Tough Choices: Salmon, Nukes, and Taxes

Jeff Alworth

In yesterday's post, I tried to make the argument that we need to square the reality of global warming with our response to it.  If it is, as I and many others believe, a looming disaster with the potential to radically alter the physical environment (and the countries that sit atop it), we need to respond with the appropriate heroic measures.  It means considering things that are uncomfortable for people across the political spectrum.  We consume massive energy, and in order to feed this need, we'll have to choose from among a portfolio of options--some of which we won't like.

Energy USLet's start with the data, first.  Nationally, over two-thirds of our energy production comes from burning fossil fuels.  (All statistics from the Energy Information Administration, year ending 2008.)  Coal accounts for almost half of our entire energy grid.  Natural gas is another fifth.  Purely clean energy--hydro and renewables, accounts for just 10% of the total.  (Click on the picture at right for a larger view.)  Although it has the twin virtues of cost and domestic availability, coal is a very dirty source of energy.

Coal-fired power plants spewing 59% of total U.S. sulfur dioxide pollution and 18% of total nitrogen oxides every year. Coal-fired power plants are also the largest polluter of toxic mercury pollution, largest contributor of hazardous air toxics, and release about 50% of particle pollution. Additionally, power plants release over 40% of total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, a prime contributor to global warming.

Oregon EnergyThat it is cheap and available means replacing it won't be easy.  Even in the very green Northwest, we still rely heavily on burning fossil fuels. In Oregon, we get 41% of our energy from this type of energy.  Hydro-power, which provides a majority, is declining and will continue to do so as a piece of the pie.  (Our energy needs are increasing, and water flows--thanks to global warming, are declining.)  Wind and solar can provide some benefit in the margins, as can behavior changes.  But none of these are going to come close to replacing the big, polluting sources of energy.

So what to do?

The Nuclear Option
Have a look at that first pie chart.  See that vibrantly-colored slice?  If we didn't have it in our national energy grid, we'd be produing 700 million metric tons more of carbon dioxide every year.  Since the use of coal produces more than twice the megawatt hours of nuclear energy, you can do the math on what we're already dumping into the atmosphere.  Any serious effort to get us off fossil fuels must take nuclear power into account.  The drawbacks to nukes are well, well-known: accidents, weapons, and waste.  For decades, these drawbacks were sufficient to shut down any discussion, not to mention nuclear plants like Trojan (a campaign for which I helped gather signatures).  But keep in mind that there are no good options for global warming.  The patient is dying, and we need a defibrillator, stat.  Nukes have problems, but are they anywhere near as bad as dumping trillions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year?  Worth considering.  (I encourage you to read this engaging and well-researched treatment of nuclear power in Mother Jones.)

Salmon Versus Dams
This is a painful one.  Salmon are a part of our heritage and seem somehow embroidered into our very self-image.  For Oregonians, a small part of our DNA has gills.  Unfortunately, the value of dams in a globally-warmed world can't be underestimated.  It is pure and clean, reliable, and can produce 24 hours a day.  Unlike other renewables, it doesn't require daylight or weather systems to produce.  For grids that rely on stable sources, this is critical.  And except for endangering salmon and the psyches of Oregonians, it's a perfect--and substantial--source of energy.  We should definitely not be pulling up dams.

Carbon Taxes
If liberals have to concede that nukes and dams may be a part of the future, conservatives are going to have to suck it up on carbon taxes.  The mechanism here is less important than the principle--the total cost of burning fossil fuels needs to be reflected in the price of these sources.  It's true that coal is cheap to dig up and burn.  But Oregonians are quickly learning just how huge the cost for this cheap energy source is: our forests are dying (by beetle, fire, and draught), our fisheries are slowly fading away, and our water is drying up.  How many jobs and industries will be lost because of a short-sighted dependence on "cheap" energy?  We can affix these costs through cap and trade, carbon taxes, or other mechanisms, but until we abandon this completely bogus idea that the only costs of using fossil fuels are reflected in its production, we will fail to account for how expensive it really is.

Ah, but what about the really big polluters, those shiny, 4,000-pound personal transporters we so love?  I'll look into that one tomorrow.

Your thoughts?

  • Jake Weigler (unverified)

    For those interested in seeing Oregon adopt a clear plan on how we can achieve the global warming pollution goals adopted by the Legislature in 2007, I encourage you to click here to contact your Legislator.

    Jake Weigler Healthy Climate Partnership

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    Problem solved...

    Provided that the good scientists at Livermore don't turn the Bay area into a blasted plain of radioactive glass in the process.

  • Idaho River Journeys (unverified)

    They're tough given what you think you have to preserve, in what order. That's the bit that isn't too much debated, imhe.

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    Sal, why not cold fusion? Even better! (See 60 minutes--sorry, I'm on my iPhone; no cut and paste.). Hey, I'm not opposed to magic bullets.

  • Douglas K. (unverified)

    I'll offer the same thoughts on nuclear energy as last time. We need to approach it as a transitional solution rather than a permanent one -- a decades-long bridge to get us quickly off of fossil fuels while we seek environmentally benign solutions (preferably small scale and decentralized, IMO -- solar panels on the roof, fuel cells running on distilled yard waste in the utility closet, that sort of thing).

    I'm no fan of nuclear power. Waste disposal is a serious problem that remains unsolved. But the thing is ... you can store the waste. You can box it up in a shielded container and bury it in a guarded vault on a military base for a few decades until some permanent method of disposal is worked out. "Waste storage" isn't really an option when it comes to burning fossil fuel.

