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Synthesis/Regeneration 14   (Fall 1997)

Nuclear Deregulation and Energy Alternatives

Susan Lee (Austin Greens) reports on an interview with Harvey Wasserman

Harvey Wasserman, a writer on energy matters and consultant to Greenpeace on nuclear energy and overall energy issues, shared his thinking with Synthesis/Regeneration (S/R) recently regarding the possible impact of deregulation of the utilities on nuclear safety and on renewables.

Deregulation and the Energy Picture

We began by discussing the effect on "green" or sustainable energy projects of the looming prospect of de-regulating electricity prices. Wasserman speculated:

Technically, (deregulation) should be a boon because we should have a shutdown of nuclear plants, and renewables are becoming cheaper and cheaper. But what the industry is now doing is trying to rig the game so that first of all they make more money selling power to large customers rather than small; and, secondly, they continue to operate the nuclear plants even though they're unreliable and uneconomical. So while it should benefit renewables, it may in the short term prove difficult. The US renewables industry has been crippled since Ronald Reagan came in and really has had a difficult time recovering because of the cuts in research and the continued subsidies for nuclear power and fossil fuels. So we don't have a level playing field. What they're doing with deregulation is trying to get around the regulations that were starting to make conservation and increased efficiency more attractive. So it's really unclear at this point in time what the effect is going to be.

...the energy picture could actually worsen with deregulation, "because at least when there was regulation, we were able to mandate a certain amount of change-over."

In fact, Wasserman agreed, the energy picture could actually worsen with deregulation,

because at least when there was regulation, we were able to mandate a certain amount of change-over. On the other hand, we have seen some positive developments. For example, there's a windmill in western Michigan where customers are able to designate that they want wind energy as opposed to (other sources); it's a kind of green pricing situation that's proving successful. The flip side is that they're being charged a little more right now to get wind energy, but they're also guaranteed that the price will not go up if fossil fuel or nuclear prices go up, and ultimately those people will probably make out better in the long run. Actually, more people want a piece of the windmill than there is windmill to dole out; so...green pricing...seems like it will have an audience.

The utilities are dragging their feet as much as they possibly can, using deregulation as a ploy to allow them to charge big customers less. For the home user, deregulation is proving to be a bad thing because the utilities are just raising (their) price. For the smaller users it's a little more difficult to get renewables. And some of these programs that were being mandated for efficiency, through regulated utilities, may go by the boards now with deregulation. It's a difficult situation because utilities have so much political power, they're able to manipulate the playing field to their advantage.

"…in a pure market economy the plants would all shut. They're still getting federal subsidies on fuel, most importantly on insurance..."

And also, they're using their political power to force the continued operation of these nuclear plants even though in a pure market economy the plants would all shut. They're still getting federal subsidies on fuel, most importantly on insurance, and they're just fighting to protect their so-called stranded investments which is just a name for white elephant nuclear plants that can't compete but are being subsidized unwillingly by taxpayers and rate payers. It's now up to $7 billion that the federal government will pay if there's a catastrophic meltdown-beyond that, everybody's on their own; if utilities were forced to face up to the true liability of a major meltdown, they'd shut all their plants immediately. They know that they would go bankrupt in the case of an accident.

Are Renewables a Luxury We Can't Afford?

Wasserman rebuffed the notion that we would have to pay more for "clean energy:"

Renewables ultimately are cheaper. In the US, we've let our wind energy decline but in Denmark and Germany and Holland, they have windmills now that within a couple of years will be cheaper than coal. The fact is that renewable energy is the cheapest form of energy. You have to consider that the technology for wind is very simple, and there's an abundance of wind energy in this country, really all over the world, and we could, in fact, get all our energy from wind if we actually had a free market, because wind…and in many instances now, photovoltaics, are actually cheaper (than fossil and nuclear sources). Certainly increased efficiency is just cheaper. If you do pay more right now it's because the federal government is subsidizing the dirty energy.

