Nuclear vs. Sun and Wind Energy

Al Shelly and Bill Resnick debate

In the July/August 2020 issue of Against the Current Bill Resnick reviewed Planet of the Humans. Al Shelly wrote a response to the film review, challenging Resnick’s dismissal of nuclear power as a source of renewable energy. We are printing his response followed by Bill Resnick’s reply. —The Editors

THE ONLY MENTION of nuclear power in this piece is the appearance of the words “coal and nuclear power” and “coal burning and nuclear assets,” a conflating of the ancient non-renewable fuel with the very modern renewable one.

Nuclear is by far preferable to wind power: its footprint is orders of magnitude smaller. To generate a thousand megawatts of nuclear power takes one square mile for the plant and all else. To generate the same thousand megawatts via wind power takes 100 square miles of land.

Come to West Virginia and see what wind power means.

Wind Power

There are perhaps 30 machines in this abominable photo. They produce 5% of what a smallish nuclear plant will produce. Such a nuclear plant needs a mile of any kind of land; you don’t build them on mountain ridges. For wind power to produce the same output, 1000 Megawatts, requires 150 miles of ridge.

If all electric power generation in California, 80,000 Megawatts, were shifted to wind power, with all of the turbines placed on ridges à la West Virginia, it would take 12,000 miles of ridge. For comparison: the crest of the Sierra is 500 miles. Mt. Baldy, San Gorgonio, San Jacinto and the ridges of Southern California give perhaps another 500 miles. A ridge of the Coast Range is, say, 700 miles long.

That gives us 1700 miles of the 12,000 we need, and already we have destroyed the Sierra, the Southern California mountains and the Coast Range.

If all US electric power were converted to wind power, the “wind farm” to produce it would cover the state of Nevada (100,000 square miles). If it were converted to nuclear, it would only cover Rhode Island 1500 square miles).

Nuclear Power

Nuclear is safe. The contemporary designs are generations beyond Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. No major accidents have occurred in three decades. Few people have died.

Fukushima is frequently cited as the most recent disaster, proof that nuclear power is too unsafe to be allowed.

Actually, Fukushima is a testimony to the safety of nuclear. An extremely major natural disaster struck the area: a tsunami forty feet high. A natural calamity of such magnitude is a very rare event. Although fifteen thousand people were killed by the tsunami, the official death toll for the Fukushima meltdown is one person, dead from radiation-induced cancer.

This is doubtless an underestimate. But, to exaggerate, even if 100 people were killed, one is dealing with an accident on the scale of an airliner crash. Just as an aviation disaster of this magnitude doesn’t shut down the airline industry, neither should a similarly lethal nuclear disaster shut down the nuclear power industry.

A REPLY

THE BATTLE BETWEEN proponents of nuclear power and advocates for sun and wind renewables has proceeded on two fronts:

(1) On the technical front both sides produce briefs and scientific/engineering studies that find their system cheaper, more reliable, quicker to install, safe and environmentally benign. This battle of dueling estimates and studies resembles the battle over the reality of climate change, though with more complications, and the still powerful nuclear industry manages to stay in the game and to be seriously treated even by liberal media by marshaling enough scientists.

(2) On the political front the issue for the left concerns who should control the energy system and how it is organized. The choice is between:

(a) A confederation of locally run utilities, employing mostly sun and wind installations, mostly small and medium size, a few quite large. The system would operate democratically, be subject to democratic controls and easily monitored, with models successfully operating around the world and in the United States, especially in California.

(b) A national system of affiliated Investor Owned Utilities (IOU), reproducing their current operations but with many more nuclear plants and sun and wind plantations, all connected to a big grid. The IOU system would be highly securitized, run by an executive elite and technical experts, public and private, with the whole industry protected from investigation and scrutiny, much like today’s military/industrial/security complex.

This struggle, while hardly visible, might well determine whether the planet remains habitable for large human populations. This essay will examine both the technical and political arguments to demonstrate that the IOU System, if it prevails, will lead to calamity whereas the confederated local community energy system across the developed world might prolong the human experiment.

