Wind or Nukes – Opinion

Wind or Nukes – Opinion
Wind Power and Renewables: A Better Energy and Environmental Solution than Nuclear

It is certainly acceptable to have a negative personal opinion about commercial wind power, but those that do should also have a better long-term energy, environmental, economic and societal solution to offer in its place. Saying “no” to one option is the same as saying “yes” to another. I’m sure there are exceptions, but every wind opponent I have ever asked has either run from a solution suggestion or offered unrealistic options that do not comprehensively address the magnitude, timeline or complexity of these coming energy and environmental problems. When pressed, many of the opponents I have talked to say that nuclear power is a better choice than commercial wind. Some argue that wind power and other renewable energy sources are not practical as steady and reliable base power to the electric grid despite the fact that the existing grid already successfully manages far larger variances brought on by fluctuating end user demands. By the time we produce enough unstored renewable energy to negatively impact the New England power grid, countless creative energy storage methods, such as hydrogen production, kinetic water reservoir storage, smart grids and new battery and other technologies will be ready for immediate and relatively easy implementation.

Before we move forward with our future energy and environmental choices, we must ask ourselves which is the more reasonably obtainable, economical, sane and timely option, finding the political and social will to build a new distributed renewably-sourced smart grid with modulating storage reserves using technology which already exists, or deferring urgent climate change resolution until perhaps possible nuclear production methods have been perfected which reuse our already large spent fuel deposits that have been searching for a satisfactory safe storage place since the first days of the nuclear experiment? Which new technology option will be more easily and quickly obtainable in a real world divorced from industry propaganda? Considering all of the true societal and development costs, which option will be done less expensively? Thinking ten generations ahead, which option is based on a finite amount of source fuel, thereby soon obsolete, and which system infrastructure can continue to be a valid option until the sun and our solar system cools and we need to find a new home? Which option offers the smallest environment risk from a host of threat sources?

Yes, we should continue nuclear research to safely reuse and eliminate the present environmental and geopolitical hazards of our worldwide spend nuclear fuel reserves, but future nuclear power production should be halted until after we have scientifically mature solutions to this power production method. In the meantime, renewable energy systems development is our best and most sane course of action. Once a distributed renewable energy infrastructure is in place and working efficiently, the only logical reason for future nuclear power will be to render our present spent fuel deposits inert and hazard free.

The nuclear power industry, after decades of relative dormancy due to cost and safety concerns, has been working hard to make a comeback. Concerns about climate change and the required reduction in carbon dioxide emissions have given the nuclear lobbyists new hope that it will be seen as a logical answer to the problem. Sadly, Americans seem to be digesting this propaganda as a societal bargain in terms of low electric production costs and its ability to provide an answer to these environmental problems. Ironically, these are the two main reasons why humankind should halt the continuation of this energy source, barring real major future technological improvements.

Yes, the nuclear industry can correctly proclaim their product as currently having low retail costs, lower carbon dioxide emissions than some fossil fuel options, and providing steady base load power, but those are the only positives the industry can claim. These virtues are far from the complete picture of what we get when we buy nuclear power. When we buy nuclear power we also pay for the power plants, largely funded by gigantic subsidies that would dwarf all those given to the renewable energy industry, wind power included. These plants cost so much, take so long to build and are so expensive and risky to insure that no one in the U.S. has built a new one in almost three decades. Plant construction cost overruns and attempted avoidance of costly thorough safety inspections are a common occurrence. If a tragic accident at one of these plants occurs by natural act, terrorist attack or operational error, the nuclear industry is only legally accountable for a tiny portion of the damages which would include large issues relating to health, safety, property and clean up. In addition, we taxpayers separately subsidize uranium fuel enrichment and almost all of the huge decommissioning funds required to dismantle and clean up these plant sites once they reach the end of their relatively short design life cycle. None of these ‘true costs’ appear as part of our nuclear power retail rates. With a realistic accounting of ‘true costs’, wind power and other renewable energy sources can already successfully compete with the electric costs from all traditional fuels, nuclear included.

Many of the true costs of nuclear power have not yet been billed to us. The present wholesale rate per kilowatt-hour is far from the complete story. We have just begun to pay the one-quarter million year storage fees on the radioactive spent fuel, plus the salaries and facility costs to staff, safely monitor, protect and store this waste material for the next 10,000 generations. To put that in perspective, there has been approximately 80 generations since 0 B.C. and about nine since the signing of the Declaration of Independence. These costs alone, barring the unbearable cost of a nuclear plant catastrophe, make nuclear power the most illogical economic energy choice in human history. To choose nuclear power in its present technological state is disgracefully self-serving and disrespectful to our children’s economic and societal future.