The fact is that renewable energy is the cheapest form of energy.

Nuclear energy, coal, and oil are subsidized, not only through our tax dollars but also through increased health impacts. The medical bill for fossil fuels and nuclear power is astronomical, but that's never figured in. There's no medical bill for wind energy or for solar-you don't have people dying from emphysema and other pollutants as a result of wind energy.

Also, the nuclear waste question is being deferred; the true cost of disposing of nuclear waste or managing it is not figured into what we pay for nuclear power. The true cost of what we pay for environmental destruction through oil exploration and strip mining and global warming-these aren't figured into the short term costs of fossil fuels. In the long run, we cannot afford not to go renewable. In the long term, renewables are essential to the health of our economy. What's good for the environment is good for the economy in avoided costs and in efficient technologies."

"...the true cost of disposing of nuclear waste or managing it is not figured into what we pay for nuclear power."

Are Renewables Practical for All the US?

S/R wondered if there were areas, say, Central Texas, with a mediocre wind factor, where renewables would not be cost-effective. Wasserman pointed out that the area between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River "was estimated by the Department of Energy in the 1980's to have sufficient wind potential to generate twice as much electricity as the (entire) US uses... [and that] the transmission lines are already in place. You don't have to build a new grid…but in the long term, there are other methods, especially hydrogen, which is really the fuel of the future." He believes it is feasible, everywhere, to have a hydrogen economy but it has been blocked by the oil industry, which in its transport spills enough oil "…everyday to equal the Exxon Valdez…it's a slow and less visible but nonetheless ongoing catastrophe that's going on with fossil fuels." He added in response to often-stated fears about the explosive potential of hydrogen, " But natural gas explodes too, and oil burns… Hydrogen's the way to go ultimately with liquid fuels, and wind is the way to go right now with electricity.

Exciting Models; Scary Pictures

Questioned about working models of communities which are replacing fossil fuel and nuclear energy with efficiency and renewables, Wasserman mentioned a couple:

There's the University of Southern California at Davis. They've gone to a heavy efficiency mode-lots of bicycle use, energy efficient buildings. Sacramento's the biggest, and it's proved immensely successful. (Sacramento voters shut down their municipally-owned reactor at the beginning of this decade and the city amped up its conservation, energy-efficiency, and renewable programs, which included planting half a million shade trees on the southwest sides of buildings and offering solar heating and electric systems to residents at 'green' prices.) It's amazing you don't hear more about it. But the industry is immensely powerful-when you have GE and Westinghouse owning two of the big networks, you've got a problem getting the word out.

However, not all citizens have such a clear path to conversion. Austin, Texas, residents voted 14 years ago to get out of the nuclear energy pipeline by selling their share of the ill-famed South Texas Nuclear Project, but have found no buyers the city would accept. (People Preventing a Texas Chernobyl, a small grassroots group, offered $1 in 1994, the highest bid to date, but were rejected out of hand by the manager of the city utility.) The hapless Texans, along with citizens in most of the rest of the nation, now face even more bad news, according to Wasserman:

One of the particularly frightening things that's happening with deregulation, is that in order to keep the reactors on line, the utilities that own them are cutting way back on maintenance and safety. It's inevitable that there will be another accident. Deregulation in the short term is causing much more danger in our nuclear plants… Accidents are a constant state of affairs with nuclear power. As deregulation comes on and prices are forced down, it's going to get worse, because they're going to cut costs.

What Greens Can Do About Nuclear Utilities

Wasserman still believes we have to work within the existing political system to undermine the nuclear utilities' influence.

You gotta write, you gotta call these Congressmen and Senators and try to counteract the big money that utilities have to buy politicians. Just the traditional forms of political protest and constant awareness. The reality is that they're going to use deregulation to screw small customers and to drop nuclear safety requirements. They're already making the argument that to keep their 'stranded investments' going, they've got to cut back on safety and they're doing it and the regulatory agencies are letting them do it.