On the Technical Front

Comparing the two systems on the multiple technical issues – on the costs for building out each system, on environmental impacts, on the speed of implementation, on reliability and on safety – has become extremely complex, with issues ranging from the speculative to the slightly educated guess.

How fast and far will costs – especially solar and wind, but also nuclear technology – fall or rise with experience, mass production, and depletion of supply of rare materials? Is there a safe place to bury the radioactive material especially the highly dangerous spent rods for 10,000 years?

Environmental Impact: You don’t have to be an expert to know that Al Shelly’s major argument that echoes nuclear industry propaganda is highly questionable. He claims that this country would need 100,000 square miles of land (the size of Nevada) for wind turbines to meet its energy needs.

Al then clinches his point with a dramatic warning that in California it would require capping every mountain peak in that state with wind turbines and that would only be a start for meeting that state’s energy needs. But wind turbines are not the only source of clean energy.

Solar, geothermal and wave also provide cheap renewable energy, and both solar and wind produce nearly anywhere with moving air or considerable sun. Both work fine in industrial areas, lands taken for industrial use and barren lands.

The United States has 47,500 miles of Interstate Highway, 161,000 miles of freeway or major highway, and 5,000,000 miles of paved roads most in rural areas. It has 2000 square miles of rooftop.

Wind turbines and solar panels efficiently operate in every state in this country and are perfectly happy producing electrons operating alongside busy highways and railroad right of ways and ruined or non-arable land. Cows happily graze under wind turbines indeed stay in the shadow of the center post to graze (it’s cooler).

Further, “Wind energy may do more than improve farm income. When sited in agricultural fields, turbines’ churning of air may help crops to grow, new research indicates.” (Headline in the National Geographic, December 21, 2011) And as hyped by the nuclear industry, wind turbines do kill birds, but much less than 1% of the birds killed by house cats and windowed buildings.

A study by Mark Jacobson et al demonstrates California’s rooftop PV could generate 74% of the electricity sold by its utilities in 2013. (National Energy Laboratory Report, 2016. The report is available at no cost from the NREL at www.nrel.gov/publications.Contract No. DE-AC36-08GO28308.)

Jacobson, who directs the Atmosphere/Energy Program at Stanford University, also found that “The footprint on the ground for the new energy infrastructure would be about 0.9 percent of California’s land area … The spacing area between wind turbines, which could be used for multiple purposes, including agriculture and rangeland, is another 2.77 percent.”

These could be sited on any land with relatively steady wind or sun, including farms with negligible disruption of uses. (See Mark Z Jacobson; et al. A roadmap for repowering California for all purposes with wind, water, and sunlight, 2014, Energy, Volume 73, Pages 875-889.)

The Money Costs of the System: The costs of replacing the current coal and gas fossil fuel systems will be astronomical, a great many trillions, but most coal-fired U.S. power plants are nearing retirement age, as are the big grids that deliver the electricity to market. The question is whether the replacements will be local renewable or nuclear supplemented by some gas plants.

There are good reasons to think that local confederated systems will be far cheaper.

1) Today wholesale prices of sun and wind are less than nuclear-sourced electrons, and the gap is widening in that solar panels and wind turbines are now mass produced, sold off the shelf, and getting cheaper by the day.

2) Reducing the average North American’s energy consumption to European levels would reduce by close to 50% the total capital costs of replacing the current system. Since the confederated local utility model offers high resident participation and outreaches to the many environmentally conscious movements like alternative transport, net zero carbon buildings and climate justice in their area, they can build cultures of energy conservation and use reduction.

As to the IOUs, they remain committed to their founding principle, which is to provide growing amounts of power producing growing profits to a growing economy. Like all capitalist firms, they depend on growth and feed it. The IOUs “save energy” messages that come with the monthly bill, if read, may create a little passing guilt.

3) Nuclear plants must be sited in remote areas (no one wants them in their back yard), and the costs of the nuclear and other big plants must include many thousands of miles of very expensive high voltage grid that lose electrons along the way.

That grid must traverse forests, mountains and rivers that require security from floods, storms, and vandals or sabotage with big ribbons of land, rivaling the Interstate Highway System, which must be constantly surveilled. In contrast, local confederated systems need only to strengthen and smarten their already existing grids.

