I subscribe to an Internet newsletter called Energy Central and the news is getting more depressing every week. Every time I scan the headlines I realize I'm looking at another piece of a gathering energy debacle.
Take last Thursday's edition. Right at the top of the page was the story, "Xcel Energy, eXco Join in Major Wind Farm Developments in Minnesota, North Dakota." It's like this every day. Wind farms of sprouting up all over the country like 65-story mushrooms. The North American Reliability Council estimates we will have 175,000 megawatts of new capacity by 2017 (that's the equivalent of 175 major coal or nuclear plants). Unfortunately, it admits, "only approximately 23,000 MW…is projected to be available on peak." That means these windmills will be idle most of the time. Coal plants operate at 65 percent capacity, nuclear rims at 90 percent. But at best windmills produce only 30 percent of their "nameplate capacity" and they are almost useless on torpid summer days. California has found its windmills running at only 3 percent capacity on hot summer days.
Never mind, we are forging ahead anyway. Right under the Minnesota story is a report that New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has laid down a "wind farm code of ethics" governing dealings between wind companies and municipal officials. It seems that several windmill manufacturers are following the tried-and-true pattern of bribing municipal officials by hiring them as "consultants" in seeking zoning and other approvals. Although you'd never know it, there are actually folks out there in the hinterland that don't like the idea of littering the landscape with these nearly useless monstrosities. However, those folks are being steamrolled in the march toward alternate energy utopia. As Attorney General Cuomo remarks, "Wind power is an exciting industry that will be a cornerstone of our energy future."
Next comes a story, "More Study is Ordered Before Savannah River Dredging Starts: An NRC Board Says the Environmental Impact Has Not Been Addressed." The Alvin W. Vogtle Nuclear Generating Station in Burke County, Georgia, has two 1,200-MW reactors sitting on the Savannah River, directly across from the federal nuclear processing facilities in South Carolina. Now Southern Nuclear, which owns Vogtle, wants to build two new 1,000-MW reactors as part of the nuclear renaissance.
Environmental groups have immediately taken up the challenge, arguing that dredging the Savannah River to allow barge delivery of reactor parts will damage the river. The Savannah was dredged regularly for more than a century until the Army Corps of Engineers gave up in 1980 because nothing much was happening on the river. Now environmental groups say a renewal will ruin the environment. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has nodded agreement and will require an environmental impact statement before early site clearance can begin. That will probably add three years to the project.
I hadn't been following Vogtle so I googled it and discovered a manifesto from the Women's Action for New Directions (WAND), a major anti-nuclear opponent. WAND was issuing a call to other organizations around the country to join their crusade. The appeal appears on the Community Blog page of "My Barack Obama," the campaign's effort to organize community groups in support of the candidacy.
IT'S EASY TO SEE where this is leading. President-elect Obama says he supports nuclear "in principle," but then so does the Union of Concerned Scientists, which has opposed reactors for 35 years. Obama also opposes Yucca Mountain, which is a shibboleth among opposition groups. Ironically, Yucca Mountain only became necessary when Jimmy Carter canceled nuclear fuel reprocessing in 1977, creating the so-called problem of "nuclear waste." France has pursued reprocessing and stores all its high-level waste from 40 years of producing 75 percent of its electricity in one room at Le Havre.
Rather than heeding this example, however, the Obama Administration is much more likely to do exactly what California did during the 1980s and 1990s -- stall both coal and nuclear construction while adopting huge subsidies and mandates for "renewable energy." Within a decade we could find ourselves where California was in 2000 -- saddled with huge quantities of expensive "alternate" energy while not having enough electricity to run its traffic lights.
Is this depressing enough? Well, try the next story on Energy Central, "Russia Offers to Cooperate With Brazil in Nuclear Sector." The rest of the world, you see, is forging ahead with nuclear power. France is already at 80 percent nuclear, Korea is planning 11 new reactors, China is building four plants with a Japanese technology named "Westinghouse." India is exploring thorium technology, France is penetrating the Middle East, Russia is powering Siberian villages with small reactors built on barges. Japan Steel Works, the only company in the world that makes steel reactor vessels, has a four-year waiting list. France, Russia, and Japan are all reprocessing. Now Russia is selling Brazil a whole package that will include uranium mining, small reactors for remote areas, and probably eventually reprocessing as well.
In 1982, President Reagan lifted Jimmy Carter's ban on fuel reprocessing but, given the climate in this country, American industry has never been willing to reinvest. In speaking before groups about the possibilities of a nuclear renaissance, I am often asked, "What would it take to revive reprocessing in this country?" In all honesty, I have to respond, "I think we'll have to ask the French to do it for us."
Reading the latest, I realize I may be wrong. It may be the Russians we have to ask instead.