Over the last five years, my colleagues and I have worked with scientists and environmentalists around the world to stop anti-nuclear activists from shutting down nuclear power plants. I testified six times before Congress, gave three TED talks that have been viewed over six million times, and published Apocalypse Never, which argues that only nuclear energy can guarantee universal prosperity and environmental progress.
I am happy to announce that today the pro-nuclear movement is on the cusp of its biggest victory to date. The White House has announced that it will support a tax credit to level the playing field between nuclear energy and heavily-subsidized renewables, which could be enough to save most of America’s nuclear plants at risk of closing.
“We are not going to be able to achieve our climate goals if nuclear power plants shut down,” testified Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm. “We have to find ways to keep them operating.”
Support for nuclear comes from another unlikely source: Senator Joe Manchin, a pro-coal Democrat from West Virginia. “As a zero-emissions baseload fuel source,” he wrote in a letter to President Joe Biden last month, “I believe that maintaining our fleet and preventing closures of existing nuclear plants is critical to achieving emission reduction goals and ensuring a reliable grid. I urge you to take action to preserve our existing nuclear fleet and prevent further closures.”
I met Senator Manchin on March 11 of this year when he, as chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, invited my expert testimony about the contribution of weather-dependent renewables to blackouts in California in Texas. I explained why nuclear power saved lives during the Texas cold snap, and how the loss of a nuclear plant in California contributed to last August’s blackouts.
Our victory is by no means assured. Powerful financial interests within the Democratic Party are lobbying the White House against action. The most influential environmental group among Democrats, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), is directly invested in solar panels made in China, and natural gas stocks, through BlackRock, the shadow bank whose former executive, Brian Deese, is Biden’s top economic advisor.
And Biden’s proposed support for nuclear is tied to his $2.3 trillion climate infrastructure legislation proposal being considered in Congress which, as I have documented, would raise energy prices, kill endangered species, and increase the risk of blackouts. Just 5% of $2.3 trillion the Democrats are asking for would go to roads and bridges. Most troubling, the legislation risks worsening inflation, which could cause the Fed to raise interest rates, which would hurt poor and working people the most.
But whether or not this particular legislative tactic works, there is growing support in Congress to save America’s nuclear plants, and the lesson of this victory remains the same: the only way to save nuclear energy is by caring about both prosperity and environmental progress, telling the truth about the technology, and standing up for nuclear, publicly and passionately.
Bad Green Deal
The announcement by the White House comes at a time of growing anxiety among economists that we are headed for inflation, which could trigger an interest rate hike by the Federal Reserve. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said earlier this week that “it may be that interest rates will have to rise somewhat.” A few hours later she added, “I don’t think there’s going to be an inflationary problem, but if there is, the Fed can be counted on to address them.”
It also comes at a time of growing anxiety among moderate Democrats that such heavy spending on renewables will result in heavy losses to Republicans in the 2022 Congressional elections. President Biden, as a candidate, felt the need to renounce the label, “Green New Deal,” during the 2020 election, which moderate Democrat Rep. Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania, said significantly hurt Democrats in congressional swing districts.
Moderate Democrats feel vulnerable because Party leaders, including Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who represents San Francisco, are basing the climate infrastructure legislation on California’s anti-nuclear, 100% renewables agenda. California saw its electricity prices rise an astonishing seven times more than they did in the rest of the U.S. over the last decade, debunking claims that renewables are cheap.
Renewables advocates claim that California’s prices rose before renewables became cheap, and that prices will decline in the future, but California’s electricity prices will rise more than 50% from today’s levels by 2030, according to the Public Advocate’s Office of the California Public Utilities Commission.
“We are in a rate crisis with electricity costs growing faster than inflation, inequity rising, and wildfire costs coming,” said a representative of the Advocate’s Office.
The problem is that weather-dependent renewables produce both too much and not enough energy. When the sun shines and demand is low, California has to pay Arizona and other states to take our electricity, but when the sun isn’t shining, and demand is high, as it was last August, we must either pay for very expensive electricity and/or suffer from blackouts.
All of this was predicted by an obscure German economist in the peer-reviewed economics literature back in 2013. He found that the economic value of wind would decline 40% once it becomes 30% of electricity, while the value of solar would drop by 50% when it became just 15% of electricity, and that’s roughly what has occurred.
I was the first columnist to draw attention to the fact that renewables make electricity expensive. In 2018, I wrote a column for Forbes headlined, “If Solar And Wind Are So Cheap, Why Are They Making Electricity So Expensive?”
Shortly after, I was criticized by a fellow Forbes columnist who claimed that I was wrong because Texas had managed to keep electricity prices low while adding a lot of wind.
