Can Solar and Wind reverse climate change? Understanding the politics of renewable energy
There is a serious debate happening right now in the field of energy, and that is over the obligation of reducing carbon to reverse the threat of climate change and warming of the climate known as ‘global warming”. In this virtuous endeavor we have witnessed the substantial increase around the world of alternative energy forms in the category of renewable energies such as wind and solar. Many scientists agree that climate change is real and happening, but it should also be noted that scientists and engineers do not have degrees in economics, law, or politics that shape and govern the future of our energy field and will determine the future of clean energy.
Therefore it would simply be ignorant or foolish not to consider the economics or politics of renewable energy, to ask the question whether they can work to reduce and reverse climate change in the first place. When you begin to take a closer look and peal open the layers of the onion, perhaps a different picture begins to unfold. This phenomena is known as cognitive dissonance. Bring up quote about putting your entire belief into a subject. Leo Tolstoy said, I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives. Here we took a closer look at the subject matter at hand.
Is renewable energy a sustainable energy, and can it be a contributing factor when it comes to replacing our reliance on fossil fuels. First we must dive into political theory of energy before when get into the economics of it, and this involves bringing up the political history of energy regulation. Before we begin I want to talk about the definition of the term “renewable energy”. The term “renewable” could be as the term “all natural” in healthy foods. It really has no basis in reality. For example, did you know cutting down a tree and burning it is considered a renewable energy source just because you can replant a tree? It is hidden behind the name “biomass”. Even though burning wood produces more CO2 than coal. It’s labeled in the renewable category, and is allowed open access to renewable energy subsidies every year.
in 1977 President Carter consolidated energy departments into the large Department Of Energy. It was the United States DOE that started the Renewable Energy Initiative in 1994. This was a branch of the DOE that gives subsidies to companies that produce “renewable energy”. Hold on a minute though, what does “renewable energy” actually mean? When Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez talks about renewable energy, she is really only referring to two main energies. That is solar and wind.
When Jimmy Carter installed the first solar panels on the White House roof in 1979, they were what you call solar thermal heaters. They had a 20% capacity factor with an upward of 40–45% energy efficiency. Twice as energy efficient as the solar panels we are using on homes today, they were just more costly to install and more complex to design for mass production.
“Heat storage is a far easier and efficient method, which is what makes solar thermal so attractive for large-scale energy production.” — Solar Thermal Industry
Solar was once a really promising technology, however oil companies during the Reagan administration got together and decided to massively fund and support PV technology over thermal power plants that were scheduled to be built. Exxon-Mobil actually invented the first consumer PV flat panels we use today. What the energy initiative actually did in 1994 made a conscious effort to exclude nuclear and thermal energy from subsidies. It wasn’t too long ago that environmentalists supported nuclear. The term “renewable energy” was drawn up simply to exclude nuclear from the money table.
‘The asymmetry finally hit me over the head when a renewable energy advocate told me that the main purpose of renewable portfolio standards (RPS) was to “kill nuclear”. I was told, because utilities were required to accept intermittent renewable energies, nuclear power would become less economic, it works best if it runs flat out.” — James Hansen (Former head of NASA Goddard Institute)
You see “renewable” doesn’t have to mean clean for the environment in terms of greenhouse emissions. Greenhouse emissions have nothing to do with whether something is renewable or not. When a politician says they care about global warming or climate change and then turn around and push a “Green New Deal” which completely omits nuclear, they are being dishonest at worst or uninformed at best. Renewable energy category does not take into consideration impact of land use, raw materials utilized, final disposal and total greenhouse gasses emitted. It simply means the source is replenishable.
It dates back to a theory we had during the last energy crisis when we thought we were running out of oil. As we all know that was at best a bad guess. We never did run out of oil or gasoline, and many books have been written about those times. Renewable energy was originally coined as “alternative energy”, as an alternative to nuclear. The modern environmental green movement started with cries for “no nukes!”. That is at the very foundation of its core. If anyone was honest about solving climate change, they would call it carbon free energy and then they would have to include nuclear. If you look at the environmental organizations backing renewables today you would find they are dishonest. The Sierra Club today disavows nuclear, but if you really look at solar and wind you would realize that they are far from carbon free.
Well that is exactly what would end up happening. From 2008 to 2019 we saw a 4300% increase in solar production and 500% increase in wind production across the United States during the Obama administration. At the same time we saw a negative decrease in nuclear and hydro production.
Now ask yourself this, and really read these words carefully. Have you ever heard of someone who works in the oil or gas industry, or even a conservative politician talk out against the solar or wind industry?
I’ll give you an answer. That’s a big no…
The usual answer you hear is, “I support all energies”. That is because big oil believe it or not, companies like British Petroleum happen to be some of largest financiers of renewable energy. You can even read their website.
“We have a 43% share in Lightsource BP and plan to invest $200 million over a three-year period.”
Light Source BP is one of the largest companies that produce solar around the world, and they are headquartered in San Francisco of all places.
“Exxon-Mobil will begin purchasing wind and solar power in West Texas, part of a 12-year agreement signed late last year with the Danish energy company Orsted. The plan is to use cheap, clean electricity to power Exxon Mobil’s expanding operations in the Permian Basin, one of the world’s most productive and profitable oil fields.”
Why would oil companies like BP and Exxo invest so much in renewables? That’s because they physically don’t work. The “big secret” out there (not really) is that solar can’t produce energy when it’s dark at night or cloudy, and wind turbines don’t produce energy when it’s not windy.
Is It Really “Energy Efficient”?
Consider what that means for a second. There are two terms to consider energy. When you’re talking about a time period you’re talking about a capacity factor measured over a year. That means the best solar panels only work 20% of the year or 73 full days of peak energy potential, and the best wind turbines right now have a capacity of 24% or 87.6 days of continuous energy. However we have to factor in a second term below.
Efficiency rate is the ratio of useful output compared to the effort put in. A solar panel has an average efficiency of 20% in the best case scenario. A wind turbine fares much better with a 50–59% efficiency rate. These are known as Betz limits and are the theoretical best case scenarios. In other words it’s essentially saying for solar panels, in that 20% time period it can produce energy its only capturing 20% of the total potential. So after you factor in both the average capacity factor and efficiency rate, you get that a solar panel provides 14 days of continuous energy and wind provides less than 50 days of continue energy a year. In other words solar is only 4% reliable, and wind is only 17% reliable. Starting to make sense I hope?
