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A better mousetrap. A nuclear-free, carbon-free energy future is not only possible; it’s closer than you think…

Governments in their death throes—those unable to adapt to change--tend to use fear and spread fear as a tactic. For recent examples, one need think no further than Libya, Egypt, Syria. So do social movements. The Tea Party spreads unfounded fear of socialism and worse to mask its true fear: the reality of a changing society. No matter how potent it seemed in 2010, changing demographics mean it too is in its death throes.

Dying industries, those unable to keep pace with technological change, often do the same. They typically argue the old way of doing things was better. Horse and buggy drivers warned of noise and dangers with newfangled automobiles (hmm, maybe they had a point…). But technology marches on: TV supplanted radio as the main entertainment medium; CDs supplanted LPs, which supplanted 78s; DVDs supplanted the short-lived reign of videotapes; the internet is working on supplanting all of them. Build a better mousetrap, and the people will buy it.

The principle applies well to energy. The nuclear and fossil fuel industries of the 20th century are in their death throes. In a desperate effort to extend their lifespan before obsolescence, they try to make themselves appear necessary and the alternatives scarily uncertain. Nuclear proponents like blogger Rod Adams call renewables “unreliables.” Utilities heavily invested in nuclear and fossil fuels warn that only mammoth dirty power plants can provide “baseload” power and that modern industrial society cannot survive without that “baseload” power. Frightening forecasts of future skyrocketing global energy demand are issued, with the clear implication being that we need more behemoth power plants to face the future.

Understanding that the public believes in modern, clean energy, these industries also try to rebrand themselves as clean and green and attach themselves to “clean energy standards” and the like—but for them it is no more than marketing. It’s not possible to make coal, or nuclear, or even natural gas clean or green; it’s only possible to try to sell them that way.

Which future are you on?
In the best of times, nuclear reactors (and other fuel cycle facilities) release dangerous radiation on a routine basis, in the worst of times we get Fukushima and Chernobyl. And while some could thus accuse us of using fear ourselves as a tactic, at least this fear has scientific basis: the National Academy of Sciences acknowledges that there is no “safe” level of radiation exposure, every exposure carries some small level of risk that rises with the amount of exposure. If nuclear power turns out to be unnecessary, why would anyone accept even low levels of radiation exposure that can cause cancer and other diseases? We’ve already contaminated the entire planet with radiation through weapons testing, Chernobyl, Fukushima (and a score of lesser accidents), and routine releases. It just might be wiser—if we can avoid it—not to continue that contamination.

As an illustration, think of that radioactive tuna fish from Fukushima that showed up on California’s coast, contaminated with Cesium-137 and the shorter-lived Cesium-134. Measurements showed that it contained about 10 times the amount of Cesium-137 normally found in tuna not from Fukushima—still a fairly low level. But the real question is: why is there Cesium-137 in tuna at all? Cesium-137 is not found in nature, it’s a man-made element that is produced through nuclear fission. Tuna—and almost everything else we eat and drink and live with--has measurable background levels of Cesium-137 because of the nuclear fuel cycle, nuclear weapons testing and nuclear power accidents. It shouldn’t be there at all and 75 years ago, it wasn’t. With a hazardous life of 300 years, Cesium-137 is going to be in tuna, and everything else, for a long time to come. Thus, when the next Fukushima happens—and if we continue with nuclear power, there will be a next Fukushima—our new standard will be “only ten times higher than usually measured,” which of course means 100 times higher than pre-Fukushima tuna and infinitely higher than the fish our great-grandparents ate. This is how we slowly and invisibly contaminate the planet and raise the rate of cancer, infertility, birth defects and other radiation impacts.

Given the reality of forced radiation exposure from nuclear power, and the tons of carbon spewing into our atmosphere from fossil fuel use, few, excepting perhaps a few serious nuclear diehards, would argue that a nuclear-free carbon-free energy future would not be preferable to our current energy system based primarily on fossil fuels and nuclear power.

The Better Mousetrap, or, technology moves forward…
The good news is that a nuclear-free carbon-free energy future is not only feasible, practical and economical, it is much nearer than most people realize—and could be even closer if the right policy choices are made now, before hundreds of billions of dollars are spent on new nuclear and fossil fuel choices that are both unnecessarily polluting and unnecessary period.

In August 2007, Dr. Arjun Makhijani of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research published a groundbreaking study: Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy. Using as a guideline that the U.S. would spend no greater percentage of GNP on energy as we do now (about 8%), he laid out a plan for the U.S. to close all of its nuclear and fossil fuel power plants and replace them with clean energy sources by 2050.  As Dr. Makhijani noted at the time, if the global goal is an 80% reduction in greenhouses gases by 2050, then the U.S. would have to cut our releases by essentially 100%.

Less then five years later, Dr. Makhijani asserts that clean energy technology is advancing so rapidly that the carbon-free, nuclear-free goal could be achieved by 2040. Although the conceptual basis of Dr. Makhijani’s work is sound, people can quibble about the exact scenario he proposed. But several more recent major studies have agreed with the fundamental point.

*In March 2009, Greenpeace International published a report it commissioned from Germany’s counterpart to NASA, showing how all nuclear, coal and oil power plants in the U.S. could be economically retired by 2050, with a net reduction in carbon emissions of about 85%.

*Another Greenpeace study in January 2011 showed how Europe could go 100% renewable energy by 2050.