  • Brian C. (unverified)

    Modern nuclear technology makes a whole lot of sense to me in the interim until economically rational solar & wind generated alternatives are developed. The latter is not a matter of if but when. Meantime take a close look at modern nuclear tech. It pencils out, generates more megawatts per dollar than any source with minimal waste and near zero CO2 emissions. Call me crazy or ill informed, but I can't think of a more ecologically devastating power source than mining & burning coal.

  • mp97303 (unverified)

    I would certainly like to see how the joint program involving OSU could be used. Seems that they have something very promising with their newly designed modular reactor thingy. I know they held a conference 2 years ago and reps from around the world showed up to see what they were doing. Except, of course, the good ol' USA.

    NuScale Power

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    The problem with your premise is where you presume that energy needs inherently increase. The reality is that energy conservation can meet the vast majority of our new power needs and renewables the rest, even as we decrease use of coal. The problem is our current incentives to utilities pay them a percentage return on investment for selling power, not for saving power.

    Promoting massive energy conservation will do more to meet our energy needs far more cost effectively than nuclear power, without saddling future generations with an inherently toxic and dangerous substance. Nukes only pencil out with massive taxpayer subsidies that we're better off spending funding energy efficiency.

    Lots of details from the NW Energy Coalition here.

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    An incredibly mature, responsible discussion of a serious issue. If you're not careful, Jeff, you'll ruin your reputation as a major blogger. :-)

  • George Anonymuncule Seldes (unverified)

    1) Nukes are irrelevant within the time scale required for a serious response on climate.

    Not only that, but they are so expensive and require so much in materials that they don't produce net energy for about a decade. In other words, right now, when we need to be reducing our use of fossil fuels sharply, building nukes would mean investing huge amounts of energy, mainly from coal, into fabricating the steel and concrete, mining and enriching fuel, etc. The carbon benefits of nukes are real -- over the entire life cycle, nukes are comparable to wind in terms of grams-CO2/kWh produced -- the problem is that this is essentially all front-loaded into the construction of the plants and fuel fabrication.

    Bottom line: we should not shut down any existing nukes, where the energy costs have already been incurred. Rather, we should be shutting down coal ASAP. Take the $5-$7 billion per nuke (and climbing) and invest in massive building retrofits and concentrating solar with transmission and you'll be miles ahead.

    2) The Snake River dams produce a surprisingly small amount of power. I can't remember the figure, but it was shockingly low. Those dams were nothing but pork, power was an afterthought. They can go. The Mid-Columbia dams, alas, are probably here for good -- but if we can get rid of the Snake River dams, we have a much better chance of having salmon and electricity both.

    3) Remember, it's not enough to just price carbon. We have to price irrigation much higher too -- otherwise irrigators will keep drawing more and more water, which hurts us both in terms of power consumption and reduced instream flows. Eastern Washington is becoming a winery area -- sucking up tremendous volumes of water to grow grapes in an area that gets 6" of rain a year. That's the kind of insanity that has to stop if we're going to survive.

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    Jonathan, I definitely agree that conservation can play a role, but even if we cut emissions--even cut them radically, say to 1990 levels--we have to deal with fossil fuels in a radical way. But conservation must be part of the portfolio.

    Thanks, Jack.

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    George, I don't see how your timeline in nukes adds up. We won't be off fossil fuels in a decade no matter how well we do. To replace coal and gas will require an energy source we don't currently have--except for nuclear. Anyway, that's how it looks to me.

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    Jeff writes: Jonathan, I definitely agree that conservation can play a role, but even if we cut emissions--even cut them radically, say to 1990 levels--we have to deal with fossil fuels in a radical way. But conservation must be part of the portfolio.

    Again Jeff, I think you're stuck in a box made up by conventional energy analysts who assume you can make only very incremental changes in energy policy. That's just not the case if you dramatically expand investments in renewables, create a smart grid, and dramatically scale up energy conservation. In fact, we can go 100% carbon neutral in just 10 years at a reasonable cost if we just have the political will.

    Here's a detailed analysis.

  • YoungOregonMoonbat (unverified)

    I have questions:

    Are underground plutonium and uranium ore deposits radioactive?

    Does harnessing plutonium and uranium for energy use make the plutonium and uranium more radioactive?

    Is there technology to drain industrial nuclear energy of it's radioactivity to shorten it's half-life?

    I have heard the "nuclear waste disposal" argument being bandied about to completely nullify any discussion of nuclear power, but if the plutonium and uranium are inherently radioactive then the "nuclear waste disposal" is severely weakened if not moot.

  • StephanAndrewBrodheadForCongress (unverified)

    Building Nuclear and lithium battery infrastructure voids the need for a carbon tax!

  • George Anonymuncule Seldes (unverified)

    Good writeup of "Electricity: no easy answers" at The Oil Drum today:

    @Jeff: No, we won't be off fossil fuels in decade, but if we undertake a massive construction binge of anything, particularly something as energy intensive as nuclear power plants, we will continue as we have thus far (with increasing emissions annually, an an increasing rate -- hyperbolic increases, in other words).

    A nuke building binge is the exact opposite of Harry Truman's dictum about stop digging when you're in a hole. A big nuke buildout is like saying "Well, I'm going to dig so fast that by the time the hole starts collapsing in on me, I'll already be in China."

    The nukes are an especially frustrating paradox because they do offer low-carbon electricity -- but only over 40 years. It's basically 10 years of intensely high emissions that fall to almost zero for the next 30+ years. So in the years when it's most critical that we reduce coal emissions -- as in, right now -- amping UP industrial demand is a recipe for suicide.