Compare that to nuclear energy that had a 33% conversion efficiency rate in 2018 and a 90–95% capacity factor because it can run 24 hours a day. That does not even come close to coal fired plants or natural gas either. Hydro plants are even better at a close to 100% efficiency rate.
Now this is a useful Wikipedia page above which everyone reading my article should look at. It showcases the largest power plant facilities in the United States. What’s interesting is that if you sort the chart from best capacity factor to worst, you will notice that the top 30 most efficient plants in the country are all nuclear. This is followed by the top 40 most efficient energy production being coal plants. There are zero solar farms on the list, and only one wind farm on the list that is rated in the top ten worst capacities near pumped hydro storage, and that is the Alta Wind Farm owned by Southern California Edison which is rated at 24.82% capacity factor. This is not even factoring in land usage which is drastically less efficient for renewables.
Renewables will simply never be an economical energy source. Even if solar panels had 100% efficiency, they would only work less than a quarter of the year because the sun is not always shining and the wind is not always blowing. However it gets much worse again. This means two things. Number one solar and wind only exist as energies because of government subsidies. They simply do not work. The second point is that for 80% of the year they rely on a backup or we would be living by candlelight.
That backup happens to be either natural gas or coal. That is the big secret. In order to operate a solar or wind farm, pipelines are brought in when no one is looking to pump in gas during the night time while everyone is sleeping. Just read some of the websites below from gas and oil companies. In other words you have to factor in the energy it takes to produce natural gas, and if you do that wind and solar are using up more energy than they are creating.
The wind and solar farms out in California have made California the #2 consumer of natural gas. California is set to become the #1 consumer of natural gas by the year 2030 and rising. We can see the direct rise of natural gas proportionate to the rise in renewables dependent on gas.
Prior to the 21st century natural gas production in the United States reached its peak in the 1960’s. Between 1960 and 1970 the United States built over 100 nuclear reactors, and natural gas production dropped as we entered the oil crisis. In recent years we have begin to make a reverse as nuclear plants begin to expire. From the years 2000 to 2019 America saw an 80% increase in natural gas production. From 2009 to 2019, 247 natural gas plants were constructed. In that same time period we lost 10 nuclear power plants. There are currently 1,793 natural gas plants in the United States. Instead of building 1000 nuclear plants by the turn of the century we built gas plants to phase out coal. Between 2006 and 2017, world methane emissions increased by 10%. Methane emissions are 86 times more potent in our atmosphere than CO2.
Few and far between political leaders have admitted to this fact, and one of those happens to be Senator Edward Kennedy who had a 95 percent voter rating from the League of Conservation Voters during his time in office. He successfully rallied enough Democrats to block a wind farm from entering his state when they tried to run pipelines under his home he said would cause a “nuisance”. He joined protestors in the streets of Massachusetts at the time. The matter of the fact is that wind energy is very disruptive.
“Senator Kennedy has real environmental and economic concerns, and the federal government continues to lack a national policy and process to guide offshore alternative energy development, said Melissa Wagoner.”
Not to mention the environmental impact of fracking that has increased thanks to renewables. Natural gas is much worse than we ever thought it would be. From toxic poisons that enter the ground water, and many organizations are now saying that methane is 82 times more potent than the C02 produced by coal. Solar and wind are direct contributors to this problem.
Natural gas would not be an issue by itself, except for the fact that it’s business model is based on deception. It is not a cleaner alternative to coal. Germany today is a prime example of good intentions gone bad. They have completely phased out their nuclear power plants. Germany now has one of the dirtiest energy grids in the entire world. Even dirtier than America.
“The researchers, based at UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara, and Carnegie Mellon University, found that nuclear power was mostly replaced with power from coal and gas plants, which led to the release of an additional 36 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, or about a 5 percent increase in emissions.” — Wired Magazine
Now if you look at the full energy map which includes everything, when people say that solar is “taking over”, or that “we’re already half way there” which is another common buzz phrase you often hear. When activists tout that renewables are producing a large chunk of our energy grid, they fail to break it down even more. Almost half a renewables make up biomass which produces more carbon emissions than coal. Now take away hydro because we can’t dam our rivers. You can clearly see that solar out of all the panels we have produced and land we have used, in reality makes up less than 1%. Wind makes up less than 2%.Whether this graph takes into consideration that solar unlike nuclear and coal has to maintain a fossil fuel backup for most of its life remains to be answered. Nuclear stands on its own at a solid 8% and we used to be a lot more in the past as plants retire every year, and unfortunately we are shutting down a carbon free energy that can run 365 days a year. This graph given by EIA also shows that renewables are without question the dirtiest category of energy on the map not even factoring in land usage.
There are a few exceptions to the rule, and that would be when it comes to hydro plants. In areas with large rivers such as the Pacific Northwest, Midwest, and Northeast hydro can run without any backup all year round. Nuclear plants only have to be refueled every 18 months, so you typically have multiple nuclear plants that can feed off each other.
There is also the solar technology called solar thermal which has twice the efficiency rate of PV flat panels because it’s stored by heat. However solar thermal plants only made up 4% of the solar energy produced in 2019. Why are solar thermal panels not economical? Maybe the better question to ask would be, why are PV panels economical? You would then realize that the PV revolution is only economical because it is supplemented by the fossil fuel industry. Hundreds of gigantic solar thermal farms have been abandoned in America and around the world because they don’t rely heavily on fossil fuel backup, which means it hurts the bank account of major oil companies that have been funding the push to put PV panels on every home in America.
Resources Used & Waste
Renewable energy activists shout at the top of their lungs that nuclear power plants produce waste, while simultaneously ignoring the fact that solar panels and wind turbines also produce an enormous amount of waste. However unlike nuclear, there are no sensible means to recycle e-waste.
