Posted by: bkivey | 23 March 2011

Blinded by Bias

As I noted in my previous post, the current Japanese difficulties with a quake-damaged nuclear power plant have brought out the usual suspects opposing nuclear power. One of those making public comment is Peter Bergel, executive director of Oregon Peaceworks. Mr. Bergel wrote a piece against nuclear power published in the 18 March edition of The Oregonian. Mr. Bergel has been an anti-nuclear activist since the 1970’s, so he is nothing if not consistent. His opinion piece, though, demonstrates the flaw of many activists in that he opposes without offering alternatives. This isn’t thinking so much as a temper tantrum. In every supervisory or management position I’ve held, I’ve told my staff that dissent is fine, as long as alternatives are offered. Anyone can complain, but if you want me to take you seriously, you’d better show me that you’ve thought about the problem.

Mr. Bergel starts his essay by recapping the history of opposition to the Trojan nuclear plant located near Ranier, Oregon. While operating, the plant produced 12% of Oregon’s electric power while producing 0% of the state’s air pollutants. A concerted long-term effort by activists forced operating utility PGE to close the plant in 1995, twenty years before it’s design lifetime expiration.

Activists weren’t motivated by accidents at the plant or operating or design flaws; they just didn’t like nuclear power. So while they were patting themselves on the back, they’d grossly increased the cost of the plant to ratepayers, because the amortization schedule had been cut in half, and increased dependence on the Boardman coal-fired plant, which produces a significant percentage of the state’s air pollutants. Now those same folks want to close Boardman, which supplies 6% of the state’s electricity, and the operating utility has agreed to do so rather than spend half a billion dollars on pollution controls. A natural gas-fired plant is supposed to replace Boardman, but I have serious reservation about whether one will be built in time, and even if it is, it’s a near-certainty that activists will oppose that facility, too.

Mr. Bergel talks of the successful effort in 1980 to pass a ballot measure requiring a national nuclear waste depository and approval by the majority of voters before any new nuclear plants could be built in the state. Given that this occurred the year after the Three Mile Island incident, it couldn’t have been too hard to convince the electorate to pass such a measure, although it passed with a bare majority of 52%. Mr. Bergel calls these ‘reasonable’ measures, yet anti-nuclear activists have consistently opposed a national nuclear waste depository on the grounds that it’s safety can’t be guaranteed for hundreds of thousands of years or on the grounds that transportation can’t be guaranteed 100% risk-free. These are hardly ‘reasonable’ conditions. Mr. Bergel  complains that the Trojan reactors spent fuel remains on-site , as it does at every nuclear facility in the country, but he and his fellow activists don’t offer alternatives or they oppose ones proposed. This is self-contradictory cognitive dissonance, and these folks seem blithely unaware of it.

Mr. Bergel enumerates some of his objections to nuclear power, one of which is his claim that  “. . . governments will not adequately protect their people from the danger.” From their history it’s apparent that activists define ‘adequate’ as ‘risk-free’. That’s an impossible standard to meet, so they can always claim that any protective measures are ‘inadequate’. What’s more, it’s a hypocritical standard, in that the activists don’t even live by the standards they would impose on those they don’t like. How many anti-nuclear activists do you suppose drive cars, or for that matter get out of bed in the morning?

Mr. Bergel concedes that the nuclear power industry does have a good safety record, but claims that ” . . . when a disaster does occur, it creates a mess with global consequences.” This is demonstrably not true in all but the most extreme case, and there have only been two incidents that affected, or had the potential to affect,  more than the local area. This is a case of the perfect as enemy of the good, and an argument often used by activists.

While pointing out that the nuclear industry has required government subsidies to operate, Mr. Bergel fails to point out that the primary reason for the unfavorable cost structure of nuclear power is caused in large part by the actions of anti-nuclear activists who have spent decades heaping regulation on top of regulation at increasing expense to operators and builders. This is akin the definition of chutzpah.

 Mr. Bergel concedes that renewable energy sources cannot replace fossil-fueled power plants, but then disingenuously says “But that will be true whether or not nuclear power is added to the mix.” Well, if we develop nuclear power, we  can reduce our dependence on fossil-fuel plants. If one is concerned about fossil-fuel emissions and realizes that renewable sources cannot replace those power plants, one cannot reasonably dismiss out-of-hand a well-understood technology with zero air pollutant emissions. To do so shows one to be motivated by ideology over reason.

The conclusion of the essay is that everyone will have to make do with less energy. This would seem to be at odds with the stated aims of Oregon Peaceworks, whose mission statement is:

To educate and activate people to work for peace, justice and environmental sustainability.

Energy distribution is not fungible. If everyone has access to less energy, this doesn’t mean that if the rich get poorer, the poor get richer. Everyone just has a lower standard of living. The rich are less rich, and the poor are poorer. That hardly sounds like a definition of justice or peace. The fact is that if Mr. Bergel and his ilk were really concerned with increasing opportunities for the poor, they’d realize that society needs more energy, not less.


Responses

  1. “Mr. Bergel calls these ‘reasonable’ measures, yet anti-nuclear activists have consistently opposed a national nuclear waste depository on the grounds that it’s safety can’t be guaranteed for hundreds of thousands of years or on the grounds that transportation can’t be guaranteed 100% risk-free.”

    Reminds me of the TSA airline strategy. The chances of dieing in an automobile accident are exponentially greater than while in the air, yet we remove our belts, shoes, and submit to unlawful searches.

    It’s too bad we didn’t get to work on green energy sources immediately after Three Mile Island. Imagine how much better off we would be both energy-wise and economically.

  2. Hi Keith,

    Thanks for commenting. I too take exception to TSA, not only their increasingly heavy-handed tactics, they now conduct random searches of carry-ons in the gate areas, but there aren’t any definable metrics to evaluate their performance. Are we in fact safer on an airplane than we were 10 years ago pre-TSA? I don’t think they’ve made any difference whatsoever, and we’re paying billions of dollars to be inconvienced and insulted, all in the name of some bureacratically defined ‘risk-free’ travel experience.

    If you’ll recall, after TMI President Carter signed legislation to greatly increase the federal R&D budget for solar power. In fact, after the oil shock of 1973 -1974 the mission of the Dept. of Energy became the development of renewable power along with new nuclear technologies. It’s a measure of the difficulty involved that it took billions of dollars and decades of development to get to where we are today.

    I support renewable energy sources, but as even the most ardent activist concedes, they’ll never supply what’s known as ‘baseline’ power. For that you need high-capacity power generation not dependent on environmental factors. If you don’t want to burn hydrocarbons (and I don’t), nuclear is the only real alternative.


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