The Unrenewed Debate Over Renewable Energy

Little interest in safer, cleaner, even cheaper alternatives to nuclear power

When the March 11 earthquake and tsunami shut down cooling systems at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, U.S. government and nuclear industry spin control kicked in, asserting that a similar disaster couldn't happen here, and that atomic power is here to stay. Corporate news outlets typically got caught up in this spin, relaying distorted and/or incomplete information about our energy options from a recycled cohort of pro-nuclear sources.

An option hardly mentioned: renewable energy, such as wind, solar and geothermal power.* The topic of energy efficiency and conservation--sure-fire ways to reduce demand for energy in the first place--didn't even surface. In this way, most of these media missed a chance to use the Japan crisis to truly examine and debate U.S. nuclear policy, or how we might build a safer, cost-effective, low-carbon energy future.

The United States is the world's largest producer of nuclear energy, getting some 20 percent of its electrical power from 104 nuclear plants (23 of which share Fukushima's GE Mark 1 design). Nuclear plants aren't cheap--the world's first new-generation model, under construction in Finland, is priced at $7.2 billion (Wall Street Journal, 12/1/10)--so keeping older reactors online as long as possible has been considered imperative, along with visions of building a modern array of plants. Indeed, President Obama recently asked for $36 billion in new loan guarantees to offset banks' and Wall Street's long-held trepidation about such investments.

One might imagine that the Fukushima disaster would prompt a more critical look at domestic nuclear power ambitions; instead, U.S. corporate media seemed largely to sympathize with the industry. Insensitive headlines blared: "Nuclear Push May Be in Peril" (New York Times, 3/14/11), "Japan Crisis May Derail Nuclear Renaissance: Damage to Reactors May Already Have Doomed Push for New Atomic Power Plants" (L.A. Times, 3/14/11); "Shaken Industry: Tremors from Japan Disaster Rattle Future of U.S. Nuclear Power" (Houston Chronicle, 3/18/11). CNN's Gloria Borger (3/17/11) commented that nuclear power "just suffered a really bad blow by this, given what happened in Japan."

These and other pieces in the aftermath of Fukushima relied heavily on establishment pro-nuke figures such as Energy Secretary Steven Chu, his deputy Dan Poneman and Nuclear Regultory Commission chair Greg-ory Jaczko (whose job descriptions include promoting as well as regulating nuclear power), along with the Nuclear Energy Institute trade organization and nuclear plant owners such as GE and Exelon.

Meanwhile, the voices of environmentalists or nuclear opponents were seldom heard. (One exception, Rep. Ed Markey, who supports a moratorium on new plant construction, did appear multiple times.) When they were, the discussion tended to be in the "he said/she said" format, pitting opinion against opinion without much context or additional facts.

For example, there was a debate about atomic power on NPR's Talk of the Nation (3/15/11) between Greenpeace analyst Jim Riccio and nuclear convert Gwyneth Cravens (who raised the lethal specter of falling wind turbine blades, and at one point claimed that all the spent nuclear fuel in America "could all fit in one Best Buy or one Walmart"). Fox News' Special Report (3/14/11) pitted an activist advocating funds for research and development on renewables against correspondent Doug McKelway's ominous observation that for people living "without electricity...many believe the threat posed by nuclear plants may seem tame by comparison."

But media generally seemed to deny that nuclear power had very many critics at all, even among the environmental movement. Calling nukes "relatively benign," New York Times reporter John Broder (3/14/11) noted "a growing impetus in the environmental community to support nuclear power as part of a broad bargain on energy and climate policy." USA Today (3/16/11) echoed that "many environmentalists have embraced the idea of building new plants."

But as documented by Journal editor Jason Mark (Fall/07), "There is a striking amount of unanimity among the leading environmental organizations that nuclear power is not a smart way to address climate change." Rather, as anyone following the "green" press knows, they advocate renewables, energy efficiency and conservation.

With actual environmental critics sidelined, the story that emerged accordingly presented nuclear energy as a path with no real alternatives. CNN business correspondent Alison Kosik (3/17/11) asked rhetorically: "What do you replace it with? really tough on the environment. Natural gas is expensive.... So, you know, pick your poison with that." Many outlets made this assessment after providing grisly lists of pollution, illness and mortality from fossil fuels.

Headlines like "Nuclear Power Still Vital for U.S." (editorial, Lancaster, Pa., Intelligencer Journal, 3/17/11) and "Nuclear Plants 'Must Be Part of the Mix'" (Newark Star Ledger, 3/15/11) made clear the media position. So did a USA Today editorial (3/16/11): "The United States doesn't have the option to walk away from nuclear power...which offers huge amounts of 24/7 power with virtually no carbon emissions." A Chicago Tribune editorial (3/15/11) was more blunt: "Nuclear accidents are scary. But not as scary as a world starved for electricity." Investors Business Daily (3/16/11) warned, "Those who would shut nuclear power down due to a once-in-a-lifetime, planet-shifting earthquake" are "even more dangerous than Fukushima."