“At the same time, demand for everything from sand to rare and precious metals continues to rise. While supplying only about 1 percent of global electricity, photovoltaics already relies on 40 percent of the global tellurium supply, 15 percent of the silver supply, a large portion of semiconductor quality quartz supply.” — Scientific America
An MIT report conducted that demand for a host of rare raw materials will increase exponentially as solar and wind grows, including wind turbines that you better believe produce radioactive waste from the large amounts of steel that goes into making them. On a side note steel is made from coal, which is more radioactive than background radiation at nuclear plants.
Scientific America reports that solar panels produce 100% more waste than all of the electronic waste we throw away every year known as e-waste. However right now we’re not recycling solar panels in America. Europe is the only region in the world that currently forces manufactures to recycle PV. This is why America is the largest polluter in this century.
Compare that to nuclear. 1 kilogram of mined uranium ore produces about 30 kilowatt hours of electricity. Yet nuclear is 75% more efficient than solar. How did I do that math? 20% to 35% (nuclear plants) is a 75% increase. If you took all the amount of electricity you will use in your lifetime, the nuclear waste produced by your consumption would fit in one soda can. Why are we not talking about that? On top of that we can consider land usage as well. Nuclear and coal energy production takes up 1/1000th of the land it would take to produce the same amount of energy with solar and wind.
Not only that but we have to consider the cost of owning and operating solar panels for example. Many home owners in the 21st century may come across advertisements for solar installation on your roof that can “eliminate” all electricity costs. In reality you may not be paying the utility company, but you will now be paying monthly fees to pay off the debt on your solar panels. PV solar panels connected to homes run on the grid at least 80% of the time because of the nature of the sun shining. For that reason most solar panels are net metered. If you were to store energy on site and disconnect from the grid the system in the year 2020 the average cost for installation was about $28,000. Take into consideration that a solar company has the right to put a lean on your home when selling until you pay them off. In 2019 there were a reported two million solar panel installations on residential homes, and if the average residential build is ten panels then that is a total of 20 million panels that produced 35,000 GWh. In the year 2019 the latest figures from EIA there was 809,000 GWh of energy produced by our 94 nuclear reactors left in America. You would need to put roughly 460 million panels on American homes to match the same amount of carbon free energy produced by America’s 94 nuclear reactors. The figures get even more alarming.
The problem I have with using levelized cost of energy comparisons in a nuclear debate, is that levelized cost does not take into account that you will have to rebuild a solar and wind farm four times over in the same time period that a nuclear power plant would last. This is because the obvious that solar and wind only last a few decades, and nuclear plants we are now seeing last close to a century or maybe even more. That is a huge factor that should be considered. Any fair cost statistic should quadruple the figures for solar and wind if you measure their costs over centuries instead of one year. Levelized cost of energy also does not take into account of who can produce the most amount of energy in a small amount of space, who has the largest ability to always be producing energy and never shut down, and it doesn’t take into account the politics involved working against nuclear. It’s simply measuring energy efficiency and nothing more. No nuclear is not the most efficient energy (wind and gas are) but in my research it can produce the largest amount of energy for the lowest cost over a much longer period of time, in the smallest amount of land, with the side benefit of also being carbon free and providing great engineering jobs. We have to look at the bigger picture, and we have to be concerned about what is best for our planet in the long run.
Now consider the costs implications. The average home solar installation with ten panels would have an initial building cost on the low end of $10,000. Then you need to take into consideration that an average solar inverter lasts 5–10 years and usually has to be replaced half way through the panel’s 20–30 year life expectancy. If the average cost of a solar inverter is around $1000 in this year for a 3KW home unit that will run ten panels. You also have to look at the fact that a solar installation’s battery storage tends to not last more than a decade and usually has to be replaced once over the life of your solar panels, and after all one of the main selling points of solar panels today is that you will have a backup for when the power goes out. To use the same figure, a full house lithium solar battery sold on the market today will cost you around at least a hefty $5,000 and rare earth minerals are only getting more rare. One more incredibly important aspect of renewables like solar is the fact that the useful lifespan only lasts two decades. In the same time period that a nuclear plant could have been built, you would have had to rebuild a solar farm four times over. This will naturally quadruple the cost. If you include both the construction cost of installing close to half a billion panels, you include the lifetime maintenance of replacing the parts that breakdown overtime, and the fact that it lasts only a fourth as long as a nuclear power or coal plant, you get a combined cost of $2.9 trillion for home installed panels to match nuclear which won’t produce any real power for most of the entire year, and takes up a thousand times more land than the construction of a nuclear power plant.
Now we should understand that a home unit is obviously not the most efficient way to get the most power out of solar technology. Large solar farms utilize gigantic inverters. At that level that is what you will be seeing on industrial farms. So let’s use the largest proposed solar project currently being built in the United States that represents the future and best possibilities for the solar industry. Gemini Solar Project that was approved by President Trump in 2020 will represent the most advanced and largest use of a solar technology on American shores. It’s rated at total power output of 690MW which means 50,370MWh since solar has an average 20% capacity. With a budget of $1.1 billion. Let’s assume they stick to their budget. You would need 7,237 of these to match the power of America’s nuclear sector. That would take up 51 million acres by the way. Arevia Solar designed their farm with 425 units of non degrading 5MWh, four-hour battery storage systems. This means the batteries do not degrade like residential lithium PV systems which is becoming more common on larger farms. It’s two 230kV and one 500kV substations which include inverters are built to last many decades without having to be replaced. So really the only cost of a large industrial project like this are the up front costs, and that the panels themselves will only last a few decades. All together considering this would have to be rebuilt four times over, the entire cost to match nuclear would be $8 trillion.
Now you consider wind turbines as well. During the winter wind turbines have to be heated with natural gas to prevent them from freezing which takes an enormous amount of energy. When the wind becomes too powerful the turbines have to be shut down to prevent from breaking and experiencing oil leaks. It’s reported that in the year 2020 as the latest statistic, the average maintenance of repairing one wind turbine is $48,000 per year from breakdowns. There are currently a reported 58,000 wind turbines in the United States. Then you need to consider that it costs on average today $1.3 million to construct and finish one wind turbine. The total energy production produced by wind in the year 2019 was 295,000GWh. In the real world they are not evenly broken up but for the sake of this argument, let’s say the power produced from each wind turbine was evenly distributed. You would need to build close to 160,000 wind turbines to match nuclear. That is actually a lot more doable than solar, but let us now calculate the total cost. On top of that again if you factor in the lifespan of wind turbines, they would have to be rebuilt four times over in the same time period that a nuclear plant would last. All together when you make the same calculations for wind, you get a combined cost of $832 billion which is significantly less than solar.
