Esquire Magazine - John H. Richardson
Because of a crisis that is more important than health-care reform or the Af-Pak war, I find myself in the odd position of praising a man who steers hard to the right on almost everything — a man who thinks it's more Christian to cut taxes on billionaires than to help the poor, that helping the victims of racism is just as bad as racism itself, that gay Americans should shut up and get back in their closets, that we should subsidize corporations with American tax dollars even when they move to foreign countries, that we should start a Drug Army to wage war on stoners... Man, it's making me nauseous just typing. Better you go here and see for yourself.
But the problem of global warming is more important than any of that. According to Dr. James Hansen, the NASA scientist whose grim climate predictions have been coming true for the last thirty years — that's a phrase straight out of the new Best and Brightest issue of Esquire, which treats these matters in greater detail — we are rapidly approaching the point of no return. If we don't shut down all the coal plants in the world within the next twenty years, he says, we're cooked. Literally.
As a result, Hansen has tossed out one of the prime beliefs of all good liberal environmentalists — hating nuclear power. This is what he told me:
"The scientific method requires that we keep an open mind and change our conclusions when new evidence indicates that we should. The new evidence affecting the nuclear debate is climate change. We need an urgent, substantial research and development program on fourth-generation nuclear power, so that we have at least one viable option in the event that efficiency and renewables cannot provide all needed energy."
Which brings us to Lamar Alexander, the Republican senator from Tennessee.
"I think there's plenty of evidence that we need to stop spewing so much carbon into the air, that we're contributing to climate change and that we ought to look for alternatives," Alexander told me. "If someone came to me and gave me this much evidence that my house might catch fire, I'd certainly buy fire insurance."
For some time now, Alexander has been pushing a plan to build a hundred nuclear plants (third-generation plants, unfortunately, but I'll get to that in a moment). Partly this is because he's from Tennessee, the home of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. But he really does seem to be sincere about saving the environment — check out this eloquent and well-informed speech (PDF).
As a result, Alexander is willing to break with one of his own party's most sacred beliefs. "I look around the world and see what other countries are doing," he says, "and I see that the wise ones like France and China are coming to the same conclusion. And I wonder why we're not."
Sacrebleu! A Republican praising France! It's enough to make you gag on your Freedom Fries!
But actually, all forty of the Republican senators have endorsed Alexander's hundred-nuke idea. "That may not sound like much," he says, "but I can't point to anything else that all forty Republican senators agree on."
What about James Inhofe, you ask? Is that troglodytic Republican congressman still insisting that climate change is a commie liberal fraud? "It's not an Inhofe cause, that's for sure," he tells me.
To be sure, there's still a Republican heart beating in there. "It's a lot better than massive, hundred-page contraptions to impose a cap and trade on everything from chemical plants to cement plants," Alexander says. And don't get him started on wind turbines. "To power the country by building 186,000 fifty-story wind turbines — and running 19,000 miles of new transmission lines — just seems impractical and preposterous compared to the idea of building a hundred new nuclear facilities primarily on the sites we already have."
But Alexander's disdain for turbines and cap-and-trade puts him on the same team as Dr. Hansen, who's on record saying that the Waxman-Markey C&T bill is but a Band-Aid on the sucking chest wound of industrial civilization. And Alexander is willing to concede some ground: "Someday we may need to put caps on smokestacks and low carbon fuel standards on fuel, but in the meantime..."
Think of the jobs! In Tennessee, for example, because making aluminum is so energy-intensive, the Alcoa Corporation has shut down its smelter. That alone puts thousands of people out of work. And even solar-panel factories are energy hogs — as it happens, there are two in Tennessee and they each use a staggering 125 megawatts. The way Alexander puts it captures the infernal circularity of the problem: "So you can't make solar energy for the cost that solar energy costs."
Same with auto factories, which now provide a third of all the jobs in Tennessee. "We hear a lot about rebuilding Detroit, and we just spent $70 billion to bail out the auto industry — well, they need to be cost competitive, too. If they have high-cost energy, those suppliers are going to move to Japan or Mexico instead of Michigan and Tennessee. So low-cost electricity is the first jobs argument."
And the second argument?
"To build those hundred nuclear plants, it would be 250,000 construction jobs and 70,000 permanent jobs."
But this is where Alexander and I part ways. He wants to move forward with a third-generation reactor from Babcock & Wilcox, the company that built most of the small reactors that power Navy ships. I'm no expert, and these are devilishly complicated issues, but I'm more inspired by the fourth-generation reactor that I detail in the new dead-tree version of Esquire (long may it prosper!). It's called the PRISM. It was developed by a consortium of big companies led by General Electric. It's small enough to be shipped down highways and slapped into all the existing coal power plant turbines, replacing all that filthy, dirty, nasty coal with clean energy. And it burns nuclear waste.
Alexander also thinks that fourth-generation is the way to go, but he thinks we could roll out the Babcock & Wilcox reactors faster. "That doesn't mean would shouldn't move ahead with Generation Four — we absolutely should. We should have a mini-Manhattan Project for nuclear reactors that recycle used nuclear waste. That way we can have large amounts of low-cost electricity and solve climate change, too."
From your lips to Obama's ears, Senator Alexander. But alas, due in part to the long antipathy the environmentalist-beholden Democratic Party has toward nuclear power — despite its perfect zero-death record in the United States, and its ability to generate clean power almost without maintenance (they run 90 percent of the time, including the one that keeps stinky coal out of my lovely neighborhood) — we are now in a holding pattern. At the Department of Energy, Secretary Stephen Chu "says all the right things," Alexander told me, "and what he says makes a difference because he's a Nobel Prize-winning scientist. But the administration, from the president on down, is populated with people who get a stomachache every time nuclear power is mentioned. I mean, here we have an administration which beat President Bush over the head for not respecting good science, and their most distinguished scientist says nuclear power is safe and you can store the waste safely — and yet they're very reluctant to do it. But you have the president extolling wind and sun that produces about 3 percent of all our electricity, and you have the Secretary of the Interior meeting with all the wind-turbine manufacturers to put up 186,000 of these five-story monstrosities all over the landscape..."
This must change. I have kids. They're gonna have kids. We have to stop futzing around!
Or, as Alexander likes to put it, "Like I said to my fellow Tennessean and good friend Al Gore: 'If climate change is the inconvenient problem, isn't nuclear power the inconvenient answer?'"
Got thoughts on nuclear power? Know more innovators saving our planet? Click here to e-mail John H. Richardson about his weekly political column at Esquire.com.