At the time of the interview (June 1996) there was no pro-consumer legislation on a local or national scale that Greens could call their Congressperson about, to Wasserman's knowledge.

There really needs to be a coherent national program to push renewables and increased efficiency… There are local and national and some international groups working on these specific (nuke) plants for all sorts of reasons and with all sorts of strategies. There is a global movement, it's not centralized, which is good. Everywhere you go there are people trying to shut down their local nuclear plant.

This leaves a gap that perhaps Greens and their elected officials can fill, alone or preferably in alliance with other sectors of society, such as the New Party, other environmental and consumer advocacy groups, and labor, which ought to see the job potential in renewable energy and efficiency and conservation programs.

"…in order to keep the reactors on line, the utilities that own them are cutting way back on maintenance and safety."

When questioned about the relative person-power needed to produce energy from renewable versus depleting and destructive sources, Wasserman replied:

Renewables are much more labor-intensive. The jobs aren't quite as high-paying as the ultra-tech nuclear jobs, but it only takes a couple hundred people to run a nuclear plant, (and) thousands to install and maintain windmills and solar panels and efficiency devices, which is good. They're less capital-intensive; they're simpler machines; they don't create radioactive waste; they don't melt down; they don't require massive monitoring situations, but they do need people.

That's exactly the direction we should be going. We've known for decades that a dollar invested in renewables and efficiency creates many times more jobs than a dollar invested in nuclear power and fossil fuels...but the people who own the capital who benefit from the big factories and the centralized mode, they're the ones standing in the way of the alternative.

Wasserman believes Greens could make a difference by pushing

the good economics of renewables and dispel[ling] this myth that they're more expensive. Renewables now are cheaper than fossil fuels if you consider the externalities, and they're cheaper than nuclear power way off the top. (See "True Cost of Nukes" in S/R No. 11) Utilities and the nuclear and fossil industries are getting away with murder. They're not paying for the impact on the planet and on human health. We really have to force that argument and we should never concede that renewables are more expensive, because they're not. Wind energy is cheaper now. The Danish and German windmills are generating electricity much more cheaply than nuclear power and certainly competitively with fossil fuel, but without the externalities.

Renewables in Europe: The Economic Carrot and Stick

He argues that the US wind industry

has been hammered by the cutbacks in federal subsidies and by the power of the nuclear industry. In Denmark they don't have nuclear power and in Germany they've stopped building nuclear power. The Danes this year will export $750 million worth of windmills to China and India and Germany and the US; there are more Danes working in windmills than in the fishing industry. It's their second largest export.

Germany's about to become the world's leading wind energy generator. They've developed a gearless windmill. They're now exporting windmills that are fifty times as large as many of the windmills operating in California now. Offshore windmills or windmills in the Great Plains could power the world, basically. But American nuclear industry is dragging its feet because of these ridiculous nuclear investments and they're unwilling to make any adjustments. They're using deregulation, which really should shut all the nuclear plants, as a method of further monopolization and avoiding input from the public.

The important thing is to get on top of the technology and really make it clear that there's simply no reason to continue the old way of doing things. Look at the South Texas Nuclear Project and Comanche Peak -- they're economic catastrophes! They never should have been built and now the people who built them are forcing the public to pay-that's got to be stopped. The first step is to shut down these nuclear plants. Sacramento could happen anywhere…Sacramento is no better suited for renewable energy generation than a hundred other cities in the US.

People have to be very careful with deregulation. What we have now is regulated monopolies; what we could wind up with is unregulated monopolies, with none of the positive stuff that could come from public control. While deregulation does offer opportunities for people to plug into the grid with renewable technologies, it could have the opposite effect if it's done wrong.

Taken from a phone interview June 18, 1996, recorded in Austin, Texas, at WATER (Women's Access to Electronic Resources), a project of the Foundation for a Compassionate Society.

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