Now we can and should compare nuclear power. Nuclear power plants can last indefinitely if we wanted them to. The oldest reactors right now are 80 years old. Their shutdown maintenance involves getting refueled every five years. The cost of refueling is around $40 million. With 94 nuclear reactors that is $3.8 billion. At the end of its lifespan even though we could rebuild them, a decommissioning which includes handling of waste storage costs $400 million. There are 56 commercial nuclear plants that are set to be decommissioned in the next fifty years. Now the latest cost of building one nuclear plant is between $6–9 billion so we will use $7.5 billion. I’m sure it was cheaper in the past to construct them, but if we are going to replace these plants with the next generation in this century this cost is accurate. So if you include the refueling, cost of construction, and decommissioning over the same 80 year period, you get a total combined cost of $503 billion. Nuclear in considering what it will take to produce the same amount of energy is still by and large the cheapest energy production out of the carbon free energies, even when considering upfront construction costs and handling of waste which no other energy industry is forced to perform. All of this with the capability of taking up 1000 times less land usage than renewables.
Understanding Energy Politics
That moves onto the final and perhaps most important point, and that is the American economy or western economy. If an energy cannot make economic sense under a system of capitalism, it can never be a viable solution. It is often said that for carbon free energies, solar and wind may be the only solution that makes economic sense because nuclear is ‘too expensive’. So I challenged my research and investigation to take a closer look at what drives energy policy in the United States, and why the argument is being made that energies like nuclear are too expensive. I reached out to the author of Shorting The Grid, an energy policy scholar and expert Meredith Angwin. She spoke to me in February of this year about how she took on the assertion that nuclear energy is too expensive, and wanted to get an unbiased answer. She was disheartened when she could not find the answer she wrote her own book.
In my interview I asked her, in her opinion after writing the book, would you say that energy grid regulation is economically and politically hurting the nuclear industry over the recent decades? Her response was surprising.
“The first time I heard a nuclear person complain about “the markets” I was not convinced that there was a systematic problem. Now I am completely convinced. Look at the map of the RTO areas, and overlap that with where nuclear plants are closed or in danger of closing. It’s not a complete match, but it is way beyond “this is just by chance.” — Meredith Angwin
Believe it or not in the 19th century America was the number one producer of carbon free energy in the world. During the Great Depression we started expanding the use of cheaper and cleaner ways to produce energy. At the beginning of the 20th century we were on the verge of abandoning coal. Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a decree to put thousands of workers out of poverty by having them construct these dams across major rivers of America. It was set to be an exciting new way to harness electricity, that was 100% carbon free and with a 90% energy efficiency which is the greatest energy efficiency of any energy source we ever discovered.
Some notable Hydroelectricity Plants you may recognize are the Hoover Dam built in 1931 by Franklin Roosevelt, Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant on the American side, and the Sir Adam Beck Hydroelectric Generating Stations on the Canadian side constructed in 1922. Prior to this hydroelectric plants had gone as far back as the 18th century in the 13 colonies. This included some of the largest factories in major cities, including Baker’s Chocolate Factory in Boston and General Electric in Schenectady. Some others included the first textile mills in the world.
A large misconception is that hydroelectric plants do not operate in the winter because rivers freeze, but in reality a large river only freezes on the surface. The only thing that slows down a hydro plant is grid regulation. Since a hydro plant is so energy efficient it is never run at full capacity. In Maine hydroelectricity produces such a surplus that it is used to supplement solar and wind farms and even natural gas plants when they are off.
In the 1970’s we started becoming more aware of the environmental impact humans were having on rivers, and American environmentalists went into a panic. Nationwide outbursts of protestors started blocking the construction of new Hydro Dams, and thousands poured into the streets.
In recent years many dams are gettting decominsioned after pressures from various environemental groups, such as the Glines Canyon and Elwha, Snake River, and Wilder dams all totallinh over 10,000MW of carbon free energy.
“The rise of wind and solar power, coupled with the increasing social, environmental and financial costs of hydropower projects, could spell the end of an era of big dams. But even anti-dam activists say it’s too early to declare the demise of large-scale hydro.” — Yal University (2018)
Hydroelectricity fell out of favor with the public, and in consequence the last major Hydro Dam was first constructed in 1985 and finished project in 2009, called the Bath County Pumped Storage Station in Virginia. This would be the last of its kind of something that size we would ever see again.
The United states now has over 80,000 unpowered dams in America that have the potential to produce over 12 GW of electricity but are abandoned because of their negative public image, and upwards of 65 GW potential of more dams we could build. In 2020 only 6 states utilize hydroelectricity as their main source of power. South Dakota, Idaho, Oregon, Maine, Vermont, and Washington are the leaders but are quickly shifting to other forms.
A new alternative form of energy was on the horizon that would replace hydro, as the Sierra Club would go onto adopt as their main slogan “atoms, not dams”. In 1953 President Eisenhower declared an Atoms For Peace program called Project Candor that would set the United States off into the 20th century. At the height of the Cold War in the 1950’s over 90 nuclear power plants were ordered to be built including over 150 nuclear reactors. Producing 100% carbon free energy with a 91% capacity factor, 35% efficiency rate, while supplying up to 30% of America’s energy needs. They only had to be refueled every 18 months, and 1 kilogram of enriched uranium could produce 320,000 kilowatt hours of electricity. That is far better than coal and even better than the most advanced combined cycle gas plants today in terms of the it’s ability to produce energy without stopping. With the added benefit of it being greenhouse gas free. If you were a child of the 70’s in America you probably remember taking a field trip to one.
