Why Nuclear Matters doesn’t matter

Nuclear Matters doesn't matter because its fundamental argument doesn't make sense. Not to these marchers, not to the general public, not even to politicians.

Nuclear Matters doesn’t matter because its fundamental argument doesn’t make sense. Not to these marchers, not to the general public, not even to politicians.

Regular readers of GreenWorld know that we have dropped a lot of digital ink writing about Nuclear Matters, the astroturf group launched by Exelon early this year to try to make the case to save the utility’s aging and uneconomic nuclear fleet.

Exelon and the PR firm Sloane and Company that runs the public end of Nuclear Matters have assembled a seemingly potent team of paid-for spokespeople to make the utility’s case: former Senators like Evan Bayh and Judd Gregg; former DOE secretary James Abraham; and the big catch, former EPA Administrator, Obama climate czar, and current League of Conservation Voters board chair Carol Browner. 

These and others  in Nuclear Matters’ assembled-team of backers have been writing (or, more likely, allowing their names to be used as having written) op-eds in publications across the country, appearing at Nuclear Matters-organized (ie Sloane and Company) events such as one in New York City the week of the People’s Climate March, and otherwise spreading the news that nuclear power is so important that it shouldn’t matter how costly to ratepayers or how old and unsafe a reactor is, it should keep operating for, apparently, perpetuity.

Maybe it’s just that the message isn’t exactly compelling. Or perhaps former politicians don’t carry the kind of clout Exelon needs. After all, making the case that millions of people should pay higher electricity rates than they otherwise would need to because, well, nuclear!, can’t be an easy sell to current politicians who have to answer to voters.

But the cat is out of the bag. In a remarkable column in which he tries to argue that Nuclear Matters should matter, Forbes’ incessant nuclear industry apologist James Conca inadvertently makes the case that it doesn’t matter.

Most of the column is just a paean to Nuclear Matters and nuclear power generally, chock-full of hype and regurgitated nuclear industry talking points honed by years of constant repetition, along with staggering exaggeration of nuclear’s alleged benefits. Example: Nuclear power is “the lowest carbon-emitting industry in America.” Really? Not just the lowest carbon-emitting energy source–which itself wouldn’t be true, when fuel chains are included both solar and wind beat nuclear–but the lowest carbon-emitting industry of any kind? Many industries’ carbon emissions are only indirect–caused by their forced reliance on fossil fuels for their power–if direct emissions (including full production chain) are the gauge, as they should be, there are at least dozens of industries that would rank lower than nuclear power.

Exaggeration like that is why people–even including politicians–increasingly can see through the nuclear industry’s self-serving pablum, and why they don’t buy the argument that they should pay more for electricity than they need to because, well, nuclear.

At the end of the column, Conca reveals why Nuclear Matters doesn’t matter: he writes America needs Nuclear Matters “Because nuclear energy has no constituency. And that is very dangerous in a democracy.”

Actually, there is no reason at all to think that nuclear power’s lack of constituency is dangerous to our democracy. Bad ideas don’t necessarily maintain constituencies. And there must have been some constituency for nuclear power at one point–it’s hard to imagine that some 120+ nuclear reactors costing hundreds of billions of dollars could have been built without one. If that constituency didn’t stick around, then it may just be because that constituency reacted to the reality that nuclear power turned out to be not such a good deal for ratepayers, nor the air and water, nor public health, nor even the climate, where it is still holding back needed deployment of clean solar and wind power.

Of course, Conca’s revelation is itself an exaggeration. Nuclear power clearly maintains a powerful constituency, as even bad ideas backed with a lot of money tend to do. There always have been, and remain today, plenty of politicians who will support nuclear power without hesitation; thus we have federal legislators questioning the notion that the NRC should require utilities to implement modest safety improvements based on the lessons learned from Fukushima–even on reactors of the same design and vulnerability as those ill-fated ones on the Japanese coast.

