Michael Shellenberger: Why Biden Can Unite America With Nuclear Power — Or Divide It With Renewables
The following article was written by Michael Shellenberger and appeared in Forbes:
In his victory speech, President-elect Joe Biden said he would govern as an American, not as a Democrat, and work as hard for people who didn’t vote for him as people who did.
And yet, at the top of his agenda, is to spend $2 trillion on climate change, almost entirely on renewables, which Republicans in Congress overwhelmingly oppose.
A better approach would be a Green Nuclear Deal.
“If Biden wants to unite Americans he should seek legislation to raise nuclear energy from its current 19 percent of electricity to 50 percent by 2050,” argues Madison Czerwinski, founder of a new group, Campaign for a Green Nuclear Deal.
That may seem counterintuitive. After all, polling shows that solar and wind are more popular with the public than nuclear energy.
But most of the resistance to industrial wind and solar projects comes from people who live in rural areas which overwhelmingly voted for President Donald Trump.
Last Thursday, Wyoming regulators rejected a request by a wind energy developer to build on state land, the first time the state had ever rejected a proposed energy project of any kind on state lands.
“The area is one of our most spectacularly beautiful scenic areas and attracts tourists from Colorado and other states every year,” said Jennifer Kirchhoefer, a local environmentalist who helped lead grassroots resistance to the project.
Meanwhile, Republicans are showing growing skepticism of solar and wind. They made California’s electricity rates rise nearly seven times more than they did in the rest of the US between 2011 and 2019. And the share of electricity California generated from renewables grew just 0.75% in 2019, from 59.25 terawatt-hours to 60 terawatt-hours.
“So these things [solar and wind] don’t work,” said Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a rising Republican star, in early October. “These are silly solutions. Nuclear would be a far better energy resource than solar and wind if [Democrats] cared about zero emissions.”
Few environmentalists realize that solar farms require 300-400 times more land than natural gas or nuclear plants. A video showing the devastation of green hillsides in China that I tweeted two weeks ago was viewed by 2 million people. Many expressed surprise at its devastating impact on landscapes.
And Republicans are far more pro-nuclear than Democrats. “More Republicans (59%) than Democrats (41%) support expanding nuclear power plants,” notes Pew, and “support for nuclear power is stronger among conservative Republicans (63%) than among moderate or liberal Republicans (51%).”
Biden himself rejected Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s “Green New Deal” in his debate with President Trump.
Now, NPR reports that “Democrats themselves are not fully unified on how to approach” climate change with “many moderate Democrats are skeptical of those plans and Republicans have mocked the proposal and successfully ran against the proposal in states like Texas and South Dakota.”
“It is important to note that this happened at the beginning of November, not in the heat of summer when air conditioning can strain grids or an abnormally long cold snap in the winter,” noted Forbes market columnist Ellen R. Wald. “No, this was not caused by overburdening the grid but by overreliance on unreliable alternative energies.”
There is also a strong national security argument for Biden to seek to expand the building of nuclear plants.
Russia and China are currently dominating foreign markets for new nuclear plant construction thanks to their experience building nuclear plants at home, something the USA has halted after the failure of the V. C. Summer project in South Carolina in 2017.
China even appears to be working with longtime U.S. ally Saudi Arabia to enrich uranium, which rightly alarms national security analysts, since uranium can be enriched to low levels to make electricity or high levels to make weapons.
Biden supporters emphasize that he would fund more research and development (R&D) for nuclear, but more money for nuclear R&D projects was already approved with bipartisan support last year.
And more R&D is no substitute for actually building full-sized reactors. “Russia has a world-class R&D program,” notes Nelson, “including the world’s first operationally-reliable, commercial sodium-cooled fast reactor fleet, which can recycle used fuel. But they only have the resources for that because they are successfully building and selling a lot of VVERS.”
VVERS are the Russian version of the American AP1000 advanced reactor, and the leading French advanced reactor, or EPR, that the British adopted for Hinkley and Sizewell. “Russia’s advanced sodium reactors, even when operating well, are still more expensive than their large light-water reactors,” notes Nelson.
Biden could announce the Green Nuclear Deal proposal at the V.C. Summer nuclear station in South Carolina with Governors and Senators from Georgia and South Carolina, argues Czerwinski.