4) The electricity industry is high debt, building out its plants and grids by bond issues underwritten (it’s not cheap) by the biggest financial firms paying very stable and generous salaries to its executives and dividends to stock and bond holders.

All that is thanks to Public Utility Commissioners with whom the companies maintain very chubby relations including at IOU-funded conferences on electricity issues in the finest resorts. With community energy, that money stays at home lowering rates, employing local workers, and funding local movements and needs.

5) Nuclear fuel is expensive and dangerous to mine, refine, and move. Its tailings contain uranium and other heavy metals that leach into rivers and ground water. Under radiation stress, the plants age quickly and the radioactive parts and spent rods need be safely stored for at least 10,000 years.

In contrast the sun and wind come free to wherever you want it and the materials of solar and wind installations can be recycled.

Speed of implementation: Nuclear plants and their big grids are huge projects that can be designed and built only by the biggest of contractors. Few bids are received and all of them demand cost-plus payment – guaranteed profit – and no project has ever come in under budget or on time.

This reminds us of the military industrial complex that pioneered cost-plus contract payment arrangements and their many expensive projects, especially for super aircraft, abandoned after hundreds of billions spent. And while nuclear plants’ big grids must be built by the largest contractors, small and smallish community energy infrastructure can be built and repaired by any group that can build a kitchen.

Reliability: The nukes undergo yearly maintenance, unexpected events lead to shut down, and their far-flung grid is only as reliable as its most vulnerable pylon. If said pylon or set of them is up in the mountains or other hard to access areas, it takes a lot of time just to assess the damage, to engineer and fabricate the new materials, and then get the machinery and materials and skilled crew in place at the site.

In the confederated local model using off-the-shelf sun and wind generation, if the local grid or a big plant goes down, the trucks can be there in an hour with the materials.

Safety: Nuclear plants cannot get private insurance; the risks are so great even if spread around, that one explosion could near-bankrupt the whole industry. Sun and wind installations do create some risks to birds, virtually none to humans, and in fact universal reconstruction of the energy system towards sun and wind could save many bird species – and humanity – from mass death and extinction.

On the Political Front

In the 1950s and early 60s technology enthusiasts were promising that nuclear fission-produced electricity would become so abundant as to be “too cheap to meter,” based on the demonstrated fact that nuclear fission could produce vast quantities of heat and energy (in military parlance a “bomb”).

Unfortunately the whole lot of them was way too optimistic about the costs of the electricity production systems, particularly the mechanisms to control and maintain safety of the process of boiling water to drive generators to produce electricity.

Perhaps some great breakthrough might occur, to put nuclear fission back into contention in crude cost/benefit calculations. Still, it seems to me that those of us committed to a vision of democracy – in which the electoral is but one part that includes economic and social life — must do the following:

(a) Reject any centralized militarized system, whatever their mix of nuclear and huge wind and sun plantations; (b) fight for the democratization of energy through building out of a confederation of local democratically operated community energy systems. This latter is no pipe dream; the a system has achieved a foothold around the world in transition cities and in this country especially localities in California.

Why reject the IOU’s top down centralized militarized system?

1) As pointed out in examining the technical issues, compared to a confederated local system, continuation of our current centralized energy system will be enormously expensive. And its big plant generation, by a combination of nuclear plants and sun and wind plantations, would take forever and a day to build-out, though the IPCC (intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) gives us only ten years to vastly reduce greenhouse gas emission or risk likely climate cataclysm.

2) Just as important, continuation of the current hierarchical system would strengthen corporate control of the economy and state and buttress the state’s oppressive apparatus.

The IOU/state partnership for supplying electricity is a top-down system run by a combination of financial, technical and security experts.

While expertise is surely needed, these women and men employ theirs to reproduce the system on which their six-to-eight figure incomes depend. As in all capitalist enterprises, that requires them to take multiple cascading set of actions to maintain the health of the system:

First and foremost, it requires maintaining rising profits flowing to their stock and bond holders, which in turn requires running their coal plants at least until their bonded debt is paid off.

