Fragile pro-nuclear consensus emerges in U.S., but wait for the green/gas counterattack

Jacques Besnainou, CEO of Areva North America, on Monday applauded the Obama administration’s decision in February to award federal nuclear loan guarantees to The Southern Company. Southern will use the guarantees to borrow US$3.4 billion to build two Westinghouse AP 1000 reactors in Georgia. Yes, the head of a French company is happy to see an American competitor’s project move forward.

As a Canadian whose blood boils at the mere thought of Canada’s national Olympic hockey team losing to the Americans in front of the world, I admire that kind of magnanimity. And that’s just hockey, not a vital dollars-and-cents issue like a nuclear build project. I’m not sure I would be as magnanimous if Westinghouse won the Ontario reactor competition, and I don’t even work for AECL (Westinghouse’s competitor in Ontario, and, supposedly, the winner of the project). Out of politness and tact, I didn’t ask Besnainou about that either. Areva appears to have read the writing on the wall and bowed out of Ontario (see article).

Besnainou told a teleconference with nuclear bloggers that the Southern Company decision is good news for the whole industry. Of course he hopes for a similarly positive response from the U.S. government regarding a new reactor project that invovles an Areva EPR in Maryland (i.e., Constellation’s Calvert Cliffs project).

Over the past month I have noted a sea-change in American mainstream media coverage of the issue of nuclear energy. While many news vehicles still feel obliged to quote anti-nuclear lobbyists every time they run a story on nuclear energy—presumably to give balance, even though the anti side’s contributions are on the same intellectual level as those of creationists in a debate on evolution—the general picture that emerges from stories is becoming more positive toward the atom.

Besnainou agreed with this observation, but cautiously. He pointed out that the loan guarantees were first written into law in the Energy Policy Act of 2005. It is only now, five years later, that the first guarantees have actually been approved.

He’s right to be cautious. Unfortunately, the only unprecedented thing about this putative consensus is its breadth. It appears more wide than deep.

This makes it susceptible to the counterattack that will surely come when the mainstream green and natural gas lobbies gather their wits. Observers of the Vermont Yankee battle will point out that the counterattack began before the pro-nuclear consensus even emerged.

And what are the rhetorical features of the counterattack? In the Vermont Yankee fight, it’s all about the Brave New World where wind and solar energy provide the electricity—just like, allegedly, in Germany. Meredith Angwin, who publishes the blog Yes Vermont Yankee, scored a nice hit against a top-level purveyor of this fantasy, Peter Shumlin, who is running to be governor of Vermont. Shumlin made the mistake of saying, in a nationwide televised debate, that Germany gets 30 percent of its power from solar energy.

Even die-hard German anti-nuclear greens know that isn’t even close to being true. Their commitment to the nuclear phaseout has actually turned many German greens into de facto supporters of new coal-fired power stations (see article). This is because they know wind and solar have no hope of filling the power gap left by nuclear’s departure.

Angwin showed Shumlin little sympathy for his gaffe. In her blog, she wrote that he “has no idea about where electricity comes from.” This was quoted in the Valley News, which covers the Upper Valley in Vermont and New Hampshire.

The Vermont Yankee fight may be a harbinger of how the green lobby will oppose new nuclear projects in the U.S. And the gas lobby? Well, the gas lobby is moving heaven and earth in an effort to show that there is a glut of gas in North America. This appears based on stories like the Barrett Shale in Texas, which the Economist recently wrote up.

In other words, all the (very recent) history notwithstanding, the continental price of gas will stay where it is—US$4.26 per mBtu at the Henry Hub—if not drop. Of course it’s low today: it’s been a mild winter and we’re in a recession.

But nuclear power is a political issue. Many politicians are fearing for their political lives. What’s the Number One political problem today? Jobs, jobs, jobs. Maybe the best way to win the on-the-ground nuclear battles is to focus on that.

Besnainou mentioned during the conference call that Constellation’s Calvert Cliffs project will create ten thousand jobs: 4,000 direct and 6,000 indirect.

 The Southern Company says its new federally guaranteed project will create 3,500 construction jobs and 800 permanent jobs. I assume these are just the direct jobs.

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10 years ago

Well, reality is starting to set in. I read today that Spain will be getting rid of 2/3 of its green jobs by the end of 2010. The wind turbine plant in Quebec is facing a second round of layoffs. China has idled 40% of its turbine factories due to low demand. Vestas is attempting to raise money by selling bonds and recently had its rating downgraded by a bank from a ‘hold’ to a ‘sell’. I believe the carbon markets in Europe were halted today due to fraudulent activity and the price of carbon crashed. Nice to realize that Ontario has based its economic revitalization on such a successful business model.
A new investigative article came out today detailing the people and money behind ‘The Green Energy Revolution”. This is a must-read if you want to understand why energy policy seems so erratic.

10 years ago

These are some frank admissions by a climate change policy advisor on energy policy. It certainly explains what has been going on, but it is unsettling to think that governments have been planning this since the 1980’s. This confirms that it all leads back to the grand money-making scheme of carbon emissions trading and the capture of energy agencies. No wonder energy policy no longer makes any sense.

“It is important, however, for you check my observation, that most climate change since the late 1980s has been government- and grant- funded with the clearly stated objective that it must support a decarbonisation agenda for the energy sector.”

“Their survival, and the livelihoods of their employees, depends on delivering what policy makers think they want. It becomes hazardous to speak truth to power. In the area of energy policy, there are particular problems since the familiar lobbies of the privatised energy industries have been joined by new pressure groups. As the justification for policies comes to rely increasingly on “environmental” arguments, a host of NGOs, often with electorally appealing single-issue concerns and deceptively simple solutions, begin to raise their voices. The politics have become very difficult, and it is not clear that the traditional structures can cope. The responsibility for excessive pressure..”