Advocates in these pieces framed nukes as necessary for U.S. energy independence. However, nuclear plants produce electricity, while petroleum is used mainly for transportation; only 1 percent of U.S. electrical generation comes from burning oil. Nevertheless, CNN's Gloria Borger (3/17/11) remarked: "Well, if we're not going to depend on Middle East oil, what are we going to do? And nuclear is just one of those options." The Houston Chronicle (3/18/11) observed, "Fukushima is casting a long shadow over efforts to jump start U.S. nuclear power plant building as an alternative to dependence on foreign sources of fossil fuels."

Renewables meet the criteria for clean, safe, low-carbon, non-imported energy with the potential to be cost-effective and widespread--but such options were seldom brought up, and quickly dismissed. Cost and time were frequently cited deal-breakers: "Renewable energy sources...hold great future promise. But scaling them up to power cities and factories is a costly prospect," the Chicago Tribune (3/14/11) editorialized. "I'm a big advocate of renewable," Rep. Frank Pallone (D.-N.J.) told the Star Ledger (3/15/11), "but that's going to take a while. In the meantime, you need nuclear as part of the mix." The Orange County Register (3/14/11) called "'alternative' energy...a very small percentage of current production and unlikely to rise higher without expensive tax subsidies."

These claims simply don't stand up to scrutiny. According to the finance website Alt Energy Stocks (3/24/11), "While it takes 10 years or more to permit and build a nuclear reactor, utility scale wind and solar farms are typically built in three to 18 months." Because of their risks, the cost of insuring nuclear plants against catastrophe is underwritten by taxpayers under the Price-Anderson Act. Even the CEO of Exelon, the largest nuclear plant operator in the U.S., told the Washington Post (3/17/11) that "new nuclear plants are more expensive than any other energy source except photovoltaic cells."

Wind is already cheaper per kilowatt-hour than nuclear; the National Research Council estimates that by 2020, the cost of geothermal will be comparable to or lower than that of nuclear (10 cents/kwh versus 6-13 cents/kwh). Solar power, which the Council said "could potentially produce many times the current and projected future U.S. electricity consumption," is projected to cost anywhere from 8-30 cents/kwh.

According to an analysis from Brook-haven National Laboratory, however, concentrating solar power systems "with enough thermal storage to generate electricity 24 hours a day" during most of the year would eventually cost 10 cents/kwh or less (Scientific American, 10/28/08). A Duke University study found that the cost of solar power has not only recently declined by half, but also is poised to become cheaper than nuclear, even in places that aren't always sunny (Phoenix Sun, 7/26/10).

Still, one of renewables' main challenges is obtaining the funding to scale up dramatically. But if it's plausible to ask for $36 billion in tax subsidies for nukes, say advocates, why not for wind, solar and geothermal?

Other outlets argued that renewables simply would never be sufficient or reliable enough. The Intelligencer Journal (3/17/11) counseled, "Skeptics should keep in mind that renewable energy sources ...will not satisfy America's energy needs alone." And Allison Kosik of CNN (3/17/11) complained, "solar and wind are volatile and literally dependent on the weather."

Actually, it's not necessary for renewables, or any power source, to run full bore 24/7 (though geothermal, drawn from the earth's underground heat, does)--only that energy be available to respond to demand in real time, as the planned digital "smart grid" could help ensure.

As for renewables' ability to meet U.S. energy needs, "There is no bar except lobbyists, guts and old thinking," according to nuclear engineer Arjun Makhijani, president of the nonprofit Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and author of its report, "Carbon Free and Nuclear Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy." Makhijani told Extra! that by his calculations, available wind energy alone, utilizing existing compressed-air energy-storage technology, could supply 10 times the total electricity generated in the United States today, and the nation could transition to 100 percent renewables by midcentury.

Others, including the Earth Policy Institute's Lester Brown in his recent book World on the Edge, and Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. DeIucchi in their cover story on sustainability in Scientific American (10/28/09), have come to similar conclusions.

As of this writing, workers were still struggling to contain the reactor damage amid dangerously high radioactivity readings at the Fukushima plant. Fortunately, not all power in the region was lost: Wind turbines, which withstood the quake and tsunami (Huffington Post, 3/17/11), are still turning.

*Hydropower and biomass are also renewables, but, due to certain complexities distinct from the others, are not considered here.

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