    Also @ Jeff: We aren't going to replace gas, we're going to use it all up. Ideally, in chemicals, rather than burning it all up, but better to burn it than to allow coal to be burned. Your assumption seems to be that we can do nothing about the massive use of energy, that our challenge is simply to find the substitutes that enable us to keep living a life that requires five planets worth of materials to sustain. You may be right: after all, survival is optional. But if we're going to maintain anything like a stable climate, that means getting off coal, fast. There is not enough carbon in all the oil and natural gas to push us into climate catastrophe, and carbon is so long lived in the atmosphere that it essentially doesn't matter when it's burned from a stabilizing climate perspective. On the other hand, there is more than enough carbon in known coal reserves to push us into truly terrifying levels of atmospheric CO2 concentrations. If we're clever and determined, we can get off coal in the US quickly by converting to natural gas in the short term and ramping up wind and solar in the medium longer term. But it also means using one hell of a lot less energy per capita -- not imagining that we can persist as the energy hogs of the planet.

    @ Young Moonbat: There is no natural plutonium (Pu) on earth, it all decayed away before we got here. Fission reactors convert non-fissile, low-activity U-238 (99.3% of all natural U) into a host of things, but most interestingly, into Pu-239, a highly toxic, long-lived fissionable material. The fission products of both U and Pu are intensely radioactive for various spans of time.

    Natural U ore is only very mildly radioactive; until disturbed by mining, it's essentially a nothing. In areas where people live in unventilated spaces, high concentrations of natural U are associated with a greater incidence of lung cancer, the result of radon gas, part of the long, slow decay chain of U.

  • Bob Tiernan (unverified)

    Douglas K:

    I'm no fan of nuclear power. Waste disposal is a serious problem that remains unsolved. But the thing is ... you can store the waste.

    Bob T:

    As the late Dixie Lee Ray (governor of Washington and chair of the Atomic Energy Commission) wrote in her book "Trashing the Planet" almost two decades ago, "What is widely interpreted as the inability to find a solution is actually a political inability to implement any solution." ["Waste Management Update", 1988, special section in Nuclear News, ANS publication, Vol. 31, No. 3, March 1988, pp. 42-85.]

    One problem has been the fact tha the Carter Administration banned commercial reprocessing of fuel rods, which pretty much ended all of it here (the Europeans and Japan and India all do this), which meant that these piled up and have needed to be stored, and of course need much more space than if reprocessing were allowed again.

    As for the storage space needed, it has been widely overstated.

    The main thing to watch out for is the politicians who will try their best to mess up anything related to this, such as powerful senators calling in returned favors to get the waste placed where it shouldn't go, and in a facility poorly designed due to other favors owed to some other powerful legislators. But the right thing can be done just the same. Nuclear power foes have long based their opposition on the fear of the unknown (as I once did), and are prone to wild rhetoric such as the comment above about turning "the Bay area into a blasted plain of radioactive glass in the process."

    Bob Tiernan registered independent Portland

  • riverat (unverified)


    There are no deposits of plutonium (Pu) in nature. It is only a trace element. The Pu that humans have used is refined from the spent fuel rods of nuclear reactors. All uranium (U) is radioactive no matter where it's found, in fact they found evidence of 15 natural nuclear reactors in Gabon, West Africa where the natural concentration of U was high enough at one time to sustain reactions over a period of time. They are all inactive now.

    The energy produced in a reactor comes from the fission (splitting apart) of the U or Pu atoms and in that process they become other elements, often radioactive in their own right. Exactly what amounts of what other elements depends on conditions in the reactor. Pu is produced from U-238* in reactors.

    The only way to "shorten the half-life" of radioactive materials is to speed it up by using it in a reactor (or a bomb) but even then only a relatively small portion gets shortened before you have to "reset" it by re-refining the spent fuel to be used again.

    The problem with nuclear waste is that it's a witches brew of different isotopes, many of them radioactive and nasty to deal with. They can be dangerously radioactive for 10's or 100's of thousands of years or more. Where can we put it that someone else can't dig it up in the future or where some natural change doesn't expose them again? It's something no one can guarantee.

    *U-238 is the most common and stable isotope of uranium. It is 99.27% of all natural U and has a half-life of about 4.5 billion years. U-235, the isotope needed for reactor fuel and bombs is 0.72% of the natural occurring U and has a half-life of about 7 million years.


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    What behaviorial changes are assumed in your model? Are they realistic?

  • Jason (unverified)

    Bla, bla, bla.

    Chicken little is rearing his ugly head again.

    I don't deny that humans have an impact on the environment. I just don't believe it's as dire as most of you liberals make it out to be. You'd think a cold front with acid rain is about to come on shore from the way you guys talk about this subject.

    I'm all for clean, renewable energy. I support energy independence. I'm a Master Gardener and have taught my kids the importance of the three R's, composting, using limited water, and being sustainable. My wife and I use our own cups when going to Starbucks, etc. I bought a coffee pot with a built-in filter so I could reduce my waste. We carpool and combine trips to use less gas.(Oh, and I'm a conservative to boot!)

    If you really want true climate change initiate the education needs to start now with the next generation. I'm not saying we ignore it today and act as if it doesn't exist, but I get so tired of the chicken little attitude. That video about gay marriage here on BlueOregon...I see a "perfect storm" brewing when it comes to global warming.

