More about Nuclear Astroturf

The above diagram of nuclear fusion is from Energy Quest, the California Commission on Energy’s educational website.

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May 17-19, 2006, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) holds its annual conference, The Nuclear Energy Assembly in San Francisco. It’s theme? Buzz2Build: Turning Promise into Power. The promotional information on the website says, “The outlook for nuclear energy in the United States has never been brighter. Nine consortia or companies are preparing licenses for as many as 20 reactors. The number of reactors with renewed licenses continues to rise, and existing nuclear plants are sustaining record levels of safety and performance.

At one time, in its background paper, “Nuclear Energy: No Solution to Climate Change,” Greenpeace was predicting the demise of nuclear energy.

The nuclear industry is in near-terminal decline world-wide, following its failure to establish itself as a clean, cheap, safe or reliable energy source. The on-going crisis in nuclear waste management, in safety and in economic costs have severely undermined the industry’s credibility.

The paper is undated, but the sources cited date back to the late 1990’s. So, what happened in less than ten year’s time? Could it be the nuclear energy industry’s persuation of the federal government to establish Nuclear Power 2010 (NP 2010), unveiled in 2002 as a private industry-government “cost-shared effort,” mentioned in my May 10 entry, Nuclear Energy Is Now Clean and Safe?

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The NEI’s Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, which I wrote about that date, is headed by former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), director Christine Todd Whitman and Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore. Not only are these two ex-environmental leaders. Some have argued that they are ex-environmentalists trading their credentials for money to improve the images of known polluters.

After Whitman left the EPA on May 21, 2003, she founded a public relations firm, Whitman Strategy Group. On December 16, 2004, the Washington Post reported,

Whitman actually found herself last month lobbying her former Cabinet colleague Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton on behalf of Citgo Petroleum Corp., which wants federal protection to preserve Petty’s Island, N.J., which it owns.

But, according to Sourcewatch.org’s article on the Whitman Strategy group

the firm’s first ongoing client was FMC Corporation, ‘a chemical company negotiating with the EPA over the cleanup of arsenic-contaminated soil at a factory near Buffalo, N.Y.’ In a May 2005 interview, Whitman said she had not worked directly with FMC, but would likely advise them on ‘how to improve their image’ and gain ‘access to the people they need to speak to.’ FMC ‘”is responsible for 136 Superfund sites across the country … and has been subject to 47 EPA enforcement actions.’

But Whitman had always been a market forces sort of “environmentalist.” Perhaps that is why his former colleagues are more dismayed with Patrick Moore. After leaving Greenpeace in 1986, Moore founded the public relations firm, Greenspirit Strategies, Ltd.. According to its website, Moore has spoken out in favor of pesticides, salmon farming, poly-vinyl chloride (PVC) and genetic egineering. Oh and of course, nuclear energy.

Usually he trots out his role with Greenpeace without mentioning his current status as a paid spokeman for the industries involved. For some of the details, look at his website and at Eco-Traitor, Drake Bennett’s March 2004 article in Wired. . Also take a look Sourcewatch.org’s article.

Even those who support nuclear power argue that Moore has done the industry no favor by overstating the case. On April 16, in his work for the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, I’d assume, Moore wrote a piece published by the Washington Post, “Going Nuclear: A Green Makes the Case.”

In an op-ed, “Wasted Energy,” published in the April 18, 2006 New Republic Online, Michael A. Levi responded that Moore had undercut his arguments

with a series of false assertions and slippery arguments. These credibility-damaging tendencies hurt the real case for nuclear power.

A fellow for science and technology at the Council on Foreign Relations, his bio there state that Levi’s

interests center on the intersection of science, technology, and foreign policy; he is an expert on arms control and nonproliferation, nuclear and radiological weapons, and science and technology in the Islamic world.

Before joining the Council, Dr. Levi was a nonresident science fellow (2004-2006) and a science and technology fellow (2003-2004) in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. Prior to that, he was director (2002-2003) and deputy director (2001) of the Federation of American Scientists’ flagship Strategic Security Project.

In other words, Levi knows a whole lot more about nuclear energy than I do and he’s not necessarily against it. I think that makes a look at his critique especially instructive with regard to the claims made by the coaltion and the Nuclear Energy Institute. For instance, Moore claims that nuclear power is inexpensive. Levi responds,

While literally true, that’s a specious claim. The marginal cost of producing an additional kilowatt-hour of nuclear power using existing plants is indeed less than two pennies. But that ignores the capital costs involved in building nuclear power plants, which exceed the costs of building coal-fired facilities. Including those expenses, an MIT report (which made an honest argument for nuclear power) prices nuclear at 6.7 cents per kilowatt-hour, in contrast with only 4.2 cents for coal, nearly 40 percent lower. To be logically consistent, Moore would also have to believe that buying a house is always cheaper than renting (because property taxes and maintenance cost less than rent) and that owning a car is always cheaper than riding a bus (because gas costs less than bus fare).

Regarding Moore’s implications that nuclear waste becomes safe, Levi writes,

even that reduced radioactivity still makes waste disposal difficult and costly.

Levi maintains that Moore’s claim that recycling nuclear waste will reduce the amount that needs treatment and disposal is “misleading.”

First, it is cheaper to simply mine and use new uranium than to extract the remaining “95 percent of the potential energy” Moore refers to. More importantly, recycling used fuel does little to cut down the volume of nuclear waste. When the remaining “potential energy”—locked up in uranium and plutonium—is extracted from used nuclear fuel, the bulk of the radioactivity in that nuclear fuel remains. As a result, that material must still be protected in large, radiation-shielding casks—and disposed of, meaning that the waste problem does not disappear.

Levi also responds to Moore’s minimizing the threats of nuclear terrorism. Moore

weakens his case by completely ignoring the main claim made by serious skeptics: The pools containing spent nuclear fuel, which sit outside the concrete containment domes, may be vulnerable to attack.

Levi argues that Moore fails to treat seriously the question of whether nuclear power can be diverted to make weapons. Moore

notes that “If we banned everything that can be used to kill people, we would never have harnessed fire.” That’s true, but the question here isn’t whether nuclear power is dangerous; it’s whether the dangers associated with it outweigh the benefits it entails. Simply because fire had greater potential for good than harm does not mean that the same is true for nuclear power.

Levi concludes,

the greatest political barrier to nuclear energy is public skepticism. And so, as the pro-nuclear crowd attempts to build credibility, exaggeration is the last thing it needs.

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Greenpeace goes further that Levi. In that background paper I linked to at the top of this entry, the group says that in

even the most perfunctory examination of the issue shows that nuclear power has no role whatever in tackling global climate change. In fact quite the opposite is true; any resources expended on attempting to advance nuclear power as a viable solution would inevitably detract from genuine measures to reduce the threat of global warming.

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Special thanks to a Radford friend, Barry, who kindly sent me the citation I’d used to Michael A. Levi’s op-ed. Barry had downloaded my blog entry on the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition before the original version of this post got eaten by Yahoo when I tried to incorporate a link to the Sourcewatch.org article on Patrick Moore.

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