To complicate the problem, after 60 years the nuclear industry still has no workable method or place to store, transport or treat this hazardous material. Current storage resolution promises are largely mythical and the technology for recycling spent fuel reserves should not be activated until after they are mature and all of the related environmental problems have sound solutions in place. In addition, the potential cost of an accident cannot be assigned a dollar value. A single accident in our New England states has the potential to render a significant portion of the eastern seaboard of North America and adjacent Atlantic Ocean uninhabitable for an inconceivable period of time. Over the typical period a spent fuel rod remains hazardous, the odds of such an incident are staggeringly high. Wind power and other renewable energy sources carry none of these risks.

In the 21st-century, we must begin to include environmental costs into any energy choices we make. We have scarcely little time to almost completely end our human-made atmospheric carbon loading habit in order to save many of Earth’s present ecosystems from severe damage. Often ignored, the huge amount of concrete produced to build a nuclear power plant offsets a significant portion of the carbon dioxide it saves during the plant’s life cycle. Once running, nuclear plants produce little carbon dioxide but, unfortunately, have better environmental report cards than many traditional fossil fuels only up to the moment a disaster might happen. Wind power and other renewable energy sources score far higher overall environmental marks with no disaster risk.

It is important to understand that nuclear energy has other environmental problems as well. The entire environmental footprint of nuclear power must also include pollution and ecosystem damage from mining, refining, processing, delivering, consuming and storing radioactive fuel before and after its use, often at a plant near major waterways not far from large metropolitan areas. Plant construction and decommissioning also take their environmental toll. Nuclear plants use and evaporate enormous amounts of water for reactor cooling, sometimes discharging water back into the supplying waterways at higher temperatures, impacting aquatic ecosystems. Cooling tower water vapor is also a global warming contributor. Another harmful atmospheric gas, chlorine hydrocarbons, is produced in large quantities by the nuclear industry. Low-level radiation releases from nuclear plants often go undetected, unreported and can show up in living organisms, sometimes generations later. Once installed, wind power and other renewable energy sources have none of these problems.

Nuclear plants can provide steady base load power, but conservation and well-mixed, designed and managed renewable energy technologies can presently do the same job at lower “true” combined energy and environmental costs. All we need is the public and governmental will to move in this logical direction. Counter to claims from the nuclear industry, renewable energy systems are not inadequate or insignificant. Technological advances are reducing the unit costs of these systems daily. The problems of a renewable energy-sourced base load power infrastructure are not greater than past energy systems, just different. The long-term inherent logic of naturally sustainable energy sources has already begun to dominate the direction of world energy development. Disturbingly, the United States is already far behind and our future national economy will someday pay dearly for it.

Unlike nuclear power, with environmental costs possibly approaching infinity and fuel supplies which are projected to become scarce before the end of this century, wind energy “fuel” will forever cost zero dollars per unit. This fact, applied using conservation and all renewable energy options, could end the concept of energy cost inflation and its already harsh influence on societal, political, ethics and economic issues. The renewable energy industry will soon offer more design and manufacturing jobs than the traditional power industries due to the shear magnitude of the problem. Renewables like wind power will shed energy production costs relating to drilling, mining, refining, delivering, storage, processing, waste treatment and the discarding of traditional fuels. In addition, renewable energy systems offer the advantage of being fabricated, installed and operational in a very short period of time with relatively low decommissioning costs that, unlike nuclear energy, need not be funded by the public. Renewables like wind also carry few health, safety, security, accident, terrorist, environmental, inspection, insurance or future pollution tax risks or expenses. Distributed energy sources offer lower power line capacity requirements and better grid stability in the avoidance of brownouts. Nuclear energy will always be provided from expensive centralized plants with long, environmentally disruptive transmission lines due to the fuel security risks. As difficult as it may seem, windfarms should be much more accepted in distributed locations along utility power grids than nuclear plants that are nearly impossible to permit in someone else’s “backyard”. Saying “no” to wind adds more pressure to say “yes” to the nuclear industry’s strategy to ask five existing plants for high-risk 20% uprates in place of a new plant they can not get permits to build. We must be careful of what we don’t ask for.

To those who understand the state of the environment and our perilously brief time frame to correct it, our society must immediately awaken to the exciting and presently real possibilities of clean renewable energy systems and conservation logic. Happily, once many of the presently circulating half-truths about traditional and renewable energy sources become fully exposed to our collective understanding, the combined energy, environmental and economic futures available to us through sustainable and environmentally-friendly solutions will be embraced by the new “Greatest Generation” as truly exciting. Renewables offer all of us a real path to profound prosperity that the overly-optimistic nuclear industry has never been able to bestow. Armed with a shift in public mindset and will equal to our national heritage, we need to quickly use our ingenuity and limited resources to move away from short-term and unresolved solutions like nuclear power toward long-term, healthy, safe and true wealth-building solutions such as renewable energy, conservation and efficiency increases.

Who knows, a few windmills and solar collectors in our daily view might impact our current ‘societal energy’ shortage and even inspire young designers, engineers, environmentalists, economists and politicians into thinking tomorrow can actually be a brighter day.

Keith Dewey
Weston, Vermont