    And if you support the idea that the earth has been around for millions or billions of year, how the hell can one not think that maybe some of the climate change we've seen over the past 100 isn't cyclical? Yes, I believe humans damage our environment; yes, I believe we need to make future changes so we pollute less and become more sustainable. But I don't believe the sky is falling.

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    Jonathan, I appreciate your view on this. It's nice to have a discussion about radical action to address global warming--with all the assumptions and agreement that suggests--rather than descending into a pointless debate about a minor paper that disputes a minor fact of the scientific concensus.

    That said, you're right about me being "stuck in a box." No matter how much I wish that the Repower American scenario was possible, I just can't see it. At least not by 2020. (As a midcentury goal, possibly.) Two pieces are problematic. In the RA scenario, 28% of the grid is handled by efficiencies and 23% by wind. Essentially everything else stays constant: we replace coal and natural gas with efficiencies and wind.

    As I mentioned, I think you can make some progress on efficiencies. This is actually the most exciting prospect because it's where the "green economy" comes in. But in ten years? In my mind the only way to make this go is by making carbon very expensive. Politically, we don't have will to do that in anything like the short term. My hope is that we get a law passed that would introduce the concept and create the mechanism. Over time, the will would grow to increase the burden on carbon. To imagine that you could gain these efficiencies in 11 years though--I think that takes a leap of faith and a cascading series of best-case scnarios.

    Wind. Again, I don't think it's functionally reasonable to suggest we could be getting a quarter of our energy from windmills in a decade. There are two major problems. The first is locating them. Already Oregon is running into difficulties with local residents, and we have a tiny population and lots of free space. Okay, so let's imagine that you will put them over the seas. There are some issues to work out--migratory patterns, shipping lanes, etc.--but okay, we figure that out. Now you have to create the infrastructure to put them up. This is a much longer term process than 10 years.

    Now, let's imagine you DO get the things in place. You have other problems. Energy grids depend on stable supply, and wind is anything but. It tends to blow more at night when there's no need. RA calls for a "smart grid" that could store energy, but this tech doesn't even exist yet. You could use a hydro pump system where you create reservoirs near rivers that would be pumped by wind in off hours. During peak hours, the water is released and powers turbines. A possibility, but not a short-term one, and not one that works for sea mills.

    If we accept RA's goals, I challenge you to admit that they're not a decade out--they're 25-40 years out. In the meantime, nuclear power would provide a problematic, but workable, patch.

  • Greg D. (unverified)

    Demand reduction seems to be the holy grail of the environmental community, but I am waiting to be convinced that substantial demand reduction can be achieved without a substantial energy consumption tax. I don't believe it, but I would be happy to be wrong.

    Energy consumption taxes - at a rate that would force demand reduction - are an option, but it will take people much smarter than I am to figure out - and abate - the personal and societal consequences. Some suggest tax credits for the lower income folks, but doing so may significantly undue the benefit of the tax, since the environmental harm caused by a gallon of cheap gasoline burned by a working poor family inn Gresham is equal to the environmental harm caused by a gallon of expensive gasoline burned by a trust fund kid in Lake Oswego.

  • OnemuleTeam (unverified)

    It is difficult to even know where to start with criticizing this piece. I think the bottom line is that the analysis is incredibly shallow.

    The throw-away discussion of dams would be as good a place as any to start. The implication is all dams are created equal and they are all invaluable. In fact, the entire set-up is a false dichotomy, salmon vs. dams (electricity) The four lower Snake River dams could be removed without any net contribution to climate change. As Jonathon said, the mid-Columbia dams are here to stay. That doesn't mean that they all are Jeff. You would have been better off not saying anything about dams since you obviously did little research on the issue.

    I do agree with the premise though that difficult choices will be needed. Nuclear might end up being part of the portfolio but lets look first at efficiency and other less polluting energy sources.

    The options are almost limitless and you mention only a couple and those are the less palatable options.

    I hope that this is not part of a series as the first article has already done enough to misinform.

  • LT (unverified)

    So, I hear there is a new nuclear something or other at OSU, and that will solve problems with current nuclear.

    OK, here's my view:

    1) When will the Hanford cleanup finally be finished? No one should advocate more nuclear power without addressing the nuclear waste issue. Nuclear waste will outlive our grandchildren. But that is better than greenhouse gasses?

    2) Anyone advocating nuclear in this area should be prepared to discuss everything that went wrong with Trojan (there were a number of issues) and why a new nuclear plant won't have those problems.

    3) Who builds those plants, who regulates them, who audits their finances? As I recall, the reason the Washington Public Power Supply System nuclear plants got the unfortunate nickname of WPPSS back in the early 80s or whenever that was had as much to do with a financial meltdown (about as well managed as Lehman and Bear Sterns last year, as I recall) as with nuclear power itself.

    I got furiously angry at McCain when he'd say simplistic things like "I'm for nuclear, he's not".

    Details matter on this stuff. Fine to talk about this stuff philosophically, but logistical details are something else.

    I am coming to believe that DeFazio's belief in old fashioned regulation may be a better idea than a cap and trade system which must be created from scratch and for all we know could be gamed by the same people who gamed the stock market.

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    Nuclear waste will outlive our grandchildren. But that is better than greenhouse gasses?

    Well, if the most dire predictions are true, the greenhouse gas problem may mean that there are no grandchildren. (At least for me. My son is 17 months old. I don't know how you are.)

    So, yeah, if the choice is between a localized nuclear waste problem that our great-great-grandchildren will have to deal with it - and making the planet uninhabitable - well, that's a no-brainer.

