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  • Writer's pictureAllan Dyen-Shapiro

Nuclear Power, Carbon Capture, Fracking: Prophets of Avoidable Doom are Right, for the wrong reasons

Yesterday’s Climate Change Town Hall uncovered rifts between the Democratic Presidential candidates. On the one extreme, Cory Booker pushed new nuclear power plants as essential to achieving decarbonization of the economy. Andrew Yang played apostle of the new carbon capture technologies, pledging that they would carry much of the load in the transition to renewables. On the other hand, while most of the candidates took the moderate approach of banning fracking on public lands, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren favored a complete ban as well as the phase-out of all nuclear power. Sanders asserts that this will cost a lot of money in the short run, but if the new renewable energy sources remain publicly owned, the plan will pay for itself in the long term. Sure, a carbon tax, taxes on the rich, and tax revenue from those who get the new green jobs are assumed by all, but no other candidate favors government control of the new power. Sanders also explicitly embraced the “no blood for oil” agenda as part of paying for his plan. Warren has released only a wonky, shockingly neoliberal strategy for switching the military to renewables, and although she claimed to be adopting Jay Inslee’s plan, her dollar value came in a lot lower than his had.

Speaking as a former scientist who never worked in the energy field but has followed it closely, I’d say the key to disentangling these perspectives is timing. There’s a reason the Green New Deal posits a ten-year timeframe for achieving a carbon-neutral planet: positive feedback loops are kicking in big time. Any engineer will tell you that uncontrolled positive feedback can drive a system to an extreme result. And there are many such loops: (1) Arctic ice melts, uncovering water, which is darker, which absorbs more heat, melting more ice; (2) Siberian permafrost melts, releasing methane and allowing growth of bog microbes that produce more methane, which contributes to global warming, which melts more permafrost; (3) Global warming worsens bark beetle infestations and forest fires, which destroy trees, reducing overall photosynthesis, leaving more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, causing more warming; and numerous others. The world is running out of time before averting the worst consequences of climate change becomes impossible.

In this light, Sanders’ insistence that he won’t back new nuclear power plants in a world that can’t find place for the current nuclear waste is off base. It’s the low-level nuclear waste—such as that from hospitals—the US has had trouble finding a place to site. The proposed Yucca Mountain facility looks like it will never happen. Storing isotope waste in a hospital where it is used is a problem for that hospital, as most lack sufficient space. Storing spent fuel rods on the site of a nuclear power plant is less of a problem—larger area, and more concentrated waste.

And, no, the US will not experience a Chernobyl, due to different technology. A Fukushima-Daiichi (where a tidal wave submerged a nuclear power plant) could happen, in San Diego, for example, but as compared with the colossal damage caused by carbon dioxide and methane release from fossil fuel use, it would be a small price to pay.

The critical issue here is timing. It took eleven years to construct an old-school nuclear power plant. Newer designs are estimated at 42–to–60 months (depending on which model), but those currently under construction in Europe have seen significant time delays. When one adds the local politics (who wants one in their backyard?) and delays in financing, a realistic timeline for a capitalist company in the US getting a new plant up and generating electricity is probably still eight years.

In about one-fourth the time, the equivalent power output in wind plants could be obtained. Going nuclear is slow. And remember, we only have ten years to solve the problem. It’s too slow.

Moreover, long construction times lead to cost issues with financing a plant. With recent hints that a recession is coming, capital could very well get tighter. Government ownership of these plants would solve the problem, but do we, as Americans, really want to own these white elephants forever, when it is broadly agreed that nuclear is not a long-term solution? And nuclear plants are still way more expensive than wind, solar, or geothermal.

Bottom line: new nuclear power plants will not solve our energy woes because they take too long to build. How long current plants stay in the mix is a legitimate topic for debate: we need them today, we won’t need them one hundred years from now, and anyone trying to peg the exact date in the middle where they can all be phased out is being aspirational at best, foolish at worst.

