Clearing Up Nuclear Spin
Phew! Karl Grossman's excellent article (5/11) on nuclear spin in the media following the Fukushima disaster in Japan is well worth the $20 one-year subscription rate. In a quick, easy read, he references a good many books, articles, reports, government information, and radio and television broadcasts, including Bill Nye the Science Guy, creating a clear, penetrating perspective on the nuclear question and its representation in the media.
Needed: A Better Renewables Conversation
Miranda Spencer's article on renewable energy in the May issue is correct to point out the missed opportunity to have a national conversation about energy use in the wake of the nuclear disaster in Japan. However, she misses the mark on a number of details which undermine the credibility of her arguments.
First, she points out that nuclear plants produce electricity, and are thus not suited to reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Then she goes on to talk about solar, wind and geothermal, which of course also produce electricity and are thus no better suited to that task.
Then, responding to a congressman's claim that building renewables will "take a while," Spencer compares the time to permit and build nuclear plants to the time it takes to build wind and solar plants. There are two problems with this. One is that of course large wind and solar plants take a long time to permit as well. The second is that nuclear plants produce far more power than the average wind or solar plant. In fact, there isn't yet a single solar plant in the world that produces as much power as a typical nuclear reactor. The Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, one of the biggest solar projects in the world, illustrates both problems. It took three years to permit, will take another three years to build, and will produce about half the power of just one of the 6 reactor units at Fukushima, and only during the day. (It will also cost over $2 billion and destroy desert tortoise ecosystems, despite the strenuous efforts of local environmentalists to stop its construction.)
Spencer also cites "projected" costs for solar instead of current costs, and incorrectly implies that the "smart grid" can magically solve renewable intermittency problems. The reality is that no one knows exactly where the cost of solar is going to end up, and building a smart grid with the storage needed to support anything close to 100 percent renewables to will take billions of dollars and massive natural resources.
All of this ignores the size of the problem. The amount of energy we use in the United States is so vast that to replace nuclear power alone with solar would take over 600 years at the current pace of solar expansion. The wind and solar industries will need to expand by a factor of hundreds if we wish to convert most of our energy use to these sources within the next century. That is going to "take a while" even if we can overcome the political obstacles.
I am not pointing out these corrections in order to defend nuclear power; actually, I install solar power for a living. But exaggerating the current efficacy of renewables while downplaying their costs and environmental impacts is not the way to convince folks that renewables are the answer, or to prepare us for a hard future of climate change and diminishing fossil fuels. We need massive efforts at energy conservation, a strategy that goes unmentioned in Spencer's article. And there is also a real debate to be had as to whether coal plants or nuclear plants are the greater evil. Ironically and unfortunately, in an article about a missed opportunity to engage in much needed conversation, Spencer's fails to cover the energy issue in the way it needs to be talked about.
San Francisco, Calif.
Miranda Spencer replies:
My piece was not intended to promote renewable power as an easy and challenge-free answer to the United States' energy demands, but to take mainstream media to task for the way it covered our energy options post-Fukushima. See the sources I cite from groups like the National Research Council, the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and the Earth Policy Institute, as well as the recently released report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for further substantiation of their arguments against nuclear energy and in favor of renewables--arguments that were almost entirely missing from the corporate media discussion following the disaster.
My point about foreign oil was that it wasn't relevant to the discussion about nuclear power. Renewables are relevant to the nuclear power discussion, because both are used to produce electricity.
I do agree that conservation is one of the top issues we need to hear more about--which is why I called out the press and their sources for not touching the topic in the second paragraph of my article.
I really enjoyed your piece on the "Afghan debate" (5/11). Your analysis of Rachel Maddow's coverage really brought the point home. Thank you very much.