But one year later, a former Obama administration economist and others at the University of Chicago concluded in a study that renewable energy mandates had indeed increased electricity prices on average by 17%, costing ratepayers $125 billion. Then, in February of this year, the power outage in Texas occurred, killing several people and costing Texans nearly $200 billion.
Weather-dependent renewables don’t have to cause blackouts. Germany shows that, if you maintain your coal plants, you can also deploy a lot of solar and wind turbines, albeit at a high cost.
But in Texas, that didn’t happen. Investors sunk $53 billion into weather-dependent energy sources that could have been spent on reliable sources of electricity, or weatherizing the plants that froze up.
The poor suffer the most from high energy prices, just as they do from all forms of price increases. “First housing-induced poverty, now energy-induced poverty,” said Jennifer Hernandez, an expert on California housing and climate change policies and member of The 200, a pro-housing coalition founded by civil rights legend John Gamboa, who helped end red-lining.
Are President Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Congressional Democrats sure that they want California as their model for America?
“For those who may have wondered how we slipped backwards into the Dark Ages,” warns Hernandez, who has documented how progressive policies increased the cost of housing and energy, “bear witness to what California’s leadership is intentionally imposing on communities of color, millennials and seniors.”
The Pro-Nuclear Moment
Over the last several years, and in Apocalypse Never, I have made the argument that only nuclear energy can lift all humans out of poverty while reducing humankind’s negative footprint.
Some pro-nuclear Democrats have faulted me for criticizing renewables, not because they believe that renewables are good for the environment, but rather because doing so upsets Democrats. Others have accused me of being too passionate.
But I have felt that telling the truth about nuclear energy and renewables is more important than making everybody happy, and that we should be passionate about nuclear since it’s the only a technology that can achieve university human prosperity and environmental progress.
As importantly, environmentalists, progressives, and Democrats are changing their minds about nuclear energy, just as I did. Earlier this year, America’s most influential anti-nuclear magazine, The New Yorker, published a long and thoughtful article about the pro-nuclear movement. In it the author touched upon many of the same themes I have tried to emphasize in my writings, testimonies, and talks.
“Much of what we think we know about nuclear is wrong,” she wrote. “Instead of being the most dangerous energy source, it is one of the safest….To be fervently pro-nuclear is to see in the peaceful splitting of the atom something almost miraculous.”
Starting in 2016 I described this way of thinking about nuclear as “atomic humanism,” “environmental humanism,” or pro-nuclear environmentalism. What I have tried to emphasize is that only nuclear, for inherently physical reasons, can achieve the goals that most progressives, Democrats, and environmentalists say they want.
“To be fervently pro-nuclear,” wrote The New Yorker, “is to see an energy source that has been steadily providing low-carbon electricity for decades—doing vastly more good than harm, saving vastly more lives than it has taken—but which has received little credit and instead been maligned. It is to believe that the most significant problem with nuclear power, by far, is public perception.”
That conclusion has been hard for many pro-nuclear people to support. Many pro-nuclear people are scientists and engineers who tend to believe that public concern with nuclear stems from the design of nuclear reactors, and that if we used chemicals or metals to cool the uranium instead of water, costs would decline and public support would rise.
But the peer-reviewed scientific literature finds that innovation makes nuclear expensive while standardization makes it cheap, and much of the desire for futuristic nuclear stems from social fears of dealing with public concerns with the technology, which have much more to do with fear of nuclear weapons than with the kind of reactor design, according to every major investigation of nuclear fear since World War II.
The progressive fear and loathing of nuclear energy is so intense, and sometimes so scary, that it’s understandable that pro-nuclear people often make claims about technological innovation that simply aren’t true. But making perfect nuclear the enemy of good nuclear is a big reason for the technology’s decline. Right now, the U.S. is in the process of abandoning the AP-1000 reactor design, even though we spent decades developing it, out of the incorrect belief that smaller and more futuristic reactors will be cheaper and safer.
Beyond caring passionately about humankind’s future and telling the truth about nuclear and renewables, we must also continue to build the pro-nuclear movement globally. Already, after just a few short years, the Stand Up for Nuclear movement is having major impacts on government policy in Britain, the Netherlands, France, and dozens of other nations around the world.
In some places, such as in New York and Germany, all we can do is bear witness to the closure of nuclear plants. But in most other places, we have proven capable of keeping nuclear plants operating that would have shut down, or not been built, by testifying to policymakers and speaking out publicly.
It is by no means a sure thing that the Democrats’ climate infrastructure legislation will be the vehicle that ultimately saves existing nuclear power plants, but it is a sign that the national and even international conversation about nuclear energy has changed decisively, and for the better.