As per Yang’s baby, carbon capture, I’d venture to say that it will be part of humanity’s future. In a broad sense, every time you plant a tree, you are doing carbon capture. And artificial trees, where carbon dioxide is chemically captured from the air and then immobilized—great idea, couldn’t possibly hurt, but not yet at scale. An infinite expenditure on them wouldn’t yet make the sort of dent in the overall carbon budget that reducing emissions would.

When you talk about other sorts of climate engineering, you enter an uncertain world of possibly severe tradeoffs. Injecting sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, as a volcano does—you really want to live in a world with permanently darkened skies? Even those of you who never saw The Matrix or the Terminator movies should realize that limiting the amount of light to get to earth will wreak havoc with productivity of natural ecosystems and agriculture. Photosynthesis requires light, people!

Playing around with increasing cloud cover—okay, certainly worth experimenting, but wind, rain, and clouds are a complex system that is far from entirely local. Those of us who’ve spent the last week watching the hurricane won’t be arguing this point. And increasing sequestration of carbon in the shells of algae/protists with carbon-based shells (so that they sink to the bottom of the ocean and take carbon out of the picture) requires mucking around with the fragile ocean ecosystem that is already taxed by pollution, overfishing, and many other problems.

Second bottom line: climate engineering will probably be necessary at some level, but the methods are either not yet at scale or have serious tradeoffs. It won’t bail us out, folks.

With regard to fracking, Joe Biden is making this his signature distinction: he wouldn’t ban it. The idea that it’s better than coal and useful in the transition is very 1990s. Too late. You burn a hydrocarbon; you release carbon dioxide. It is a product of the combustion reaction—there’s no getting around the chemistry. Moreover, nearly all new wells for natural gas in the US have used fracking technology, which releases methane, even under Obama’s old rules. Methane, depending on how you count it, is a twenty–to–one hundred-fold worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Virtually all of the Democratic candidates have built a platform out of stealing, to a greater or lesser extent, the ideas from Sanders’ 2016 run. Thus far, for 2020, his environmental plan is distinguished by government ownership of the new renewables, a realistic price tag, a focus on economic justice for those hurt in the transition or currently suffering (to be fair, Harris and Booker also give lip service to these ideas but don’t pledge the needed dollars), a ban on fracking (also in Warren’s plan), a refusal to build new nuclear plants (also in Warren’s plan), and a pledge to bill the oil and gas industry for the damage they’ve caused rather than continue to subsidize them (again, a position shared with Warren).

My prediction is that a popular movement will pressure the eventual nominee in the direction Sanders has outlined. There is no other option than the radical one if the next generations are to have a future. However, they will also be pushed into “moderation” by the oil/gas industry, Wall Street, the DNC, Republicans, and influential rich folks.

As I write this, The Intercept has done our democracy the favor of pointing out that Joe Biden’s big-dollar fundraiser, to begin within hours of my writing this post, is planned to be co-hosted by a natural gas executive who was still listed (despite Biden’s obfuscation) on the website and SEC filings of the company he founded as playing a major role in running the company as of 2018. What makes Biden a hypocrite is that he has pledged to take no campaign money from the oil and gas industry. Regardless of what he does, do you trust someone so comfortable with billionaires that he doesn’t ask uncomfortable questions (charitably assuming he’s not just a liar) to make the right decisions on climate?

I do like Biden’s emphasis on America leading the world. It was a nice talking point. However, Trump is edging us toward war with Iran. Do you trust the near-lone voice four years ago arguing in the Senate for engagement with Iran against ISIS (Sanders), the Senator who voted for the war in Iraq (Biden), or the Senator who voted for a sanctions package in 2017 that Obama and Kerry argued would undermine the nuclear deal with Iran (Warren)? If you wanted to bet which of the three would lead us away from more wars over oil and further increases in the size of our military, who would you pick?

For, ultimately, sustainability requires an end to war.

These are huge issues with the power to determine the fate of my children’s generation. Elizabeth Warren is dead-on when she says that your political behavior matters more than whether you eat that cheeseburger or use that plastic straw. For the world’s sake, one hopes the American people choose wisely and then pressure the hell out of whomever they do choose to move the US, and then the world, toward sustainability.

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