“At the end of this decade in the year 1980, the United States will not be dependent on any other country for the energy we need to provide our jobs, to heat our homes, and to keep our transportation moving.” — Richard Nixon
The first commercial reprocessing plant was set online in 1966. America was set to become energy independent, when Richard Nixon declared that America was on its way to becoming 100% carbon free by the year 1980. He ordered the construction of 100 new power plants during the oil crisis that were set to be built throughout the 1980’s, and plans to construct a goal of 1000 power plants by the turn of the century. The future was bright, and we were on our way to a clean energy grid we had never seen before.
Not only power plants, but the United States was innovating in the field of possibilities around nuclear transportation. In 1946 the United States military developed the first nuclear powered submarines, eventually becoming capable of only having to be refueled every 10–25 years depending on the model. Then in 1956 MARAD developed the first commercial nuclear powered cargo ship NS Savannah which was in service from 1962–1972, and it was used as an example to show that nuclear powered transportation was possible. Also From 1956–1978 the United States Navy developed 9 nuclear powered cruisers. NS Savannah project was ultimately cancelled after a union strike, just one year before the oil crisis where it would have reached peak productivity as a success.
However the glory days of nuclear would not last forever. Public perception was starting to change from environmental groups which first started popping up around New England. One of the more famous examples actually took place in the state of Massachusetts in the year 1974, when an organic farmer by the name of Sam Lovejoy took a crowbar and climbed Montague Nuclear Power Plant destroying a 550 foot weather tower that was placed next to his farm. Lovejoy proudly admitted to the crime at his local police station with a note he left on the deputies desk asking to go to prison. He was later acquitted on a technicality at his trial avoiding prison time, and went on to produce the first anti-nuclear documentary in the country Lovejoy’s Nuclear War. In 1975 he also formed the Clamshell Alliance Group, which organized the first construction blockades at nuclear power sites being put up most famously at New Hampshire’s Seabrook.
In 1976 the story was starting to change politically. India had built its first nuclear bomb after we gave them permission to green light nuclear energy. Fearing that nuclear power plants would have the ability to produce bombs, President Gerald Ford wanted to send the message that the United States was no longer friendly to nuclear. He went on to halt funding for commercial plutonium reprocessing plants in the United States. This brought the Republican Party which before under Nixon was very pro nuclear, into a pro coal and big oil faction that would define the modern Republican Party. This was only the beginning of a hard fall for the nuclear industry.
By 1977 Jimmy Carter was elected to the White House, and he ran on a platform of nuclear disarmament. Within his first year in office Carter banned all uranium and plutonium reprocessing plants commercial and military, even though uranium can also be used as fuel. For the first time in history power plants could not recycle and reuse their uranium rods after they were done using them. This would now bring Democrats over to the anti-nuclear side. In the middle 70’s we shut down the Atomic Energy Commission and replaced it with the Jimmy Carter’s Department Of Energy, which told Americans for the first time we had to become “energy efficient” because we were running out of energy in his famous Crisis Of Confidence speech that was broadcast across the nation. This systematically excluded nuclear and started the movement for alternative green energy, and a nuclear plant would never be constructed again for the entire rest of the century as we cancelled Project Independence.
On March 16th, 1979 Columbia Pictures released China Syndrome starring Jane Fonda. Two weeks later Three Mile Island marked the first and only nuclear meltdown or partial meltdown that would ever happen to a commercial power plant in the United States. It would involve a multi million dollar cleanup project from Carter. Even though it resulted in zero workers harmed, and containment walls successfully stopped pollution from spreading outside of the reactor, it would have a permanent consequence on nuclear innovation and public relations.
Massive outcry poured into the streets again from environmentalists, as “no-nuke” rallies started blocking the new construction of power plants that had already begun in the 1980’s. This was the beginning of America’s denuclearization. From 1975–1980, a total of 63 power plants which had already begun construction were cancelled and demolished.
The stone was set for an energy crisis as we entered an era of conservation and deindustrialization. Between 1979 and 1985 one-third of America’s high-technology machine-tool factories were permanently told to shut down, and there was a close-down of a similar percentage of other capital-intensive industries throughout America’s industrial heartland. The rearrangement of capital was labeled “Controlled Disintegration of the Economy” coined by Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volcker as we entered an era of energy conservation and disinvestment in science and technology.
Reagan would lift the ban on reprocessing plants in 1981, and he pushed for the development of Integral Fast Reactor at Argonne in 1984 which allowed us to reprocess the waste produced from generating power. However subsidies on nuclear projects would remain banned by the Department Of Energy for the next century. In 1994 under President Bill Clinton working with John Kerry and a Democratic Majority, Integral Fast Reactor at Argonne was shut down because it was feared that it was being used for nuclear proliferation for its ability to reprocess plutonium. We would never pursue another liquid metal reactor in that century.
2002 would mark the last year the United States had an operable nuclear power plant capable of reprocessing uranium or plutonium, and in 2009 the last uranium mine in the United States closed its doors. We are the only nuclear nation in the world without the means to recycle our waste, and we are the only nation in the world which is not allowed to mine for uranium.
It wasn’t until the next century under a George Bush administration that Department Of Energy changed its stance on blocking subsidies to nuclear projects, but by then the momentum had died. Between 1993–1999 our entire fleet of nuclear powered military cruisers were decommissioned for being “too expensive” to operate and maintain for their age. Another nuclear cruiser would never be built again. Today we rely on gas and diesel powered cruisers and oilers for both military and commercial, with no plans in the future to adopt nuclear. Luckily we still had nuclear submarines.
Now for those who argue that nuclear is too expensive in this economy would be correct. The reason nuclear is no longer viable is because that was by design. It was chosen by government decree and committee that nuclear and coal would be discriminated against to allow other energies to flourish. 1992 National Energy Policy Act. This was a form of deregulation intended to increase competition. The big change was EO’S; 888 & 2000 in 1996 and 1999 signed by President Bill Clinton. He announced be would be incentivizing states to deregulate their power grids which was supposed to “go after” utility monopolies, and in reality it added on new forms of deregulation that were anti-nuclear. For the first time states were allowed to split up utilities through State Public Utility Commissions (PUC’s), and allow third party companies such as National Grid in New England as an example and many states did. This split was usually to put transmission and distribution assets into one company, and generation assets in other(s). The generation companies then were put into a bidding process. No longer did a single company own it all, and could make decisions about the generation mix they wanted. But now we have nuclear plants forced to bid against subsidized wind and solar, and natural gas which had twice the efficiency but half the capacity which mattered more in a deregulated market.
