The Best Column of January 2001
Jude Wanniski
January 29, 2001


Memo To: Environmentalists Everywhere
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Gordon Prather’s “Lights Out”

Gordon Prather has a Ph.D. in nuclear physics. He was deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for science and technology in the Reagan years. He writes an awesome weekly column for WorldNetDaily that I never miss. He covers all the public policy issues that involve the sciences in always surprising ways. His weekend column, “Lights Out for Environmentalists,” is easily the best single piece I’ve read this year -- incandescent in perspective. He’s challenging you, the greenies of the world, to explain to the rest of us how you propose to get out of the energy corner into which you have painted yourselves.

Lights Out for Environmentalists

The winter of 2000-2001 will long live in the nightmares of the greenies of the world.

Not least because the 200-year-old Electoral College of our founding fathers rose up and smote the titular leader of the globalists, Prince Albert, smack in middle of his overstuffed ballot boxes. And even the Almighty (or Mother Nature for those of you who don't believe in God but do believe in junk science) conspired against them by delivering -- in what the greenies had predicted would be the hottest year on record -- the coldest winter, instead.

The winter of 2000-2001 has been particularly nightmarish for the residents of California because the electricity "blackouts" visited on them were a direct and wholly predictable result of the conjunction of many energy policies of the globalist greenies.

The thing to keep in mind when discussing globalist greenies is that they believe and act as if planet earth would be a lot better off if it weren't for mankind living on it, screwing things up. They believe that the planet is going to hell in a wheelbarrow and it's all (or mostly all) our fault. So, be forewarned that the stated rationale for a globalist greenie energy policy is often not the real reason.

For example, their rationale for opposing nuclear reactor generated electric power is that it is "not safe" or that it poses an unacceptable nuke "proliferation" risk. Their rationale for opposing coal-fired generating plants is that such plants produce smog and "acid rain." Their rationale for opposing the exploration and production of oil, natural gas and coal -- onshore as well as offshore -- is that such operations will defile the environment and irreversibly damage fragile ecosystems. Their rational for opposing hydroelectric dams is that it puts a hitch in the get-along of spawning fish.

The global greenies have for several decades -- citing one or more of the above rationales -- "intervened" at each and every step in the federal-state-local building process of any and all energy facilities, including nuclear, coal and oil-fueled electricity generating plants, petroleum refineries and pipelines, and onshore "terminals" for receiving ship-transported oil and liquefied natural gas. Largely because of their intervention, virtually none of these facilities have been built or expanded or upgraded in the past 30 years.

The real reason the greenies oppose all of these proposed works by mankind is precisely that: They are all works of mankind. Mankind thereby forces on Mother Nature -- against her will -- an environment that she would not otherwise accept.

To the global greenies, sticking it to Mother Nature is bad, bad, bad. About the only energy sources the global greenies do not object to are windmills -- which Mother Nature blows on from time to time -- and solar collectors -- which the sun shines on from time to time. A global greenie doesn't try to dictate when the wind blows or the sun shines. He just sits there in the lotus position by his windmill or his solar cell and waits for whatever electricity Mother Nature sees fit to lay upon him.

To the global greenies, that is good, good, good. But when (as has happened in California) the greenies forced all the coal-burning electricity plants to either shut down or shift to natural gas, California became highly dependent upon importing both natural gas to fuel California generating plants and hydroelectric-dam generated electricity from the drought-plagued Pacific Northwest.

Then, along comes the winter of 2000-2001. All those solar collectors and windmills couldn't keep Californians from freezing in the dark, even in the lotus position. (By the way, if you get the chance, drive by one of those "windmill plantations" south of San Francisco on a windy day. It is positively unnerving -- like being in a Hitchcock film.)

Burning natural gas to produce electricity is really dumb in the first place -- and transporting it long distances over transmission lines is even dumber -- but that will be the subject of a future column. This column is about how the globalist greenies (who maintained a low profile during Al Gore's quest for the presidency, but have now returned to their main theme with a vengeance) have painted themselves into a corner. Their theme: Mankind's burning of coal, oil and natural gas is producing massive amounts of carbon dioxide, which, through the heat-trapping greenhouse effect, will eventually make this planet uninhabitable for all living things, including the trees they love to hug.

The globalist greenies did a calculation back in 1992 and told us all at Rio that things didn't look good for life on this planet because of man's use of fossil fuels. Then, in Kyoto in 1997, they told us that -- as a result of a new calculation -- it was so much worse than they had supposed at Rio, that we had to start cutting back to 1990 levels our use of fossil fuels by 2012, or else. Last year, at The Hague, the globalist greenies (having done yet another calculation which convinced them that the situation was now far worse than they had supposed at Kyoto) nearly had kittens because the U.S. -- acting on advice of the U.S. Senate -- refused to do anything at all unless everybody agreed to do their fair share.

