Last week, Environmental Entrepreneurs, a trade group, announced that wind and solar projects around the country had created 34,409 new jobs around the country in the second quarter of 2012, with high concentrations in California, Michigan, Ohio, Florida, and Colorado.
GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney immediately countered this by visiting Ohio’s coal country, promising to protect the industry from the Obama Administration’ “War on Coal.” Not to be outdone, President Obama was off to Iowa where he even won the support of Republican Governor Terry Branstad in urging Congress to renew the production tax credit so that the wind industry can create even more jobs.
So the great Presidential battle over the future of energy is shaping up — which can create more jobs, coal or wind? What about nuclear, which might also be said to have a potential role in the nation’s energy future? Well, nuclear energy has one great weakness. It doesn’t create many jobs. All it creates is lots of energy. And in the contest for which form of energy can employ the most people, that doesn’t seem to count for much at all.
Let it be said first that the other players missing in action here are gas and oil. New drilling techniques for shale gas and tight oil are now creating more jobs and useful energy than all the other technologies combined. Production from the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and Ohio is up 82 percent over last year. North Dakota’s Bakken shale has created the lowest unemployment rate in the nation. Oklahoma gas fields are complaining they can’t find enough workers. Any healthy, working-age male could head for any of these states and find themselves making close to a six-figure income.
But all this is happening in the private sector so it doesn’t draw much attention in presidential campaigns. Most of the Marcellus shale lies under private lands so — blessedly — it can be done without federal interference. Only New York State has stopped the show — which is just another reason why upstate New York, if separated from New York City, ranks as the second-poorest state in the nation behind only Mississippi.
What attracts politicians to coal and wind is that they involve the federal government. The EPA is on a campaign to close down 10 percent of the nation’s coal plants and so Romney can win votes by promising to intervene. The President, on the other hand, continues his efforts to “harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories,” as he put it in his Inaugural Address. Wind’s production tax credit — which makes it profitable to erect windmills even if they never produce a kilowatt of electricity — will be extended into the foreseeable future. Corn ethanol, which now consumes 40 percent of the corn crop, will continue to be mandated, even though it is driving up world food prices and international officials are accusing us of starving the world’s poor. (The EPA showed its defiance last week by announcing that sorghum, the nation’s third largest crop, will also be converted into ethanol.) The military is being instructed to substitute biofuels for jet fuel, even though it will cost $59 a gallon. And with nearly half the land west of the Mississippi still owned by the federal government, the President is able to commission a 350-square-mile wind farm in Wyoming and several 20-square-mile solar plants in the Mojave Desert. All this will create jobs, jobs, jobs.
So how does nuclear stack up against all this? Not very well. Take the matter of coal mining. There are an estimated 88,000 coal miners in this country working 1,300 coal mines, most of them in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky. There are 400 mines in Kentucky alone. More than half a dozen states identify themselves as “coal states,” with Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee, Alabama, Colorado, and Wyoming filling out the list. Montana, the state with the biggest coal reserves, hasn’t really started developing them yet.
To this must be added the jobs in the railroad industry. A 1,000-megawatt (MW) coal plant must be replenished by a 110-car coal train arriving at the plant every 30 hours. A fully loaded coal “unit” train now leaves the Powder River Basin in Wyoming every eight minutes. Coal constitutes almost half the freight aboard the railroads and it is a moot question as to whether the railroads really own the coal companies or the coal companies own the railroads. In any case, there are close to 200,000 railroad workers in the U.S., half of them dedicated to moving coal.
Now compare this to the mining and transport needed to fuel a nuclear reactor. Because uranium has an energy density almost 3 million times that of coal, not much is required. The Uranium Producers Association reports there are 13 operating uranium mines in the country, employing 1,360 workers. The annual output of uranium mining would fill two railroad cars so no railroad traffic either. Actually, domestic uranium production has been depressed over the last two decades because of the Megatons-to-Megawatts program that has recycled 18,000 former Soviet warheads in the greatest swords-into-plowshares effort in history. (Never heard of it? I wonder why.) But the treaty ends in 2014 and domestic uranium production may increase a little. The Russians are now proposing to supply the entire world with uranium out of one mine in Siberia.
Because uranium mining is such a small-scale operation, there are no “nuclear states.” New Mexico’s Pete Domenici was once the leading advocate in the Senate because of the presence of the Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories. His mantle has been picked up by Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has Oak Ridge. But nuclear has no real constituency in either state and plays very little in their politics.
Then there is the matter of enriching uranium and preparing it for use in reactors. That is done at the nation’s only plant in Paducah, Kentucky, which employs 1,200 people. The U.S. Enrichment Corporation (USEC) is trying to replace it with a more modern facility in Piketon, Ohio, but that will employ about the same amount. How about transporting the fuel rods to the reactors? That requires a fleet of six trucks making the trip once every 18 months.
Now compare all this with wind, an even bigger vote-getter. Each 45-story windmill produces about 2 MW, which means you need 500 of them to equal the capacity of a nuclear reactor. These have to be manufactured and trucked to remote sites across the country. You’ve probably seen them on the highway. Each windmill blade is half the length of a football field. But wind farms only produce electricity 20 percent of the time so you need five times that number to equal one 1000-MW nuclear plant. That’s 2,500 45-story windmills, which translates into lots of manufacturing jobs, lots of transport, and lots of on-site construction. Wind is nothing if not labor intensive.
The job requirements for solar are on the same scale. Each PV panel or highly polished mirror — several square miles of them — demands extensive manufacturing and high maintenance. If they are located in the desert, solar facilities are going to require constant cleaning and polishing so they do not become covered with dirt and lose their efficiency. We may have to employ half of Mexico to do the job. That means even more votes on the way.
Where nuclear does create jobs is in the construction and operation of reactors. Building a new plant will employ 5,000 construction workers over five years, probably double or triple the number required for coal or wind. Forbes just published an article saying that a 1000-MW reactor creates 500 highly skilled operating positions while coal produces 220 less-skilled jobs, wind 90 and natural gas only 60. But these jobs are highly localized. Bisconti research has found that support for nuclear regularly exceeds 80 percent in towns where reactors are located but the benefits do not spread to neighboring areas. The town of Vernon, population 2,000, which hosts Vermont Yankee, is almost 100 percent in favor of keeping the reactor operating. But its interests are swamped by 323,000 other Vermonters who see no benefits and think they can produce the same amount of energy by covering the Green Mountains with windmills.
The only way in which nuclear really “creates job” is in providing clean, cheap electricity to make other manufacturing operations profitable. Tennessee has refashioned itself into a major auto manufacturing state, hosting both Nissan and Volkswagen’s U.S. headquarters and creating 100,000 ancillary jobs, partly by capitalizing on nuclear electricity from the Tennessee Valley Authority. IBM, Vermont’s largest employer, has threatened to leave the state if it loses the cheap power of Vermont Yankee.
No, when it comes to marshaling the votes of thousands of coal miners or railroad employees or windmill manufacturers, nuclear definitely fails the test. All it produces is lots of clean, cheap energy.
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