Not all states forced this split. For example Georgia Power is still an integrated utility. Hence Vogtle 3/4 were approved by their PUC, and get built. You can very much correlate the areas of the country were nuclear power plants are shutting down, that have RTO’s or Regional Transmission. That’s why there are such a large abundance of nuclear power plants in the South East. We can choose which energies are cheaper or not. Natural gas and renewables thrive in RTO sections of the country and that is by design.
Not only would there now be PUC’s which were enforcing a new system of pushing a deregulated electricity and natural gas market, not only did you take away revenue from the plants themselves which can be viewed as discriminatory towards nuclear plants which make most of their money by running at peak capacity all of the time, you now created the first Renewable NGO initiatives which were setup during the Clinton administration. This was the beginning of states being incentivized to meet new renewable energy goals through federal subsidies, while at the same time excluding nuclear power industry from accessing those same renewable and carbon reduction subsidies. The Energy Department policy did this by excluding nuclear power by not calling it a renewable energy. In consequence solar and which produce far less efficient energy for the amount of money that goes into them being net negative energies, now had a financial advantage over nuclear.
In the 21st century energies like solar and wind are regularly getting upwards of two hundred times more federal subsidies than nuclear, which is persuading state PUC’s to pursue and approve new solar and wind projects but not projects to build new nuclear plants. If we look at the year 2020 in a graph provided by the EIA, 88% of federal subsides went to renewables instead. Imagine if we took the money we’ve invested in solar and wind in the last two decades, and instead had put that towards nuclear innovation. Imagine where we would be today. Image the jobs we would have created if we had reached Nixon’s goal of 1000 nuclear plants by the turn of the century. Imagine if we moved the majority of our subsidies towards nuclear, and structured our energy grid economy to support nuclear instead of working against it with every chance we get. A sitting President could do that very easily as part of his energy agenda with the stroke of a pen. It doesn’t take move government action to move us towards this, and it would not require a climate accords or a carbon tax.
A second economic factor that is often brought up beside nuclear is the argument of the handling and storage of radioactive waste. Besides the health affects, is nuclear waste economically feasible to control.
During the mid 1970’s when we moved away and banned the act of reprocessing waste and stripped nuclear subsidies to this day, it can be argued that it made nuclear energy go from a 35% efficiency rate on average to less than 4%, as now plants were forced to “throw away” 96% of the usable plutonium and uranium which could be used to make bombs or be fed back into the grid like we did for most of nuclear energy’s history. Up until 1975 we reprocessed our waste, and that is how we gathered enough plutonium to bomb the Japanese in theory. Retired bombs would then be decommissioned by down-blending with U-238 down to reactor grade enrichments (3–5%) and then burned in US reactors. It was called the “dual use” approach. You see that would have made nuclear energy much more profitable if we moved towards that market, and that is why we were able to construct so many plants in the beginning. A similar comparison is the space race.
One of the reasons nuclear power is failing in the 21 century is because of denuclearization. For the entire Cold War the United States and USSR did not drop one nuclear bomb on each other. This is because in 1971 Richard Nixon and Brezhnev signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty which assured mutual destruction. We do not drop one bomb after Japan and yet, we completely dismantled the economic system that made nuclear work.
Even though nuclear bombs are in the literal sense what ended the Cold War. 10% of America’s energy has been derived from Russia’s Soviet stockpile. The very existence of plutonium reprocessing led to the elimination of bombs. It was called Megatons to Megawatts program. Started by President Bush in 1992, but expired and not renewed under the Obama administration in 2013.
“When the Cold War ended, the Russian and U.S. governments struck a deal: Russia would turn the uranium from its decommissioned warheads into nuclear fuel. The U.S. would buy this fuel and sell it to commercial nuclear power plants back home.” — Discover Magazine
The argument is not to say that we should build more nuclear bombs, but it’s merely pointing out that if the money were there it would be possible. The only thing that stands in the way of reprocessing innovation is money. When there was money in the pot, from 1966–1972 New York operated West Valley site, during that time 640 metric tons of fuel from both federal government defense reactors and commercial power reactors were reprocessed. When you take away the lucrative incentive to make bombs, paired with refusing to subsidize an energy industry for three decades, and paired with a discriminatory energy regulation of the market, you no longer have a financial reason to build new plants or reprocess waste backed by a military initiative.
Today nuclear power plants are retiring every year around the country, but in particularly more progressive leaning states such as California. Massachusetts just closed down their last power plant in Plymouth. This is the story in practically every state as nuclear energy is still massively feared. Despite the nuclear energy industry having the best safety record of any energy production including renewables, the last nuclear plant would be built in 1977 marking the end of America’s clean nuclear energy era.
There is also misconception out there that the South and Midwest are the big polluters of dirty energy, and the West Coast and Northeast are the green innovators of a carbon free future. If we look at the facts in the year 2020, 60 carbon free nuclear plants are located in the South and Midwest. The West Coast has 1 left, and the Northeast has 12. Let’s look at all 50 red states and blue states. There are 15 plants/reactors in historically blue states, and 73 nuclear plants/reactors in historically red conservative states. You can notice that in the area where the most nuclear plants are constructed such as in the South East, it’s also the area of the country that never deregulated their energy grid and still chooses to include nuclear in the mix.
In the last three decades New England alone lost six nuclear plants. Prior to 2014, 70% of Vermont’s energy production was from nuclear power. Massachusetts used to be the leader of nuclear power, and today they have zero plants. If we had kept the New England Yankees online and Pilgrim, and built reactor 2 at Seabrook, that would have produced 3879MW equal to 80% of new natural gas production in New England. This article is not about politics per se, but it shows the blatant misconceptions that exist about who are the largest consumers of dirty energy in the country and world. France currently has the cleanest energy grid, and Germany has the dirtiest.
However we have to understand this. In the year 2020 the United States still has 58 nuclear power plants still operating that have never had a meltdown. That also includes 96 nuclear reactors. That means 48 years of nuclear waste that has piled up because America no longer has the means to recycle it. It is reported that right now we have around 60,000 metric tons of uranium that has been stored underground by orders from the government, and 30,000 metric tons of plutonium that is also unable to be recycled.