What Conca means is that the nuclear industry doesn’t get everything it wants when it wants. That’s because clean energy groups, far worse-funded than poor, lonely Nuclear Matters and its ilk, fight like hell to stop it. And because what the Exelon/Entergy wing of the nuclear power industry wants now–guaranteed survival and profit in a competitive marketplace for as long as the utilities want–goes so far against the grain that even generally pro-nuclear politicians so far aren’t willing to leap joyfully aboard that bandwagon.

When the competitive marketplaces that exist in most of the country were set up more than a decade ago, it wasn’t to ensure that the cleanest energy sources would prevail, it was set up so that the cheapest energy sources would prevail. That the two–cheap and clean–would turn out to go hand-in-hand a dozen or so years later has come as a welcome surprise to all but those who bet all their chips on nuclear and coal. Nuclear Matters is Exelon’s effort to overturn the gaming table and hope some of those lost chips fall back in their pockets.

But, as one PR pro put it, “I can’t remember the last time I read an op-ed piece argued so ineptly that it thoroughly demolished its own premise.”

This pro went on to point out the actual underlying themes of Conca’s piece:

1. Nobody cares about preserving nuclear power. You only hear from people opposing it.
2. Nobody is speaking out about preserving nuclear power. The only ones on the Hill who speak out oppose it.
3. There is no base of voters you can win over by being in favor of nuclear power.

Ironically, for most politicians politics is about power–not the kind that comes out of a wall socket, but the real stuff: who has it and how to get more of it. This piece is intended to make the case for nuclear power needing to have more political power, but, in doing so, exposes it as utterly powerless.

Back on April 1, I wrote about the founding of Nuclear Matters, “Creation of such a group is itself a sign of the industry’s desperation–who knew a technology that is so self-evidently advantageous (at least in the minds of the industry itself, if for no one else) would need a new organization not to promote industry growth but to try to postpone its inevitable stumble into oblivion?”

That desperation has now devolved into a new level of pathos, where an organization with a very fat wallet, backed by a utility worth billions and supported by an industry collectively worth hundreds of billions, now describes itself as powerless and grasping for someone to hold out a branch of support.

Nuclear Matters doesn’t matter. And it’s not for lack of effort on Exelon’s part, nor that of the organization’s many other industry supporters. It’s because their fundamental argument is that ratepayers should pay far more for their electricity than they need to simply because some nuclear utilities bet the wrong way on the future–and refuse even now to prepare for the inevitable shutdown of reactors–and because nuclear has a myriad of advantages that only nuclear utilities seem able to perceive. The issue isn’t that these aging, uneconomic reactors are needed to keep the lights on and the beer cold. They’re not. In fact, the problem for nuclear is that the alternatives are both cheaper and cleaner. Nuclear Matters doesn’t matter because its fundamental argument simply makes no sense.

Michael Mariotte

October 14, 2014

Permalink: https://safeenergy.org/2014/10/14/why-nuclear-matters-doesnt-matter/

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9 thoughts on “Why Nuclear Matters doesn’t matter

  1. Christina MacPherson

    Yay, Michael Mariotte!

    I had already read Conca’s article, and it did leave me puzzled. Particularly the bit where he moans that “nuclear energy has no constituency, and that’s very dangerous in a democracy”.
    I puzzled over this – it sounds as if nobody likes nuclear energy, nobody would vote for it. That would surely mean that, in a democracy, nuclear energy just couldn’t get elected.

    Then I thought – well – birds, animals have no vote – no constituency? But then they do – there are organisations that lobby on their behalf. So I guess nuclear energy does have a constituency – but it’s just too small. After all, unlike the animals, it’s not a living thing. It;’s just a gee-whiz money-making enterprise for a few people. Not even the money-making motivation is always there. For nuclear engineers etc, to question nuclear energy is like expecting the Pope and Cardinals to question the existence of God.

  2. Pingback: Nuclear apologist James Conca, and “Nuclear Matters” don’t make sense about the industry’s future « nuclear-news

    1. gaia.sailboat

      Conca deals in facts and history. Anti nukes deal in unsupported charges. Nuclear is emissions free and can deliver enough power to replace dirty, planet killing CO2 gas and coal plants. Get facts not protester nonsense.