Second, they know that their IOU is threatened by the forces fighting for confederated local energy utilities. A report from their peak association the Edison Institute, “Disruptive Challenges, Financial Implications and Strategic Responses to a Changing Retail Electric Business,” warned that they face bankruptcy if they don’t stop local energy (either from local public utilities or just homes’ and businesses’ solar or small wind installations) from proliferating.

That in turn requires either legislation or regulation that discourages local development, which then requires efforts to build public support, leading to a great deal of greenwashing — promoting green energy options that they offer on TV and newspapers, offering hints on their newsletters that come with the bills on how to save energy, as well as deploying an army of lobbyists and experts to convince pubic officials at every level.

They also deploy their great pools of money to set up charitable foundations that make grants to community organizations whose leaders are groomed to aid in the lobbying, with some even testifying on their behalf.

In addition they must try to avoid disasters, which demands that their nuclear plants and every section of the thousands of miles of high volume grid be protected from natural disaster or human vandalism or sabotage, requiring very large surveillance and security costs which has evolved into another specialized national militarized force.

This of course creates a moral and intellectual quandary for the IOU upper echelon. For they are fully aware of the global warming threat and that the capitalist imperative of growth, indeed exponential growth, is undermining the ecosystems upon which life depends.

So they tell themselves and their children that they, along with so many U.S. scientific/technical people, are devising solutions like capturing greenhouse gases and sequestering them underground or developing industrial use for the gases. So far, hundreds of billions spent on their research and pilot plants have nothing to show for it.

The strategies, failures and threats that the IOUs pose to human life remain mostly hidden in most states. In most controversies and decisions about investment, procurement, pricing, hiring and risk, all bearing on the nature of the overall system, are confined to small circles of experts and public officials and clothed in impenetrable technical minutia.

Even many of the NGOs and social movements have decided to enter the insiders’ game, to join this limited conversation by trying to convince the IOUs to accept clean air act regulation and update their smokestacks or support proposals for a carbon tax.

This reduces the industry’s customers to passive consumers with little understanding about how it operates its menace to humanity, the potentials of confederated local community energy, and the pressing need to conserve energy and reduce use.

The Great Virtues and Potentials of the Confederated Sun and Wind Local Utility System

The battle between the IOUs and the advocates of public democratically operated Community Energy appears a mismatch. It’s not. Targeted by the IOUs and their allies in the state and private industry, CE is here to stay. CE programs have proven successful, they are supported by their communities, and they have a foothold.

In California today over half of electricity customers are now served by public entities, these divided in about equal parts between (1) long established Public Utilities including in Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco and some forty some others, and (2) “Community Choice” entities created over the last 10 years that pursuant to California law have seized the energy supply responsibility from their local IOU. More popularly they are called CE.

Offering electricity more cheaply than the IOU in their area and creating a more inviting and responsive service, the CEs have won considerable support across California.

This was demonstrated in 2016 when CE forces defeated a PG&E (California’s biggest IOU) sponsored Proposition 16 initiative that would have amended the state constitution to require two-thirds supermajority voter approval before local governments could use public funds or issue bonds to establish or expand public electricity service or community energy.

PG&E spent $46.5 million on deceptive ads, the forces of Community Energy spent $100,000 mostly on their door-to-door and street and event tabling grass roots campaign. When the dust settled, Prop 16 lost 52.5% to 47.5%.

Though successful so far in beating back the IOU campaign to kill them, CE in California has been hampered by decisions of the California Public Utility Commission (a typical regulatory agency captured by their industry) and some state law, which limited their funds for investment.

Still, they are building out the local system of many small, some smallish, and a few “utility scale” sun and wind installations in their localities. Just as important, the CEs work with and support local movements in transportation, housing, urban form, agriculture and climate justice to reconstruct our cities and suburbs as well as build a culture of energy conservation and use reduction.

All are experimenting with democratic structures, quite complex in a confederated system of huge size, and have myriad opportunities to engage the community in volunteer work and decision making. For example, they are conducting forms of participatory budgeting and discussions of goals and the means of meeting them.

This confederated CE model, visionary and practical, exemplifies the kind of social collaboration and democratic social ownership that is central to our vision of socialism. For the democratic socialist left the fight for local sun and wind and other local renewables should be a high priority.

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