    Jeff's argument - and I generally concur with him - is this: If global warming really is a crisis, and if atmospheric carbon is the cause of it, then we don't have a choice: we must do everything we can to reverse the trend. Immediately.

  • LT (unverified)

    Doing anything "immediately", no questions asked, is how there can be dire consequences. I am a great aunt 3 times over. All are under the age of 3. I care what happens to them incl. the unintended consequences of actions taken before all the logistical details are worked ou.

    I think one of the problems this country faces is that too often "we must act immediately" wins out over careful consideration of logistical details, and we later find out the unintended consequences.

    Which is why I am more impressed by DeFazio (from the Jeff Mapes blog)

    That doesn't mean DeFazio is a climate change skeptic. He argues that it should be done with "old fashioned" regulation, of the same kind that reduced smog over our cities and cleaned the filth out of our rivers.

    than I am with this blog post.

  • jim (unverified)

    Jeff, I agree with you that the state has many choices to make, but lets's not start out by repeating the misinformation of Big Coal that you repeated above.

    That it is cheap and available means replacing it won't be easy.

    The Legislature is considering a series of bills that make an excellent first step on limiting pollution, increasing energy efficiency codes, providing new sources of efficiency financing, transportation planning for lowering GHGs, and reductions in the carbon content of fuels.

    Let's start with these bills. The NW Power Planning Council's 6th plan says we can get to 2020 just with the renewables and energy efficiency we know about and can cost-effectively obtain with right policies.

    Beyond that, let's make sure we don't reinforce the lies that PGE is making to the Legislature about the rate impacts of controlling global warming pollution. And the first step is to stop repeating the mantra that coal is cheap. Yes, existing coal is cheap; but existing wind is even cheaper.

    For new wind or new coal, it's much closer - and that is even before you calculate in environmental costs or regulatory costs. And any cost projection of using carbon sequestration and storage is MUCH more expensive than either gas or wind.


  • Billy Busdriver (unverified)

    I choose Salmon.

    Clean coal is hot BS. I can put a carbon filter in my pants. Wanna breath my farts, now?

  • Dave O'Dell (unverified)

    If all the official reports about America's biggest nuclear disaster were a lie would you still think Nuclear is the answer? Check out this well sourced article on DailyKos:

    It details how there actually was far more radiation released at Three Mile Island than the official reports claim and proves that many actually died because of the accident. You will still hear the lie that no one died because of Three Mile Island, but don't believe it.

    Don't believe me either. Check out the article it is well written and refers to many sources.

  • Douglas K. (unverified)

    1) When will the Hanford cleanup finally be finished? No one should advocate more nuclear power without addressing the nuclear waste issue. Nuclear waste will outlive our grandchildren. But that is better than greenhouse gasses?

    The problem with Hanford wasn't so much that it generated waste, as that some of the waste was dumped into the air and water and the rest was left in completely inadequate storage tanks that have been leaking into the ground for decades. Had the waste been properly stored, we'd still have the question of what to do with it, but we wouldn't be spending billions to clean up the site and racing to keep highly contaminated groundwater out of the Columbia.

    So to address the nuclear waste issue, I go back to my earlier point: keep it securely stored and keep working on it. The immediate priority is cutting greenhouse gas emissions. That's a problem that we need to solve now. The nuclear waste problem can be solved in a decade or two, as long as storage facilities are adequate.

  • Douglas K. (unverified)

    By the way, I'm not necessarily advocated nuclear right here in Oregon. If a region can get by without nuclear power, it should. My "nuclear advocacy," such as it is, is about the United States as a whole.

    Under the pie chart that Jeff posted, Oregon should be able to eliminate coal by (a) doubling renewable energy (easily attainable in just a few years), and (b) aggressive conservation.

    Are they ways to make hydropower more efficient? Better turbines or something? Can we get more energy out of the dams we already have? And do we have good opportunities for small hydro, taking advantage of mountain streams and such?

    Perhaps a reasonable goal for Oregon would be to turn that chart into 60% hydropower, 20% (or better) renewables, and 20% (or lower) natural gas by 2020. That would mean massive investment in renewable energy, but Oregon's geographically blessed; we have a long ocean coastline for wind, tidal and wave power; a snow-capped volcanic range through the middle of the state for geothermal plants and small hydro; and two thirds of the state is a desert with few clouds in the sky most of the year. When it comes to sustainable energy opportunities, Oregon has something of an embarrassment of riches. We should use them.

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    The four lower Snake River dams could be removed without any net contribution to climate change.

    That's not true. Those dams don't give the same bang the Columbia River dams do, but they're signficant. I can't find a link online, but a source from the Army Corps reports that they provide about a quarter the energy a Columbia River dam does. It's unwise to be taking any clean energy off the grid, even if it is a relatively modest amount.

    Nukes. Some of you are rightly fingering accidents and waste. If we're being honest, we can't wish these away. However, things have changed a lot in the last 40 years. New nuclear plants now have far more redundancy in their design (see that article I linked from Mother Jones). Of course, even the new designs aren't risk-free. They are vulnerable to attacks, for example. As to waste, we're far better about that, too. The French don't just dump used rods in a pool out back. But of all the arguments against nukes, this is the most persuasive. For all the gains we've made, this is still the big problem.

    However, it's easy to point out the flaws of these solutions. Very easy. But if you choose to dismiss them without offering an alternative, you're effectively saying that the drawbacks are greater than the effects of global warming. That may work for you, but I find it short-sighted.

