Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and Graham Nash are again singing the praises of solar energy. But it’s a hard song for reactor backers now desperately seeking more than $50 billion in federal loan guarantees.
The nuclear energy industry is selling “new generation” reactors as a cheap fix for global warming. But a booming renewable energy industry now makes the atomic option sound even more nonsensical than it did when the musicians first sang “No Nukes” three decades ago.
At an October 23 press conference in Washington, Raitt, Browne and Nash delivered 120,000 signatures demanding that Congress strip reactor loan guarantees from this year’s energy bill. The industry wants $25 billion in 2008, $25 billion more in 2009 and a blank check for the future. But the rockers’ rapid-fire Internet-based campaign–complete with a music video–may have put a serious crimp in their plans.
Joined by Democratic Representatives Ed Markey and John Hall (a fellow musician), backed by a wide range of environmental organizations and gathering support through their NukeFree.org website, the three musicians followed their press conference with a series of visits to Congressional leadership and an intriguing new message.
In 1979, when Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE) staged a legendary series of five concerts in Madison Square Garden (90,000 attended) and a rally at Battery Park City (which drew 200,000), their argument was that nuclear power was dangerous (Three Mile Island had just melted) and that renewable energy would be cost-effective “someday soon.”
Today, the musicians and their environmental cohorts can still say that nuclear power has failed. But what’s different is that the renewable energy industry has come of age. “Wind power is booming,” says Brian Parsons of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
No new reactors are currently under construction in the United States. But Parsons says about $6 billion worth of wind farms are in “various stages of development,” representing “between one and 1.5 years’ worth at the current pace,” a number that towers over what was happening thirty years ago. Worldwide, the industry is in the $15 billion range annually, according to the American Wind Energy Association. With turbines costing less than $2 million a megawatt, and with fuel perpetually free (operation and maintenance costs run about 5 percent per year), wind energy can leave nuclear reactors in the radioactive dust.
The same can now be said for photovoltaic (PV) cells. Major breakthroughs in amorphous (flexible) applications have allowed American factories to pour out ever-cheaper roofing laminates that can power the buildings on which they sit. Assembly lines longer than football fields now produce them by the mile, at production costs that continue to plummet.
The Michigan-based United Solar Ovonic claims to have doubled its annualized production capacity in the past year to fifty-eight megawatts and will have another threefold expansion by the end of next year. Company officials predict the capital cost of machines to be $150 million, for an annual capacity of 100 megawatts. Industry experts predict an annual market of more than ten gigawatts in 2012, the equivalent of ten nukes per year. The cost of solar electricity is coming down rapidly, according to Ovonic, and with “suitable infusion of money to build new plants,” industry experts and Energy Department officials predict “grid parity” by 2015, the very earliest new reactors could come on line under optimum conditions.
Part of the new economic advantage of PV cells comes from the fact that they can be installed on the rooftops and south-facing walls of buildings that use their energy, thus avoiding transmission costs from central power stations, which can be extremely high.
Other solar technologies, such as desert-based “power towers” and concave “trough mirror” farms, have proved themselves over the past two decades to the point that investors are lining up to build new ones. These long lines of mirror arrays focus sunlight on multiple tubes of heat-exchanging liquid, have run successfully at nine large farms since the 1980s.
Millions of new investment dollars are also pouring into biofuels, ocean-wave generators, geothermal devices and more. Each has technical, financial and even ecological problems. But the message is clear: the renewable energy industry is in the process of achieving liftoff.
By contrast, say the nuke-free organizers and their green cohorts, the atomic reactor business is mired in hype. Some things about it have not changed since 1979. Most important, there is no solution to the radioactive waste problem. Nevada’s Yucca Mountain dump is as unlicensed now as it was during the MUSE concerts. What’s different is that Harry Reid, an adamant Yucca foe, is now Senate majority leader.
Also new is the legacy of September 11. The prospect of terror attacks was always high on the list of reasons to oppose atomic energy. But the first jet that flew into the World Trade Center passed over the three reactors (two active, one retired) at Indian Point, forty-five miles north of Manhattan.
The nuclear industry vehemently denies Indian Point’s containment domes could have been penetrated. But the aging, rickety complex remains supremely vulnerable in myriad ways, as do dozens of other reactors around the globe. Despite claims of “inherent safety,” no private insurer will take the liability risk for a major reactor disaster, past or future, with old reactors or new. After fifty years, responsibility still reverts to the taxpayer, now and for the foreseeable future.
The industry needs federal loan guarantees because it can’t get private investors any more easily than it can find private insurers.
The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the industry’s PR front group, says atomic energy is cheaper than renewables, but it can only do so by downplaying the “intangible” costs of radioactive fuel production and waste disposal, human error and terror attacks, heat and radioactive emissions and much more. The NEI also claims net gains in fighting global warming, but it would posit hundreds of reactors to do so even under optimal circumstances. Amory Lovins’s Rocky Mountain Institute has shown that a dollar spent on increased conservation can save seven times more energy than a dollar spent on nuclear power can produce.
The NEI also says new reactors can be built for $4 billion to $5 billion, in five years or less. But atomic energy’s history is defined by massive delays and overruns. The cost of New Hampshire’s Seabrook nuclear power plant went from $250 million for two reactors in the 1960s to $7 billion for one that opened in 1989. Scores of other “first generation” plants came on line horrifically late and wildly over budget.
The industry likes to blame all that on protesters. And the wide range of environmental groups and the tens of thousands still signing Raitt, Browne and Nash’s NukeFree.org petition make it clear that even after all these years, they are not going away.
But the industry is also building its first “new generation” plant in Finland. Barely two years since ground was broken, it is nearly two years behind schedule and $2 billion over budget. Small wonder a green power industry that was barely an embryo in 1979 now sings a song that sounds a lot like success.