One of the abiding illusions of the energy debate is that there is an all powerful "nuclear lobby" that is engineering the revival of nuclear power.
What organizations could it possibly involve? The Nuclear Energy Institute has a modest budget and an interactive website, but then so does the American Association of Preferred Provider Organizations and the American Land Title Association. In fact, who doesn't these days?
If you want to see a powerful lobbying group, look at coal. Next to farming, coal is probably the most powerfully imbedded industry in the United States. There are 75,000 coal miners still at work around the country and Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Wyoming, Montana and a few others are considered "coal states."
Where are the nuclear states? There are none. Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico (which houses both Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories) came as close as anyone to being the "Mr. Nuclear" and he retired this year. New Mexico's two Democratic Senators, Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall, now argue that "New Mexico's energy wealth lies in the power of its wind and sun."
In the 1970s and 1980s, three major American companies -- General Electric, Westinghouse and Babcock & Wilcox -- were the technological leaders of the world in the nuclear reactor field. Today B&W is servicing its existing reactors but has no new designs on the drawing board. Westinghouse is still a leader but was bought by Toshiba in 2007. Mitsubishi is also starting to build reactors. Areva, the French giant, is probably now the world leader and the Russians aren't doing a bad job of marketing their technology around the world. (They currently have plans to build a reactor for Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.)
That leaves General Electric as the American giant. Have you seen its ads for nuclear on TV? I haven't either. According to GE, its leading products are windmills and the "smart grid." It ran the "Wizard-of-Oz Scarecrow" ad for the Super Bowl and now has an ad circulating on the Internet touting the coming wonders of the "smart grid."
It goes like this. A flaxen-haired girl of about ten is standing in front of a clothes dryer, "It says to wait until 10 p.m.," she declares. Then she is in front of a wall outlet: "It only takes what it needs." Then she is standing in front of a distribution box: "It talks to the others." Finally she is in front of a window: "It brings power from far away."
Now a voiceover informs us: "With the smart grid, energy is more intelligent than ever. Now we can manage electricity more efficiently, save money by using energy at off-peak hours, and even distribute alternative energy from one part of the country to another, simply by listening to what the smart grid has to say."
Back to the girl, now standing in front of a window gazing at a waxing half moon: "It says it's sunny in Arizona."
Let's take a look at what's going on here. The first premise is that by putting computerized electric meters in everyone's home, the smart grid can convey real-time pricing and encourage people to redistribute their consumption to off-peak hours. This will "level loads" and solve the perennial problem of utilities in meeting demand that occurs a few hours of the day or a few days of the year.
The second premise is that the smart grid will help integrate wind and solar energy -- the two balky "renewables" that have the disadvantage of not always being available when we want them. With the smart grid, wind and solar generation will always be available somewhere and can be conveyed to where it's needed.
Let's start with the first premise. It's fitting that the girl is standing in front of a clothes dryer because that and washing dishes are the only examples anyone has ever been able to come up with about how residential users are going to "redistribute" their energy consumption.
What else can they do? Are they going to wait until after midnight to watch prime-time television? Are they going to heat up dinner at 4 a.m.? Are they going to turn on lights at sunrise instead of when it gets dark? And how about air conditioning, that most voracious consumer of electricity? One suggestion floated by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) in "The Green Grid," a study published last June, is that people might "pre-cool" their homes by running the air conditioning in the morning in anticipation of hot afternoons. This may indeed level peak loads. But it will also consume moreenergy, since some of the pre-cooling will obviously dissipate.
There's one more thing about drying your clothes at 10 p.m. Have you ever noticed what happens if you leave wet clothes sitting in the washer too long? They start smelling a little moldy, don't they? Maybe this idea about drying your clothes just after you wash them isn't such a bad idea.
Another idea popular these days among smart grid advocates is called "demand response." Basically, this means cutting people off from their electricity when there isn't enough available.
A typical "demand response" plan goes as follows. Los Angeles is overloaded on hot summer afternoons by demands from air conditioners. Everybody turns them on at the same time. So why not allow the utilities companies to subtly turn off every air conditioner for ten minutes out of the hour? That way the utility could cut its peak demand by and hardly anyone would ever notice the difference.
See anything wrong with that? Well, here's what's likely to happen. Most air conditioners work by thermostat. So if people set their thermostats at, say, 68 degrees, and the machine goes off ten minutes each hour, then it will only have to work harder during the other 50 minutes to keep the temperature at 68. Or alternately, if the AC is operated manually and people knowthe utility is going to cut them out one-sixth of the time, they will work the machine harder when it's on. Either way, you're not going to save any electricity.
As "The Green Grid" pointed out, shifting uses to off-peak hours may save money but it isn't necessarily going to save energy.At best, it will use the same amount. If some kind of electrical storage is employed -- another often mentioned component of the "smart grid" -- then we will be consuming more energy, since power is always lost in the transitions.
Finally, there's that little vignette at the end of the GE ad about, "It's sunny in Arizona." The girl is standing at a window looking at a waxing half moon about three hours above the horizon. If she's in the Midwest, that means the sun has already set in Arizona. If she's on the East Coast, then it's about to go down. She'd better get to bed because in another twenty minutes the lights, refrigerator, television, computers and everything else are going to turn off. Then again, maybe we could import solar electricity from China. It's already providing us with everything else, isn't it?
There's no industry conspiracy foisting nuclear power on America at this moment. In fact, it's just the opposite. Coal -- nuclear's chief rival -- is as powerfully entrenched as ever. And the extraordinary popular delusion that we are going to be able to run the country on wind and sunshine runs still runs rampant.
And yet, I still think it's going to happen. Here's the scenario. Sometime in the next 18 months, Obama will finally bring his carbon emissions program to Congress. At that point, the Democratic Party will split it two. Senators and representatives from Pennsylvania to Montana, which get huge portions of their electricity from coal, will never consent to hiking their electrical bills in the midst of a near-Depression.
Obama and Democratic liberals will be at wit's end. After twenty years of yammering about global warming, they will find themselves unable to do anything about it. Will they skulk off in defeat, blaming the Bush Administration? Perhaps. But I think there's a more likely scenario.
Someone in the administration -- probably Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who knows in his heart that wind and solar can't cut it -- will suggest that that a carbon tax be coupled with the revival of nuclear power. Suddenly, the dam will break. NRC regulatory mazes that are still trying to protect us from Three Mile Island will be swept aside. Construction schedules will be accelerated. (The TVA just built a new reactor at Watts Bar in three years and under budget, using a license granted in the 1970s.) Tens of thousands of construction jobs will be created overnight. The French and Japanese will provide the financing. We may even revive the steel industry in the process.
Then, after decades of backing and filling, the nation will at last be back on the road to creating a stable and economical energy infrastructure. It'll be the best thing that's happened to American industry in twenty-five years.