Anti-carbon but anti-nuclear is anti-realistic

Following a one-sided public process with little debate, the Seattle City Council passed a resolution recently calling on Seattle City Light to move away from sourcing any of its power from nuclear plants.

While the resolution doesn’t call for the shutdown of Washington’s only nuclear plant, anti-nuclear activists and councilmember Kshama Sawant say it will help them ratchet up pressure to decommission it.

It seems the city council didn’t want to consider any information that wasn’t stridently anti-nuclear. Only anti-nuclear groups were invited to participate in the committee hearing on the resolution, which Sawant described as a “compromise.” Only in Seattle city government could such a one-sided resolution be considered a compromise.

It astounds me that a city that aspires to international “leadership” on carbon reduction would turn its back on one of the most promising vehicles for carbon-free energy. It is incongruous to declare the world’s carbon output an emergency, then turn around and seek to limit the carbon-free options.

Even the Obama administration takes a far different tack than Seattle. “Nuclear energy remains very important,” Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said recently. “It remains by far the biggest source of carbon-free electricity.”

Here and now – Washington’s plant operating safely for decades
Washington’s one nuclear generator, the Columbia Generating Station (CGS) near Richland, has operated safely for 32 years. It provides about 10% of our state’s electricity (nationally, nuclear accounts for approximately 19%) and produces consistent baseload power that we can count on.

The anti-nuclear groups that crafted Seattle’s resolution like to compare CGS to the plant in Fukushima, Japan. This is highly disingenuous – a comparison made merely because that calamity is still a fresh memory.

The Fukushima plant did not suffer a meltdown because of the earthquake in Japan. It happened because of the tidal wave that followed the earthquake, an irrelevant threat for the Tri-Cities area. Moreover, CGS “was built on 50 feet of compacted structural backfill soil which is not susceptible to the liquefaction that occurs during earthquakes, causing principal damage to structures,” the plant’s operator pointed out.

Activists only worry about cost when it comes to nuclear
Nuclear opponents love to talk about expense, which is also pretty disingenuous. For one thing, these groups are fine with spending huge amounts on wind and solar projects, but get suddenly penny-pinching when it comes to nuclear energy. They also love to compare nuclear costs to subsidized wind and solar. Take away the tax credits and mandates for these and nuclear is a competitive energy source.

Another factor holding back the nuclear sector is the gigantic cost of regulation. No one is arguing that reactor design and siting shouldn’t be regulated and thoroughly thought out; they should be. But anti-nuclear groups work to make the process as expensive and lengthy as possible, which makes financing new plants difficult. It’s analogous to anti-death penalty groups that aim to make trials and appeals as costly as possible, then turn around and say, “See, the death penalty is too expensive, we should do away with it.”

More and more environmental groups are shifting their anti-nuclear stands. The output of recently-closed nuclear plants has been replaced by power from liquid natural gas plants. Not being a carbon-free source, that is giving environmental groups pause. California and Vermont have both seen the carbon mix of their energy portfolios increase since closing nuclear plants. “We are supposed to be adding zero-carbon sources, not subtracting, or simply replacing, to just kind of tread water,” Secretary Moniz said.

I’ll discuss some of the exciting developments happening in the nuclear field in the near future. As for the policies we should pursue now, the Columbian wrote yesterday in favor of nuclear power, “Suggesting that an increase in production of wind power and solar power can end our reliance upon coal is unrealistic; suggesting that we can reduce consumption to a level that eliminates concerns about carbon emissions ignores economic demands.” We can cross our fingers and hope that storage technology advances so quickly that wind and solar are all we need, or we can be realistic and look to practical advancements in safe, consistent nuclear power.

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.