    Bumper sticker retort: nukes suck; global warming sucks more.

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    I'm not going to try to respond to your latest comment point by point, but I'll say that a lot of smart people with experience in the energy industry think you're just simply wrong -- that we can, in fact, transition off coal within 10 years at a reasonable cost.

    Here's the head of FERC just today saying essentially the same thing.

    I also encourage anybody who keeps speaking up for nuclear to re-read the comments made above that nuclear doesn't actually provide you reduction in carbon emissions for more than a decade because it's so energy intensive to develop. And, it's a lot more expensive than renewables at this point.

  • George Anonymuncule Seldes (unverified)

    @Jeff/re: Jonathan Poisner:

    This is correct. Nuclear is a fantastic money sink that produces very high cost power at first -- and no utility will build without a Construction Work in Progress tariff that lets them start charging the future customers for the power throughout the construction process.

    Not a single private utility will touch it without a fantastic array of subsidies from the feds, and they are basically all making purchases that are the size of their utility capitalization.

    In addition, nukes are tremendously large today, an attempt to get "economies of scale" that turn out to be mirages. See Amory Lovins' book "Small is Profitable." With nukes being so huge, the reliability impact is that you have to build a tremendous overhang of capacity because you have made such a huge bet on a single plant. People slam wind for needing spinning reserve (and there's some validity to the criticism) but there's a huge reserve requirement built in whenever you rely on huge plants. We have a greatly overcentralized utility system and a brittle, overstressed grid that is further stressed whenever you make a "big plant" addition. The ideal system is much more of a distributed model where power is generated close to the point of use, particularly if you can make use of waste heat (combined heat and power gets power plant efficiencies out of the low 30s and into 60% range; combined cycle gas turbines with heat recovery systems that supply district heating or other use can even reach better than 80% efficiency).

    Like biofuels, nuclear longings are driven by the fantasy that we can continue to have a high-energy/high-consumption society, and that we have to keep finding new sources to maintain these use levels (and that means we must ignore the full life-cycle consequences of our energy profligacy.)

    But, in fact, nuclear is an expensive distraction. Dennis Meadows did a nice presentation about the energy treadmill that a real attempt to expand nuclear causes -- if you try to actually up nuclear's share of a rising energy usage pie, you essentially spend all the energy from each round of nuclear plants on building more nuclear plants for the next round, all ultimately powered by coal and oil without shutting off any coal plants. (Search on ASPO and Pisa or try for the full presentation.)

    The bottom line: we have to use less energy -- a lot less. We must learn to live without coal -- there's enough natural gas to provide us with time to downscale energy usage sharply, which will create a huge number of jobs that can't be sent offshore.

  • Bob Tiernan (unverified)


    I got furiously angry at McCain when he'd say simplistic things like "I'm for nuclear, he's not".

    Bob T:

    I hated the simplistic stuff like, "Hope".

    Anyway, Obama saying he'd "look" at nuclear meant nothing. If he's really in favor of approving new plants, he needs to prove it.

    Bob Tiernan Portland

  • (Show?)

    JP --

    Thanks for the link to the comments by the guy at FERC. Fascinating stuff.

    What's not addressed in that article is whether he believes that "no new nuclear or coal plants may ever be needed in the United States" if we add electric automobiles to the demand side.

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but I see replacing carbon-spewing automobiles with clean electric automobiles as the key to dramatically and quickly reducing atmospheric carbon.

    But if we add that tremendous power load to the system, we're going to need massive new amounts of electrical power and/or massive drops in non-automotive electrical consumption.

    I can't believe that it's possible to power all of our cars using our existing power supply, even with massive conservation efforts (which may or may not actually be achievable in the short term.)

  • Jim Edelson (unverified)


    One of the ways to think about vehicles is as a consumer, a generator, and a storage unit on the electric grid.

    The existing problem with electric capacity has mostly to do with peak consumption. The planning for electric vehicles and PIHV is strongly connected with making the grid 'smarter' too, and the EV role in this grid can be both a source and a sink.

    So there is no reason to conclude at this point that we need to build coal or nuclear to accommodate the vehicle "load". See how the NW Power Planning Council is thinking about this, and beginning the planning for the EV future.

  • (Show?)

    Ah, Jim, here's a key sentence from your source:

    "Spread across all power plants in the interconnected power grid of the Western Electricity Coordinating Council area — basically the United States west of the Rocky Mountains — emissions from power plants that burn coal and natural gas would increase by about 1 million tons above current levels to serve the 25-megawatt load of electric vehicles in 2020."

    The article suggests that while it may be possible to accommodate the load by nighttime charging, so far that remains an incomplete, theoretical hypothesis.

  • Jim Edelson (unverified)

    Exactly my point. Reduced overall emissions, and no need to build new power plants.

    The "increased" emissions are those that will displace a greater amount of emissions that would have been emitted by the gasoline-powered vehicles.

    It also implies that a smarter grid is the key to not building power plants - just use the existing ones more efficiently (i.e. at night). And look at what the Bush DOE said about the cost impacts of EV (in bold!!):

    A 2006 study for the federal Department of Energy concluded that if all the cars and light trucks in the nation switched from oil-based fuels to electricity, the available, overnight generating capacity of the existing electric power system could generate most of the power needed by plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. This off-peak capacity is available because demand for power overnight is low, compared to the daylight hours. By using the available generation capacity more intensively, the cost of electricity to consumers can be reduced.

  • OnemuleTeam (unverified)


    The four lower Snake River dams have a nameplate capacity of approximately 1410 mW. However, they are able to produce that amount of power for a very brief period of time during the height of spring run-off because they are run of the river dams. Of course, this is at a time that our regional energy needs are at their lowest. As global warming shrinks regional snowpack their value will further diminish. The real question is can we areplace 1000 aMW (average mega-Watts) which is a more realistic assessment of their contribution to the grid. The answer to that question is yes.

    I'll jump start your research for you:

    That's the four pager . . . you can also read the whole report. Probably a good idea.

    Like I said previously, research the issue of the four lower Snake River dams a little before you make blithe and ultimately false statements about the need for the lower Snake River dams specifically.

    Even more ridiculous is throwing salmon under the proverbial bus with a blanket defense of all dams without even properly researching the issue.

  • (Show?)

    One Mule, I'll have a look. I never pretended to be an expert--I'm a blogger who does this for free. But your fury is misplaced. I did do research, including discussion with a guy from the Army Corps.

    As a bit of side advice, I'd like to mention that adding the personal invective is unnecessary and counterproductive. We're on the same team here, and I would love to have wild running rivers full of salmon and no global warming. I have watched as we have collectively failed to address the issue of global warming year after year, and one of the biggest barriers is folks on the left who get into death feuds--which was exactly my inclination when you started attacking me.

    If we can't have a civil discussion among ourselves, how can we possibly expect to to convince the larger, much more hostile public? I know it's passion that drives you, but we're all passionate about the issue. Let's also be polite.

  • Rhett (unverified)

    I'll chime in here to agree with OneMuleTeam and urge you to read that Bright Future report or 4-pager to see that the 4 Lower Snake dams are just a drop in the bucket for our energy future. And with the billions being spent to NOT recover wild salmon so far, it makes a lot more financial sense to take out those dams, replace their energy from other sources (and Bright Future shows there are plenty of those), create tons of jobs in the region, and save wild salmon in the bargain.

    Talking just to the Corps or BPA ain't gonna get you the straight answers on this topic. No one is suggesting that we can or should move away from all hydro in the region, but we can definitely do without those four outdated and costly dams on the Lower Snake.

  • OnemuleTeam (unverified)


    I will concede that I could have been more polite about it but I primarily stand by the substance if not tone of my statements. I also blog, for myself and for a much more heavily trafficked site and so I understand the issue of not being paid, time constraints, etc. But . . .

    I feel that the discussion of dams in this piece was a throwaway opinion not supported by substantial research.

    "And except for endangering salmon and the psyches of Oregonians, it's a perfect--and substantial--source of energy. We should definitely not be pulling up dams."

    That is a huge statement and it grossly oversimplifies the issue of salmon and dams. It's not a personal attack, it is a statement of fact. Besides that, "except for endangering salmon" is a huge caveat.

    Also, the entire upland ecosystem is poorer for the lack of salmon in our rivers. The most egregious dams endanger not only salmon but an entire ecosystem in which salmon play a huge role as well as the human communities that rely on salmon harvest.

    As for not being an expert, I'm not privy to your analytics numbers but I'm sure many people look to this blog as a source of information and to help them formulate opinions on important issues. As such, I feel that there is an obligation to pay painstaking attention to the details of what you write. This is particularly when so the stakes are as high and the passions run as deeply as they do in the "salmon wars" and how this relates to global warming.

    Most of the time we are on the same team but when you state with certitude that we should definitely not be pulling up dams, than on that particular issue, we are just as certainly not on the same team.

    Best regards, Karl Mueller

  • Captured One (unverified)

    Many members of the Northwest congressional delegation – Senators Murray and Cantwell in Washington and Congressman DeFazio here in Oregon to name a few – claim to be on the “same side” with many conservationists and clean energy advocates but at the end of the day have failed to see a new way forward with a comprehensive approach to salmon and energy in the Columbia and Snake Rivers. A failure to look at the details of what is doable for people, salmon, and clean energy investment – like the option to remove the lower Snake River dams – leads to bad policy that gets covered with “energy realist” speak so politicians can appeal to the R’s in their district.

    Blanket statements about salmon and dams, particularly in the Northwest, are VERY counter productive because they give politicians a safe place to go that appears reasonable yet covers up a real failure to think more broadly. This is the sad history of the Columbia-Snake Basin.

  • BPA (unverified)

    The four dams on the Lower Snake River produce approximately 12 percent of the annual power output of the Columbia River power system (all of the hydroelectric dams). However, this really understates their importance in meeting peak power loads. Dams are especially valuable for this because they can be quickly ramped up and down as demand changes, unlike coal plants that take time to bring online or wind that is very unpredictable. The Northwest has brought more wind power online faster than any other region in large part because the dams provide the rapidly adjustable reserve power to pick up when wind stops blowing, or vice versa. The four Snake River dams provide close to a quarter of this reserve capacity with the Northwest power system managed by BPA. That keeps the lights on as wind generation rises and falls.

    The Bright Future report looks to natural gas power plants to replace the dams in the near-term, which doesn't fit with carbon reduction goals. It also looks to emerging Smart Grid technology and other renewables such as solar to serve in this reserve role. That's a terrific goal, but still many years away.

    Together the Snake dams have more generating capacity than any dam in the system except Grand Coulee. While the dams often produce the most power during runoff (though depending on runoff timing their output may be reduced to minimize impacts on fish), their contribution during the rest of the year is significant. For instance, January is usually a peak demand month in the Northwest because of power demand for heating. Last January the four Snake dams produced 773,734 Megawatt hours (see, 11 percent of the output of the Columbia hydro system and roughly enough to power about 80,000 households.

    No one questions that the dams impact fish. The question is how to remedy it. Updates at the dams have improved fish passage in recent years and the new biological opinion requires survival rates well above 90 percent.

    Michael Milstein BPA Public Affairs

  • OnemuleTeam (unverified)

    There is a reason that certain northwest politicians and the BPA have resisted attempts to have the GAO investigate these very issues. They know what would be found and what would be found threatens the status quo . . . but this is Blue Oregon after all and change has to be more than catch phrase.

    The Bright Future report shows that we can reduce carbon emissions from the Northwest Electrical system from 2005 levels by 15% by 2020 and 80% by 2050 while replacing the four lower Snake River dams. Despite attempts to make things look more complicated, it really is that simple.

    Bright Future does call for a temporary increase in Natural Gas production in the short term coincident with retiring coal burning plants which account for 22% of the regions power but 87% of the grids carbon emissions. Natural gas is much cleaner accounting for 9.8% of power and 13% of CO2 emissions.

    A clean energy future and one without these dams may be many years away but we should start preparing for it now. Clearly, removing the four lower Snake River dams would not be done without replacing their proven back-up capacity. No one is suggesting tear them down and figure out how to replace their power after they are gone. The contribution of these dams base load will in the future be performed by emerging storage technologies, demand managment or for now existing gas fired generation. This can be done without increasing CO2 emissions mainly through efficiency.

    But please note that replacing the output of these dams is a relatively small issue in the context of carbon reduction targets. To meet our needs and targets we will have to have thousands of megawatts of new, renewable and non-polluting energy.

    The report shows the Northwest has massive potential for the development of clean energy supplies, over 60,000 mega-Watts, new demand is estimated at 7-10,000 mW. Potential supply dwarfs estimated demand.

    We can do better than the status quo on this issue.

  • ddave (unverified)

    We cant even kill a few sea lions, non threatened, blah, blah, blah, to save some salmon. How the hell are we to work on something as serious and energy production? We also blew up a perfectly good cooling tower and forever sunk our costs because nuclear is bad politics. Great science, but bad politics. Nuclear was legislated into oblivion in the USA. There is NOT a spent fuel storage problem, or a safety problem, etc. You lefties expect to be taken seriously when you cant even be honest at all about anything that is not "your plan". Hope you all are getting your tiny flats in downtown, selling your cars, and keeping your carbon footprints at a minimum as examples to us all.

  • (Show?)

    This is where it becomes impossible for a layman like me to judge competing claims. I'll leave it up to the pros to make a determination about the cost/benefit ratio of removing the Snake River dams. However, to rebut One Mule on a small point, I never intended the now oft-quoted and offending sentence to refer to solely Snake River dams:

    And except for endangering salmon and the psyches of Oregonians, it's a perfect--and substantial--source of energy.

    In fact, it shouldn't be limited to dams in Oregon or the Northwest--it's a statement true of the entire west. I do think we have a more visceral connection to salmon than most places, however.

  • OnemuleTeam (unverified)

    Now I really am confused Jeff.

    I understood what you were saying to mean that we should not be pulling out any dams, anywhere, Oregon included because I believe that is what is written in the post.

    My point is that some dams should be removed and some should stay in place.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)


    Is the Mother Jones article you mention supposed to make nuclear power seem a reasonable choice? All things considered, I'd rather deal with the problems of a warming planet than with an irrevocably poisoned planet.

    Indeed, we should work to make nuclear power, as well as nuclear weapons, illegal worldwide. Either or both more expensive energy and restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions will increase pressure for nations to go nuclear. If the French can use 80% nuclear power, why not the Somalians, Iranians, North Koreans, and Serbians?

    And how many more sites must be rejected before we realize that there is no safe place to store radioactive waste for as long as it needs to be segregated from the biosphere? The upside, I guess, is that we would all be able to get suntans in the dark.

    As Jonathan Poisner suggests, substantially reducing energy consumption is an important part of dealing with global warming. There is no cheap energy to replace the CO2 releasing energy we are using up more quickly all the time.

    Wind, wave, and tidal energy are available in many places. What energy cannot go directly into electrical grids can be used to split H2 from H2O and stored for later power generation in a process that creates zero CO2.

  • George Anonymuncule Seldes (unverified)

    Gar Lipow has written an excellent, annotated book for lay readers called Cooling It!, available for free download here:

    It is well worth your time to read it if you care about climate disruption, your children's future, etc.

    Cooling It! No Hair Shirt Solutions to Global Warming by Gar W. Lipow "... a carefully documented compendium of cost-effective ways to cut fossil fuels. ... the most comprehensive case to date that the obstacles to solving global warming are political not technological.” Dr. Joseph Romm, Executive Director of The Center for Energy & Climate Solutions "... a compelling and readable business case for how energy efficiency and renewable energy can grow the economy and dramatically reduce [global warming] pollution from energy use. ... I recommend it to anyone concerned about a sustainable energy future for their children and grandchildren.” Eric Heitz, President of The Energy Foundation “...exhaustively researched work.. optimistic and realistic at the same time...” Patrick Mazza, Research Director at Climate Solutions "... Another energy future is possible!” Patrick Bond – Director of the “Centre for Civil Society” at the University of KwaZulu-Natal School of Development Studies "...Methodical research ... clear lively writing ... Wonkery with attitude!” Michael Perelman, author of The Perverse Economy: The Impacts of Markets on People and the Environment

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