“Biden announcing a Green Nuclear Deal at Summer would provide unifying policy substance to his unifying political rhetoric,” said Czerwinski. “It would bring together Republicans, labor unions, and younger Democrats who are worried about climate change and want to see something bold.”
Construction was halted on the two new advanced reactors in South Carolina, a model known as the “AP1000” and identical to the ones under construction in Georgia, after lawmakers became spooked by construction delays and cheap natural gas.
The project could be re-started with federal financing, notes Mark Nelson of Radiant Energy Group, a research consultancy.
“Capital has never been cheaper for big projects and governments need a way to create high-paying jobs that also creates significant long-term value,” said Nelson. “Nuclear plants around the world are now getting completed after years of abandonment, and there’s no reason we can’t do the same here by restarting construction of Summer as soon as next year.”
Despite the opposition to new nuclear from a political coalition that includes Greenpeace and natural gas producers BP, the British government appears close to approving the construction of two new, full-sized nuclear reactors identical to two currently under construction at an existing nuclear power plant location, reports BBC.
“The approval of Sizewell is a massive win for workers,” noted Czerwinski, “since it extends their work and revenue, providing some certainty during a particularly difficult, uncertain time in lockdown.”
Writers for Britain’s leading newspapers, including The Financial Times and Telegraph debated nuclear energy over the last year and ultimately sided with the evidence showing the benefits of “standardization,” which allows workers to go faster each new time because they’ve done the identical cement-pouring, welding, and other construction work before.
“Only by sticking firmly to the same specification, engineers and builders could you drive down construction costs,” wrote Jonathan Ford of the Financial Times in September. “This ‘learning by doing’ could lead to meaningful reductions…. all this while increasing the size of the reactors in output terms by 40 per cent.”
The reason Britain should build two identical reactors at Sizewell as are being built at Hinkley is obvious: experience, experience, experience.
“Having swallowed the hefty “first of a kind” (FOAK) costs — see Hinkley and Flamanville — and invested in the supply chain to build the latest big “practical” reactors (after a 30-year nuclear hiatus), countries such as the UK should build large “cookie-cutter” fleets,” writes Ford
Czerwinski emphasized how much better the jobs in nuclear are compared to installing solar panels.
“While unboxing solar panels made in China might make money for BlackRock,” said Czerwinski, “doing so isn’t a good job with high pay, especially compared to forging nuclear reactor vessels or working lifetime employment at a nuclear plant.”
Czerwinski is pushing for the U.S. to have its own heavy-metal forge to create reactor vessels, which is something other experts agree is needed to have a viable nuclear industry.
“A substantial number of new reactors will need to be built per year, so American industry would have to increase its construction capacity, especially to provide the necessary heavy forging,” argued Emmet Penney and Adrián Calderón in The Bellows, a left-labor magazine.
“Reactors already in service should undergo safety reviews that extend their licensing,” they wrote. “They should also undergo refurbishment and retrofitting with technical upgrades to increase efficiency and safety. Alongside the reactor buildout, a strong domestic fuel cycle industry to provide the uranium would need to be developed.”
Nuclear power plants, which can run for 80 years or more, sometimes employ three generations of families who earn comparatively high wages, thanks to the high-tech nature of nuclear.
By contrast, solar panel installation is temporary, low-pay work, notes Czerwinski. It involves not the actual manufacturing of the solar panels but just installation, which involves clearing landscapes of all life, plant and animal, and fastening solar panels to metal rods in the ground.
“The U.S. can take nuclear to 50 percent of electricity by building AP1000s at existing sites for much less than the cost of Vogtle. And the end result would be cheap electricity, not the brutal prices of renewables and gas heavy California,” argues Madison. “The South Korean, French, and British examples show that costs decline dramatically with standardization.”
Says Czerwinski, “Given the longstanding popularity of nuclear energy on the Right, and the desire for bold action by the Left, it’s hard to imagine a better energy policy for overcoming our partisan divide.”
Kirchhoefer, the environmentalist who helped block industrial wind project in Wyoming, agrees. “I am actually pro-nuclear as well,” she said.