Now that Prince Albert has bit the dust, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, meeting this month in Shanghai, has done still another calculation and now predicts that the end is near. The Shanghai report says "new evidence" shows more clearly than ever that global warming is manmade and is caused mostly by burning fossil fuels -- not by variations in the sun's output or other "natural" factors.

But, over the years, as the Panel's warnings became ever more strident, it was becoming increasingly clear that nuclear power was sometimes the most cost effective way to generate electricity, even when the entire life-cycle costs were faithfully reflected in the cost of electricity to the consumer.

With Hazel O'Leary and her merry men long gone (but not forgotten), the inescapable truth about the inevitability of international use of nuclear power to combat global warming -- if the planet really was heating up and man was primarily responsible -- had even begun to dawn on the U.S. Department of Energy. The U.S. and Japan argued that, even if nuclear power did cost more than electricity generated by coal-fired plants (using "clean coal" technology and stack-gas scrubbers, which reduces smog, but does not reduce carbon dioxide emissions) it was the only viable alternative to coal.

As the inevitability of nuclear power to combat global warming became more obvious, studies began to be done which showed that -- irrespective of whether global warming is caused by man's burning of fossil fuels or not -- nuclear power can, at times, be the most cost-effective way to generate electricity. In particular, the Finns published last year the results of a study they had done comparing the financial costs of four specific options for an additional power plant they intend to build in Finland. The options studied were:

1. Nuclear steam-turbine power plant
2. Combined-cycle gas-turbine plant
3. Coal-fueled steam-turbine power plant
4. Peat-fueled fluidized-bed power plant

The Finns have four nuclear power plants currently operating -- two 488-megawatt units at Loviisa and two 840-megawatt units at Olkiluoto -- which together provide about a third of all of Finland's electricity. The actual 20-year operating history of the Olkiluoto units was used in the cost-based comparison. (Over the past decade, the "capacity factors" for all four Finnish nuclear power plants has been better than 90 percent, the highest in the world.) The existing Finnish 560-megawatt Meri-Pori plant, which burns pulverized coal, a 150-megawatt fluidized-bed peat burning plant and an internationally available "turn-key" combined cycle gas-turbine plant were used in the comparison study.

The result? A new 1,250-megawatt nuclear plant was determined to be not only the least costly option (10 percent better than coal and 20 percent better than natural gas) in terms of cost per kilowatt hour to the consumer of electricity but, since it produces no carbon dioxide whatsoever, the nuclear plant was projected to forego the production of 8.3 million tons of carbon dioxide, annually, in comparison to the coal-fueled plant and 3.7 million tons of carbon dioxide in comparison to the natural gas-fueled plant.

One of the most important attributes of a nuclear power plant is that, while capital costs are relatively high, the electricity it generates is relatively insensitive to the price of nuclear fuel. On the other hand, even though the capital costs of natural gas-fueled plants are relatively low, as the people of California discovered to their dismay in the winter of 2000-2001, when the price of natural gas goes up a factor of three or four, so does the cost of electricity.

But, not to worry. It won't happen again. If we are required to cut our use of coal, oil and natural gas by a third in order to comply with Al Gore's Kyoto Protocols, if we are only allowed to release a fixed amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per year, then nobody is going to be allowed to burn natural gas to make electricity. In terms of kilowatt-hours of electricity delivered to the customer per ton of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, burning natural gas is far too inefficient. Natural gas will have to be used more efficiently -- to directly heat homes, for example, or to fire boilers.

On the basis of the Finnish study and others, it appears we can build all the nuclear power plants we want, shut down all the coal-fueled and gas-fueled "baseload" plants, keep a few gas-fueled units for peak production, forego the production of zillions of tons of greenhouse gases, comply with the Kyoto Protocols, and have cheaper electricity to boot.

On the other hand, if the globalist greenies somehow intervene and keep us from building any more nuclear power plants, and we reallocate our allotted -- under the Kyoto Protocols -- coal and natural gas resources to their most efficient uses (per ton of carbon dioxide produced) you probably won't freeze. But you will have to get lots of things done while the sun is still up because, after sundown, you will probably be sitting there in the dark, listening to the crickets.

Rumor has it you can tell the temperature outside by counting their chirps per unit of time.

© 2001

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Physicist James Gordon Prather has served as a policy implementing official for national security-related technical matters in the Federal Energy Agency, the Energy Research and Development Administration, the Department of Energy, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Department of the Army. Dr. Prather also served as legislative assistant for national security affairs to U.S. Sen. Henry Bellmon, R-Okla. -- ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and member of the Senate Energy Committee and Appropriations Committee. Dr. Prather had earlier worked as a nuclear weapons physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico.