Harvey Wasserman's latest column, Anti-nuclear renaissance: a powerful but partial and tentative victory over atomic energy, is now available for your perusal over at FreePress.org. I had been wondering how Wasserman would spin the fact that nuclear power ended up receiving loan guarantees despite all the efforts of anti-nuclear campaigners to prevent it. And now we have our answer.
I'm personally quite confused. I'm having a hard time interpreting this development as anything but a "partial and tentative" disaster for NukeFree.org. Wasserman does have a few relevant points to make in his favor, most importantly that "the Appropriations Bill finally passed both houses of Congress in late December. But the legislative standing and ultimate outcome for the loan guarantees is murky at best, with legal and procedural experts still debating over what exactly has been done. ... Robert Alvarez, a former long-time employee of the Energy Department, now Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, says the nature of the provision leaves the legal standing of the guarantees in limbo and could “paralyze (some say strangle) the loan program.”
But this is certainly not a given, and in fact events could swing in the exact opposite direction: Wasserman admits that "Based on the 2005 Energy Act, the $18.5 billion can be seen as just a benchmark number, with the DOE technically capable of issuing all the guarantees it wants. Long-standing Congressional procedures may also be used to interpret the submission requirement as merely informational, granting Congress no power to stop the DOE from issuing the guarantees once they're reviewed."
Unfortunately, the argument devolves into bizarre, nonsensical assertions like
"With the guarantees, reactor builders will be insulated from all that, and could simply build as many plants as the Congress is willing to underwrite. That the Congressional Budget Office has predicted a 50% default rate on these proposed loans, may be of no consequence to them. They could simply suck as much available capital into new reactors as the DOE will underwrite."
Wasserman claims this despite the fact that he admitted earlier in the column that the loan guarantees only cover 80% of costs- so any prospective reactor builders stand to lose billions of their own dollars if they fail to complete their projects. NEI's analysis pointed out that this would ensure that no utility would begin one of these projects without every intent of completing it. Indeed, it's difficult to fathom where the Congressional Budget Office got its 50% figure from. I tried to find documentation on the CBO website explaining this figure, but I was unable to find an analysis supporting what seems to be a vastly overinflated figure.
The greatest logical gaffes, however, occur towards the end of the column:
But without those guarantees, the pro-nuclear renaissance will die in a puff of radioactive hype. "As fossil fuels diminish in supply, and are curtailed due to global warming, no new reactors will be built here. All available capital for new energy supply must flow instead to renewables and efficiency."
I have a hard time believing that Wasserman is unaware of the current scramble for so-called "clean" fossil fuel energy technologies, which are the actual competition of new nuclear plants. Although natural gas and oil supplies are waning, the United States possesses massive supplies of coal, and is the site of the world's greatest reserves of this resource. So resource depletion is not going to impact the coal industry anytime soon.
"According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, some $6 billion in new wind farms are currently under construction in this country. Billions more are pouring in solar, bio-fuels, ocean thermal, wave, tidal and other forms of green power. "
It is true that billions of dollars are being invested in renewables, although this does not necessarily mean that renewables are market winners in any sense. Far more so than nuclear, renewable energy is dependent on Government intervention to survive. Renewables get loan guarantees, tax credits, and most importantly, mandates. Would utilities be investing so much of their capital in renewable energy without inflexible mandates demanding that they purchase these technologies? I seriously doubt it.
It is interesting, however, that Wasserman mentions the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. It just so happens that I just read a PowerPoint presentation made by Dr. Dan E. Arvizu, the director of the NREL, at a conference back in September. This presentation contains a very interesting slide (page 5 of the .pdf) regarding the future of America's electrical generation industry. In the most optimistic scenario, about 25% of America's electricity is projected as coming from renewable sources by 2040. Take note of the fact that the optimistic scenario calls for maintaining current nuclear generation capacity- which in the 2040 timeframe implies the construction of a new generation of nuclear power plants. Indeed, the slide argues that new nuclear power plants are not regarded by the NREL as a threat to expanded renewable generation.
"Indeed, if this tuneful victory over Pete Domenici's single-sentence insertion into the Energy Bill of 2007 holds through the end of 2008, it may someday be remembered as a landmark step toward a green-powered Earth. "
I'm not sure what "tuneful" means, but given the technical and economic impossibility of Wasserman's energy vision, I'm personally quite confident that this will not be the case.