      1. Michael Mariotte Post author

        Ok, if you want to deal with facts, then start with this: nuclear power is NOT emissions free. Let’s start with carbon: This is a fact, and is not in dispute. Even the Nuclear Energy Institute acknowledges this fact. There is dispute over the exact amount of nuclear power’s emissions; there have been numerous studies attempting to quantify nuclear’s carbon footprint, none are perfect. The best piece we have seen on the subject was done in 2008 by Dr. Benjamin Sovacool. He reviewed 103 previous studies on the subject and attempted to find the middle ground among them: http://www.nirs.org/climate/background/sovacool_nuclear_ghg.pdf. His conclusion is that while nuclear is indeed a low-carbon generating source compared to fossil fuels, it is a high-carbon source compared to renewables–responsible for about double the emissions per MW generated than solar and six times the emissions of wind. However, because both solar and wind have become more efficient since 2008, the numbers today would be even worse for nuclear. It may also be of interest that we will be co-publishing a major new study on nuclear’s carbon footprint in the next few weeks.

        But carbon, of course, is not the only environmental problem in the world. And all nuclear facilities also emit toxic radiation routinely, and on occasion by accident. These toxins include elements like Cesium-137, Strontium-90, Tritium and many, many more. All are dangerous to humans, other creatures, and the environment, and cannot be ignored when considering emissions from nuclear facilities.

        The ideal, of course, is generating sources that do not emit any harmful substances. Those exist, and are called renewable energy. The other part of the ideal is to use less electricity so fewer generating sources are needed. That’s energy efficiency. And those two, along technological innovations in the electric grid, are what we support and what can, must and will power our future.

        Those are some basic facts to get you started.

  3. visionar2013

    Green Energy’s European failure; invest 1 Trillion Euros for 210 GWs of energy and get only 38 GWs of energy produced http://wattsupwiththat.com/2015/07/31/european-renewable-energy-performance-for-2014-fall-far-short-of-claims/

    Only zealots refuse to see how new generation nuclear, especially the Molten Salt Reactor has the least impact on the environment. MSRs will be 1/3 the cost, are inherently safe, solve the waste issue. They can’t blow up, melt down, make weapons and are walk away safe. One reactor replaces 250,000 acres of wind farms that impact nature, take tremendous resources and kill raptors and bats. http://www.egeneration.org http://www.energyfromthorium.ocm

    Question for Greens: How can renewable energy save nature from fossil fuels when it industrializes nature with wind and solar farms that kill nature and animals while still requiring fossil fuel backup?

    To add the estimated needed additional 3-5 cubic miles of oil energy equivalent by 2050 to lift the world’s poor up out of energy poverty; to save 17000 daily deaths of those under age 5 who lack cheap electricity. Do we install 13 million wind turbines or only 30,000 safe hyper safe MSRs?

    1. Michael Mariotte Post author

      Every new nuclear reactor technology has come with the same promises: it will be cheaper, safer, solve the waste issue, etc. Not one of these “advanced” reactor designs has yet to deliver on any of its promises. And none will. It is clear that it is impossible to take an inherently dangerous technology and make it inherently safe. And even attempting to do so always makes it too expensive to build and operate. The proof is in the pudding: if the Molten Salt technology, or any of the Gen IV designs for that matter, were able to actually meet its promises, then utilities would want to build and run them. The fact is that utilities don’t want to build and run them.

      As for the last paragraph, that is entirely disingenuous. The combination of wind, solar, geothermal where it works, hydro where it is environmentally sound, etc, along with energy efficiency, storage, and 21st century grid technologies are more than sufficient to power our planet–the entire planet. And given the rapid state of clean energy innovation, there are probably other technologies that we haven’t listed–or perhaps even conceived of yet–that will also play a role later in this century. But the issue is not the technology to achieve a clean energy system, it is the political will. The primary purpose of advocacy of untested and unproven nuclear power technology at this point is simply an attempt to undermine that political will.

  4. Pingback: The Astronomical Cost of New Subsidies for Old Reactors: $280 Billion. | GreenWorld

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