Uranium and plutonium are both right now worth 32 million dollars per ton and they are seeing record low prices as America denuclearizes itself. That adds up to over three trillion dollars of deemed “waste” sitting in barrels. Not too long ago that would have paid off our entire national debt with a surplus. Not to mention the cost of storage. It’s reported that it costs power plants collectively 40 billion dollars a year to store it, and yet federal government claims ownership of the waste. That makes nuclear extremely uncompetitive in the energy market because no other energy market has to do this with the waste they produce. Environmentalists would rather buy uranium from Russia than reprocess our own. Plus these resources would be worth even more if we were allowed to turn them back into energy.
That’s another common argument that is thrown around, that we are running out of uranium. Depending on which publication you read, it’s anywhere from 80–200 years left of available uranium before our entire world runs out of usable material. This of course is not counting untapped potential since we banned uranium mining in the United States, which our country is one of the largest sources of naturally occurring uranium. Also the fact that we banned and phased out fast breeder reactors because bombs, and not considering that we have the means to extract uranium from our ocean, and the means to develop thorium reactors and even turn thorium into uranium. The point is we have 200 years to innovate in this sector, and this industry right now gets close to zero energy subsidies when compared with renewables. Imagine if that changed?
The history of nuclear “waste” itself was a problem which was invented by international law. Starting in 1975 the United States entered the London Convention. This banned the dumping of high level radioactive waste in our oceans. Then in 1994 the convention banned the dumping of low level radioactive waste. From 1946–1994, 13 countries dumped 89,000 barrels of high-level and low-level radioactive waste into the Atlantic and Pacific oceans including United States. Samples taken as recently as 1996 over dumping sites detected no excess amounts of radiation. Compare that to an oil spill? There are 4.5 million tons of naturally occurring uranium in our five oceans. I use this as example simply to showcase that radioactive waste produced by plants is not as dangerous to the planet as many believe.
However we need to stop pretending that nuclear waste poses a threat even if it is stored on land. We have found creative safer ways to store waste in recent times. Many plants utilize storing waste behind 7 1/2 foot thick reinforced concrete cylinder casks with an inner steel shell. They pose absolutely no risk to surrounding areas. Waste is stored on sight. In 2018 Diablo Canyon storage ISFSI sight held 49 concrete casks storing 32 spent rods each. In greater figures we can consider that all of the waste produced by Diablo since 1985 could fit into 49 concrete cylinders measuring 70 yards. The manufactured crisis known as waste really isn’t a crisis at all.
The greater tragedy is that NRC reports that PG&E had planned to build 140 casks before Diablo was shut down. Want more proof? You can look on Google Earth at the Diablo plant itself. Zoom your mouse in on the storage area. You can sadly witness the empty slots waiting for casks to be built. When Governor Jerry Brown approved the early decommissioning of the plant he cancelled 91 future permanent storage solutions for nuclear waste, that would have posed no radiation risk for the surrounding area.
We also have the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico that is successfully encasing nuclear waste in a salt mine. However federal law states that it cannot be used for waste produced by commercial plants. We have the solutions for handling waste, but the reality is far more political.
The basic fear around nuclear waste and nuclear power is the radiation, but the very nature of how radioactive material works defines itself as extremely safe. Essentially the longer the half life the less radioactive it is, and the faster or shorter the half life the more radioactive it is. That means high radioactive waste will be non radioactive is less than 100 years. Radioactive waste that has an extremely long half life is not really dangerous at all. Uranium is amongst the most abundant mineral on this earth. There is 4.5 billion tons of naturally occurring radioactive uranium in our oceans alone. A lot of the fear around nuclear also surrounds the nuclear atom bomb itself. However, the real danger of nuclear weapons are really the explosion itself and not the radioactive fallout. I view the safety of nuclear technology to be incredible in regards to extreme examples. I use the example of Richard Mingus.
Richard Mingus was the security guard at our Nevada Test Site during the Cold War, who guarded the gates of Area 51 as bombs went off in the distance beside him at ground zero. They were called the Plumbbob tests. Richard Mingus is still living at the age of 91 and tours the country at speaking events. He continued as a guard for the base until 1993. Now consider the bombing of the Japanese. In the year 2021, 136,682 Japanese that were at ground zero when the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and survived the blasts are still living. 1% out of that group experienced radiation sickness at all. This very much highlights the safety of nuclear energy and waste. It showcases that mortalities surrounding nuclear weapons very much involve the explosion itself and not so much the radioactivity. It has everything to do with the bomb, and not the risk of radiation from power plants killing human life. Unfortunately people correlate those two and it has a lot to do with the press.
In the year 2011 fears were restocked about the handling and storage of nuclear waste after the Fukushima earthquake. This is the huge problem about conducting research on the internet and unfortunately the way the press pushes the narrative. I did an experiment with Google. I took one of the largest nuclear disasters of recent history and asked Google, how many died because of Fukushima meltdown? I remember at the time Fukushima and was leaking waste was used as an example for why nuclear energy is not safe for the world, and I admit at the time I really had believed that about the industry as well. This is the answer it gives you at the top of the first page. Look at how the BBC article words that paragraph. One nuclear plant created a 9.1 earthquake and 51 foot tsunami that wiped out 160,000 homes and crushed 18,500 people? The incredible part about the BBC article. That was written intentionally. They say it was the second worst nuclear disaster in history, and then they write that 18,500 died in the tsunami. That is very irresponsible journalism although technically true.
The way it is written ties the power plant which had nothing to do with the mortalities. Unfortunately if a deadly accident happens near or at a nuclear power plant, that is automatically related to nuclear even if it wasn’t. Unfortunately that is the way people see disasters like Fukushima, and I see that a lot in the press around the subject of nuclear. No documented case of any evidence has linked massive death from radiation leaking into the Pacific Ocean from Fukushima. The plant had zero accidents in its history of giving carbon free energy for 40+ years of service. Japan dumping the water now will not pose any risk to human or other wildlife.
