Another Perspective

Mandating Physics

Arnold wants to reduce greenhouse gases -- if he's serious, he'll go nuclear. Here's why.

By 9.5.06

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Last week California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger continued his leftward lurch by mandating that California will reduce its greenhouse gases 25 percent by the year 2020. In other words, the state will adopt its own little Kyoto Protocols.

Conservatives are upset, as usual, arguing that any attempt to impose draconic requirements will send the state's economy into a tailspin. That may be true, but so what? California is only one state and it won't hurt the country that much. Besides, if the regulations really start causing havoc, somebody will call off the effort or they'll create loopholes on top of loopholes that make the program meaningless.

On the contrary, I think it's going to be fun to see what happens. The reason is that environmentalists will quickly discover they're never going to get anywhere in reducing carbon emissions without embracing nuclear power.

First let me emphasize one point -- I believe global warming is a serious problem that demands immediate action. I know this goes against conservative doctrine but we've reached the point where politics has to give way to science. The evidence that something unprecedented is happening in the world's climate is becoming overwhelming. The carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere has grown steadily to 350 parts per million, far outside the range of 150-to-270 ppm where it has been over the last few thousands years. (We have very good records from the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps.) At the same time, the earth's temperature is rising significantly. Eight of the ten hottest years on record have occurred in the last decade.

Science is about prediction. Environmentalists have been talking about global warming since 1988 -- well before any significant rise in temperature began. Their argument is not tailored to fit the facts. Events are unfolding pretty much as they predicted. Sure you can argue that there are flaws in the model somewhere or that perhaps some unrecognized solar cycle is behind increasing temperatures. Or you can take the attitude of the Competitive Enterprise Institute and say that global warming will be a great experience. Who cares if Washington adopts the climate of Baghdad? We can all run around in burnooses.

I would prefer to face facts, however, and admit that carbon emissions are having a measurable impact on climate. It isn't all that surprising. Coal -- the prime culprit -- is a 19th century technology that we should have abandoned thirty years ago. Instead, Jimmy Carter the nuclear engineer who was afraid of his shadow decided that nuclear was too scary. (This all happened before Three Mile Island.) In his energy speech of 1977, given three months after taking office, Carter said we should double our coal consumption and that's exactly what we've done. We burned 500 million tons of coal a year in 1977. Today we consume over a billion. Every ton of carbon in coal produces three tons of carbon dioxide. Is it so surprising that this should be having an impact on the earth's atmosphere? Why are Republicans so wed to carrying out Carter's mistaken policy?

Having said this, it must also be acknowledged that environmentalists have their heads in the clouds when it comes to discovering a solution to the problem. I just finished reading Big Coal by Jeff Goodell, a reporter for Rolling Stone and the New York Times Magazine. Goodell has spent the last three years exploring all the sordid aspects of coal -- the 100,000 miners who died in the 20th century, the mountaintops now being decapitated in West Virginia, the mile-long trains backed up trying to bring coal out of the Powder River Basin, the dozens of coal plants around the country that were built to 1974 standards and still spew sulfur dioxide, particulates, mercury, nitrous oxides and all manner of air pollution, plus the dozens of coal plants now on the drawing boards that will quickly wipe out any gains from the Kyoto Protocols -- if those improvements are ever made, which they probably won't be.

Yet what Goodell propose to do about replacing coal plants? In his entire 250-page book there is only one sentence about nuclear power. Here it is:

[W]hatever coal's environmental problems are, at least coal plants are not going to melt down in some radioactive nightmare or increase the risk that some Middle Eastern terrorist will get his hands on a few ounces of uranium. [Page 100.]

Just for the record, you could probably go out in your backyard this afternoon and dig up a few ounces of uranium. It is as common as tin. Perhaps Goodell means plutonium, a manmade element produced in reactors that can be used to make nuclear weapons. In either case, our use of nuclear power has absolutely no bearing on what happens in the Middle East. As Iran is proving, they can develop their own technology.

And while we're on the subject, exactly what did happen during the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island? Was anybody hurt? Did the multiple layers of protection systems fail? More people are killed by coal trains at railroad crossings every year than have ever died from nuclear power.

Yet Goodell doesn't have to deal with this because as far as environmentalists are concerned, nuclear power doesn't exist. Al Gore pulled the same trick in An Inconvenient Truth when he borrowed the work of Robert Socolow, head of the Carbon Mitigation Initiative at Princeton. Socolow argues we need seven "wedges" to stabilize atmospheric carbon. He proposes: fuel switching, improved efficiency, energy conservation, alternate energies, reforestation, carbon sequestration, and nuclear power. He offers several other possibilities but nuclear is the only technology that can provide two wedges. Yet when Socolow's work is recited in Gore's movie, nuclear has disappeared.

It isn't as if environmentalists have to argue against nuclear power. On the contrary, they pride themselves in their ignorance about it. Nuclear simply isn't a subject for polite company.

All this will change, however, once California starts cutting back on carbon. The Northeast Coalition -- New York, New Jersey, and the New England states -- have already discovered this. When they pledged to reduce greenhouse gases two years ago, there was widespread talk about closing down Westchester County's Indian Point, New Jersey's Oyster Creek, and just about every other nuclear plant in sight. Now things have become strangely quiet.

Even some of the most dedicated environmentalists are starting to realize they're never going to get anywhere in cutting carbon emissions without nuclear. That's why it's going to be fun to see what happens in California.

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About the Author
William Tucker is news editor for RealClearEnergy.org.