*In November 2009, Scientific American published a cover story and accompanying interactive guide showing how the U.S. could go 100% renewable by 2030.

*The World Wildlife Fund came out in February 2011 with a comprehensive new study laying out a plan for a 100% renewable powered world by 2050.

*In March 2011, the Institute for Policy Research and Development in London published yet another study showing a pathway to a 100% renewable U.S. by 2050.

While each of these studies presents slightly different ways and timelines for getting there, they agree that nuclear-free and essentially carbon-free is feasible and economical by mid-century. That they haven’t received much attention from the media is a testament to the ongoing power of the nuclear and fossil fuel industries, even in their fading days. Fading because while new nuclear and coal construction costs keep rising, costs for new solar especially are tumbling. By 2010, for example, economics professor and former chancellor of Duke University John Blackburn published a study showing that in North Carolina—a state about average for the U.S. in its solar potential—costs of new solar power had dropped below that of new nuclear.  Since then, solar has become so cheap that it threatens to actually slow down the industry (see, eg, Solyndra, whose technology was no longer economical).

In a recent legal case we (NIRS) brought against the proposed Calvert Cliffs-3 nuclear reactor in Maryland, we learned that household rooftop solar potential in Maryland alone, which has slightly less solar potential than North Carolina, is a staggering 5,000 Megawatts. But, it doesn’t stop there—another 5,000 MW or so of solar potential is available on the rooftops of existing business and industrial buildings. Even with solar’s lower capacity factor, and the reality that some people and businesses just won’t want solar, this alone would be enough to replace Calvert-Cliffs-3, without a single square foot of unused land required (so much for solar’s supposed large land footprint). Add solar PV above parking lots, and the numbers can skyrocket.

Maryland’s real renewable energy goldmine, however, is in offshore wind, where the potential is spectacular (if a little further off timewise). That’s why Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley has been trying hard, though so far unsuccessfully, to get the Maryland legislature to enact a law that would encourage development of that industry.

Of course, as we hear ad nauseum, solar only works during the day when it’s sunny and the wind doesn’t always blow, so these renewable sources are “unreliable.” Those bloated and big baseload plants are needed to keep society humming.

Actually, solar does work when it’s cloudy and raining (just not as efficiently) and it works best when power is needed the most: on hot and sunny days. And while wind may not blow in any given location 24/7, it is always blowing somewhere. With our existing grids stretching hundreds, even thousands of miles, switching from one wind farm to another just isn’t that hard—especially when no given wind farm provides a large portion of the grid’s capacity. Plus, complementing solar nicely, wind is usually stronger at night, when solar is weakest (researchers in Idaho recently invented solar panels that actually capture nighttime ultraviolet rays to create electricity; too expensive for commercial use right now, but so was solar PV 20-30 years ago).

Modern electrical grids and distributed generation using renewables (also including geothermal where available, small-scale hydro where available, and possibly some carefully chosen biomass, along with possible future technologies like microalgae) can indeed provide reliable power 24/7—the goal of “baseload” power. And, in fact, they can provide power more reliably than the large baseload power plant systems of the 20th century. Think about it: when a 1,000 MW plant goes down for maintenance or refueling (or meltdown), it has to be replaced—quickly—by another 1,000 MW of power. When a 200 MW offshore wind farm temporarily is quieted by lack of wind, that’s a lot less power to replace. And the grid would never even notice if a household—or even industrial-sized—PV system somehow went down. (For a more complete discussion of how renewables can actually provide power more reliably than the 20th century baseload model, see “The Nuclear Illusion,” by Amory Lovins and Imran Sheikh, http://www.nirs.org/...
In some areas, large centralized solar thermal power plants, which actually can provide power 24/7 using molten sodium or other storage technology, are being built. Not quite as large as average nuclear or coal plants, but still pretty big. And storage technology generally is taking off—advanced batteries, compressed air systems and the like—meaning that the availability of renewables, even large-scale renewables, is growing almost daily.

We’re already seeing glimpses of the future. In Germany, which no one will ever confuse with a sunny resort nation, solar power provided fully 50% of the entire nation’s electrical demand on the weekend of May 26-27, 2012. On a day earlier this year, a single power source—wind—provided 60% of Spain’s electrical demand (Spain, of course, is also a leader in solar power).

It won’t happen overnight, of course. But new nuclear reactors don’t happen overnight either—average construction time of a reactor is eight or more years. Over the next two or three decades, if the right choices are made now, a solid, reliable, economical nuclear-free, carbon-free electricity system is indeed possible.

With construction costs for new nuclear reactors running some $6,000-$10,000/kw, while wind costs about 1/3 to ½ that (a bit more for offshore wind), and new solar PV is as low as $2,000/kw installed, the future of our power supplies seems obvious. Necessary transmission and grid improvements needed to implement a renewable, distributed generation do add to the cost, but still keep it below new nuclear. Add to that the obvious environmental and public health benefits of a nuclear-free, carbon-free energy system, and it’s clear why this vision of the future will in fact become the future. The only real question is how soon, and how much further pain we will have to endure from radiation releases and carbon spewing from obsolete nuclear and fossil fuel behemoths.
--Michael Mariotte, June 7, 2012, from Netroots Nation, Providence, RI

Originally posted to nirsnet on Thu Jun 07, 2012 at 12:37 PM PDT.

Also republished by Nuclear Free DK.

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