Perhaps if we did not stifle free market innovation for the last 50 years we would have discovered a way to make nuclear reprocessing economical without making bombs into the equation. However the United States truly lost half a century of innovation because of misconceptions and falsehoods that have destroyed the American energy grid. Other nations like China, Japan, Russia, India, Israel, Brazil, Iran, and France, are quickly looking to surpass us in the next few decades. Russia just announced their competition of Project 22220, a nuclear powered ice breaker. Russia still has an active nuclear powered warship the Kirov-class battlecruiser. Is the former Soviet Union is now beating us at our own game? Certainly other nations like China are pursuing nuclear power faster than we are today, as we have completely pulled out of building American plants in other areas of the world.
But will it provide jobs???
Now what about jobs as the argument? One argument that is commonly heard inside the beltway is that a ‘Green New Deal’ would provide thousands if not millions of new jobs for Americans and that it would uplift the country. That is if we increased the construction of solar and wind farms. This of course would mean that continued retirement of our nuclear and coal plants. If economics is in question, we can look no further by focusing on the economic impact and success over the last century of the nuclear industry providing American jobs in comparison to the renewable industry. Let’s take a closer look.
The reality is, almost all of the solar panels in the world are manufactured in Malaysia and Philippines, and assembled in Mexico on cheap labor. The same can be said for many of the wind turbines you may see driving by a country road. In 2020, zero US solar panel companies manufacture in the United States. We don’t source our own materials. The rare earth minerals we are using are not allowed to be mined in the United States or Europe. China has controlled 97% of rare earth mineral market since 2001 when the United States entered the World Trade Organization and PNTR. Increase in renewable energy directly benefits the Asian economy.
On the other hand, nuclear power and hydro power directly benefit American workers by providing good paying union jobs because they are considered utility workers. In 2020 the average nuclear physicist in America makes $111,656, with some engineers reporting salaries as high as $222,000. Currently there are almost 100,000 nuclear workers in America. That’s 11 billion dollars directly benefiting American workers, in an industry that sees 7.5 billion dollars a year in income to nuclear power companies. This is also important to mention that these jobs are unionized in the Utility Workers Of America, among one of the largest labor unions in the entire world.
That does not even include secondary industries such as construction contractors because unlike solar panels, nuclear power plants are built in the United States. Unlike gas pipelines which on average take less than 18 months to construct with plastic pipes made in China since we don’t use cast iron anymore, a nuclear power plant takes 10–15 years to construct from scratch. Those are more or less 450,000 permanent construction jobs according to Nuclear Energy Institute, with materials made in the USA.
Average salary of a worker who installs solar panels on homes made in Asia, performed by electricians and carpenters is $17/hour or $35k/year.
National average salary of a wind turbine technician is not much more at $22/hour or $45k/year and typically installed by journeymen electricians. One of the positives of wind energy I will give them is that larger wind turbines have to be made in America because shipping would be too expensive. There are currently over 500 wind factories in 43 states employing as many jobs as the nuclear field. The big sea based ones of several megawatts have to be made at a dock side factory within a barge ride of where they’ll be installed. However the sub-megawatt types can be made anywhere in the world, as they fit in a shipping crate. In between are the the big land based ones of only a few megawatts, and those can be made overseas as well and often are. Wind also relies heavily relies on natural gas to operate at full capacity. Also producing radioactive waste.
If you love what you do for a career that is great, but politicians have to stop misleading the public by saying renewables create American jobs and directly supports the American economy. Rare earth minerals are a 100 million dollar industry every year controlled by China plus the tariffs we pay. If we allowed it we could recycle and mine our own uranium and plutonium. Most of the production of renewable energies is being farmed out as cheap labor overseas to undercut union labor. You don’t see that in the nuclear field, because you cannot really outsource a nuclear power plant if you catch my drift.
“Electrical construction done by $12 per hour factory labor instead of $50 per hour union labor at the solar project site makes solar production significantly more affordable, according to market-leading substation builders like Eaton, ABB, and S&C Electric.” — Utility Dive Magazine
I tried to make this history article as unbiased and factual as possible. I present this to you not to make a case for or against nuclear, but to tell a story that deserves to be seen and told by the masses. My family has been a resident of Massachusetts for over 150 years and we used to live by nuclear plants before they were shut down in our region of the country. New England was where the anti-nuclear movement first began, and perhaps no other region of the country has such a controversial and trivial story in regards to nuclear power. In recent times New England has said “no”.
If we’re going to want to keep up with the nuclear reactors that are set to be decommissioned, the Unites States is going to have to build 100 new reactors by the year 2050. The interesting reality is that America was on its way to a cleaner energy grid in the last century more so than in this century. The only two energy sources that are carbon emissions free we ever discovered were nuclear and hydro, and they account for 75% of carbon free energy in 2020. Those two energies have a massive public relations problem in this century. Even though they contribute to much less injuries than even solar and wind. To report anything different is simply being dishonest to the American people.
Yet we have politicians that proclaim dangerous remarks, such as Senator Elizabeth Warren who personally said she would love to eliminate nuclear by the end of the decade. Would that be a wise decision?
Despite these facts, even some very far left American politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senators Bernie Sanders or even Elizabeth Warren refuse to support nuclear energy. The Green New Deal and Paris Climate Accord would massively expand renewable energies, which would also massively expand greenhouse gasses from natural gas which is worse than coal for methane emissions and that is a fact. Both would do nothing to save or expand on nuclear or hydro infrastructure. You would also be surprised to hear, many conservative politicians don’t support these energies either.
In a misguided effort by environmentalists to save the environment, we have successfully managed to deindustrialize the west. Do not get me wrong the EPA has done important work, but the EPA is not really the problem. We have to pay attention to collective interests who do not have the environment at their best interest. If anyone took the time to do just a little research you would find out that climate change it truly a hoax. It is a hoax because the organizations and powerful companies promoting that word are not fixing the problem, but instead they are looking to gain off fear and hysteria. That is what we need to reverse. Neil Degrasse Tyson said that a great challenge in life is knowing enough about a subject to think you are right, but not knowing enough to know you are wrong. I think we can learn from this that progress is never linear. Just remember every time a nuclear power plant closes and a river isn’t dammed, an executive at Exxon-Mobil has a smile on their face.