This week was about as good and bad as it gets for nuclear. Pandora’s Promise, Robert Stone’s Sundance-awarded documentary featuring five environmentalists who have changed their mind about nuclear, opened in 12 cities around the country.
The movie features five former nuclear opponents who have come around after a long, thoughtful re-examination. They include Steward Brand, 1970s guru and creator of the Whole Earth Catalogue; Gwyneth Cravens, author of Power to Save the World; Michael Shellenberger, author of The Death of Environmentalism and co-founder of the Breakthrough Institute, Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and British global warming crusader Mark Lynas, author of Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet. All are concerned about global warming. After staring the problem in the face, they have all realized if you don’t want carbon emissions, you’ve got to go with nuclear power.
Now I know most Spectator readers are skeptical about global warming and see all this as an exercise in futility. But before the usual rush of invective begins, let me say there are a lot of other reasons liking with nuclear. A month ago James Hansen, the NASA scientist who started all this warming stuff back in 1989, finally got off the fence and co-authored a report noting that nuclear has probably saved about 1.8 million lives over the last thirty years by reducing coal exhausts. That seems something to cheer about.
And what about this business of switching to natural gas? Nuclear opponents are gloating these days because “nukes are being driven from the market by economics.” Sure, gas is cheap today. But what about next year or the year after? Gas hit a 14-year low at $1.86 per trillion cubic feet in April 2012 and for a brief month gas and coal converged at producing 32 percent of our electricity. But then gas rebounded to $4 and coal jumped back up to 40 percent while gas fell to 27 percent. And that’s just in one year. Just imagine what will happen if we start exporting gas or somebody figures out how to use it in our cars. The old oil-gas price link could reassert itself and nuclear and coal will be the only cheap things left.
If there are still enough reactors around. And there lies the rub. Because last week also happened to be the moment when the State of California decided to indulge in one of the most flagrant displays of Conspicuous Waste since Thorstein Veblen wrote the book, closing the 2,200-megawatt San Onofre nuclear complex that provides 17 percent of the electricity in Southern California. This is a tragedy almost beyond measure. The two reactors probably had 40 years of life left. They sit on a beach where fishermen and surfers congregate and make a beautiful tableau that says you don’t have to be scared of nuclear (although I do remember CNN breathlessly reporting a few years ago that a helicopter had made a forced landing near the complex). A contractor messed up the installation of some cooling pipes a year ago and San Onofre became involved in a regulatory rat’s nest that proved impossible to escape.
The problems began when Mitsubishi used a new type of alloy in replacing the cooling pipes after a January 2012 refueling. Shortly afterwards they were found to be leaking. An inspection showed that the pipes were wearing much faster than anticipated. The reactors were shut down and San Diego Electric & Gas set about making repairs.
All this happened right after Fukushima, however, and so the usual brouhaha began. Local groups started arguing the reactors were unsafe. Rumors about cancer epidemics started circulating -- disproved a dozen times but always good for another round of alarm. Southern California Edison (SCE) fired up two retired gas plants and every environmental enthusiast in Los Angeles started talking about solar energy -- until a retired astronomy professor at UC Irvine calculated it would take a facility 10 times the size of Orange County Great Park and $44 billion to match San Onofre’s output.
But the real problems were at the good old Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Washington with its endless rounds of rigmarole. SCE made repairs and offered to restart the reactors at 70 percent to see how they responded. But Friends of the Earth intervened, claiming this constituted a “license amendment” and would require another trip through the whole regulatory review process that would probably take three to five years. So SCE said the hell with it.
As Shellenberger’s Breakthrough Institute wrote last week, closing San Onofre will be the equivalent of putting 1.6 million more cars on California highways. Old gas plants are being fired up and San Diego Gas & Electric says it needs a new one as well. California already gets more than 50 percent its electricity from natural gas -- twice the national average -- and is now headed further in that direction. No wonder Google, Cisco, and all the other tech giants are moving their manufacturing and server farms out of California as fast as possible.
So while Pandora’s Promise may prompt some rethinking among level-headed people (the New York Times’ environmental blogger Andrew Revkin has called it “essential viewing”), the institutional roadblocks will still be there. After stepping down last July, former NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko went on a speaking tour saying it’s time to start shutting down older reactors. (There aren’t many other kinds left.) Two new ones are being built in Georgia with federal assistance and another two in South Carolina with all private funds, but they may be the last ones to be licensed in our lifetime. It’s easy to understand why the Great Pyramids were all built during the early years of Egyptian history. They probably had their own EPA.
Robert Stone is not a filmmaker you would expect to be touting nuclear. He won an Academy Award nomination in 1988 for an anti–nuclear bomb documentary and made another about Patty Hearst. Yet he says he became disillusioned with environmentalists in 2009 while making Earth Days, a flattering review of environmental history. “I just got sick of their hypocrisy,” he said when he interviewed me at the start of the project. “They say they’re concerned about warming yet they refuse to look objectively at the only possible solution.”
Stone found that nuclear opponents are so accustomed to soft treatment in the press they feel they can say anything. Helen Caldicott claims a million people will die from Fukushima without a single body to prove it. Greenpeace uses the no-safe-dose hypothesis to calculate 750,000 deaths at Chernobyl. (You could arrive at similar numbers by projecting down from overdoses of aspirin.) Sane and sober voices like Stone’s and his stable of converts are growing stronger. But they may not be enough to counter the slow grind of regulatory inertia that is burying nuclear power in this country -- and a lot of other things along with it.