 1) honest pricing of fossil fuels, i.e., the price must rise to include the cost of fossil fuels to society; 2) government support of breakthrough technologies, including clean energy research, development, demonstration and deployment programs. . . .

The missing technology for China, and now for India, was a clean source of power to replace coal in massive energy requirements for electricity and industrial heat.

Later this century, when scholars look back at what went wrong, the single sentence likely to stand out will be one uttered by President William Jefferson Clinton in his first State of the Union Address, almost three decades ago: “We are eliminating programs that are no longer needed, such as nuclear power research and development.”

How could such a spectacularly bad decision have been reached? Readily available empirical data showed that nuclear power was the safest energy source, with the smallest environmental footprint.

The potential for inexpensive, modular, ultrasafe reactors – built in a factory or shipyard – has not been developed. Support for research, development, demonstration and deployment – lavished on renewable energies for decades – only recently has been initiated in a small way for modern nuclear power. . . .

The most urgent task is to phase down fossil fuel emissions. There is no one simple solution to this. It will take a lot of positive actions, and also pressure on the fossil fuel industry, from multiple directions, pressure on them to become a clean energy industry. . . .

The legal approach is slow and no panacea, but it is an essential part of the solution. [It] must be pursued simultaneously with the political approach. . . .

[Voting Trump out of office is not the answer.] The public has tried that recourse. They voted in Barack (‘Planet in Peril’) Obama and Albert (‘Earth in the Balance’) Gore. The accomplishments by those Administrations in addressing climate change, to use a favorite phrase of my mother, “did not amount to a hill of beans.” Democrats and Republicans are both on the take from special interests, the fossil fuel industry. Both parties work with industry, approving and subsidizing fossil fuel extraction and use.

I wanted to write something today about the impact of tanks on the environment but then thought better of it.

The Climate Doctor Speaks

Jay Inslee has a radical plan to phase out fossil fuel production in the US

Writer David Roberts of Vox has as his subtitle: “This is going to make some people mad.” Jay Inslee, as you may know, is the only Democratic candidate to base his whole campaign on the issues of climate change. His proposals have made some of the other candidates look, shall we say, weak by comparison.

The Washington governor’s climate plans aim for net-zero carbon pollution by 2045, sooner than most of his would-be opponents would propose. Today he released details of the fourth planning component. According to Vox, “It is in many ways the most radical piece yet, and likely to be the most controversial. It is about cutting off the flow of fossil fuels from the US—‘keeping it in the ground,’ as the kids say.”

There are several big items of note in the latest plan, including a proposal to put a price on carbon. Fracking? He wants to work toward a national prohibition. He wants to get rid of fossil fuel subsidies, reinstate dozens of environmental rules that President Trump reversed, step up enforcement on polluters, reject all new climate-unsafe infrastructure, and boost corporate climate accountability.

And that just scratches the surface. This is a capacious plan, requiring both executive powers and legislation. The net result would be a conscious, deliberate phasing out of US fossil fuel production.

There are five major steps in the Inslee plan, and each will face great political hurdles. But all appear necessary to avoid the otherwise inevitable disasters.

    1. end all fossil fuel subsidies
    2. end federal leasing and phase out fossil fuel production
    3. hold polluters accountable (with a climate pollution fee, or tax)
    4. reject all new fossil fuel infrastructure
    5. improve corporate climate transparency
    6. make this plan into the official Democratic platform.

I like number 6 best, though I am not holding my breath. And yet, Inslee’s new set of plans could be enough to shake up the other candidates.