Jobs now, and a giant step to the low-carbon future

A pall of worry and uncertainty hangs over North America. Two years into the Great Recession, unemployment in the U.S. was 9.6 percent in August; in Canada, 8.1 percent. The problem has become politically crucial. There are congressional mid-terms in the U.S. in November and a minority government in Canada that could fall at any time. You might think in this circumstance that governments would jump at the chance to create jobs, and the more the better. Why then are three major nuclear build projects, which represent tens of thousands of high-paid jobs, not moving?

I refer to Darlington, Calvert Cliffs 3, and South Texas Project 3&4. Each of these projects involves building new reactor models. Each therefore represents ramping up skilled manufacturing jobs in a vital domestic and export industry. It also represents near- and long-term development of a range of skill sets, deepening the link between the industry and universities and technical training colleges. Both the Canadian and U.S. governments say they support nuclear energy as a route to a low-carbon, energy-secure future. Arithmetic and the historical record show that nuclear is by far the fastest, cheapest, and most decisive route to that future.

As I have pointed out elsewhere, nuclear jobs are the greenest of the green jobs. They are the most efficient use of labour when it comes to generating electricity, and nuclear plants generate more power using less land than all of the other generation types. Nothing else comes even close.

But you won’t hear this in the general public debate. In the general debate, green jobs are those in the renewable energy sector: wind, solar, biomass. As I and others have pointed out, intermittent renewable sources are just a cover for a general expansion of gas-fired power generation, which emits carbon dioxide at a rate of around half a kilogram for every kilowatt-hour generated.

And since in a renewables/gas configuration most of the kWhs by far will come out of gas plants, how “green” is the renewables/gas configuration?

Natural gas is demonstrably not green. Not even according to the self-styled environmentalists who oppose nuclear. More people need to know that natural gas is the biggest source of greenhouse gases (GHGs) from the Alberta oil sands. Gas is burned to make steam, which is used to extract oil from sand and to make hydrogen. And with hydrogen, gas is also the feedstock, which produces yet more CO2: when you react methane (i.e., natural gas) with steam, you release CO2.

If this sounds unfamiliar, it is by design. The loudest voices in the debate on energy are those of the self-styled green lobby. This includes multi-national organizations like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club, and the World Wildlife Fund. All these groups oppose the Alberta oil sands, but support gas-fired power generation. Why do they support gas? Because they are anti-nuclear.

To my knowledge, nobody has asked any of these groups to explain this obvious policy disconnect. If they are against greenhouse gases and fossil fuels, why are they trying to increase demand for natural gas in North America?

 It is time somebody did ask that question. The greens, who look united on these high issues, are anything but. Going into the Copenhagen climate summit in late 2009, French greens were in a crisis: should they subordinate their opposition to nuclear to their concern over greenhouse gases? After an embarrassing boardroom coup attempt, they decided they couldn’t abandon their cherished anti-nuke stance. Since then they have continued with the same old strategy of convincing gullible reporters that irrelevant misinformation is print-worthy news.

I am in regular contact with reporters who cover the issues of energy and environment. They are beginning to seriously question the glaring disconnect in “green” policy. Most important, some of them see the green lobby’s lack of coherence on the very issues in which it professes deep knowledge and expertise.

Are we at a tipping point, where the nuclear-climate disconnect is replaced by a consensus that could lead to action that creates jobs and moves us into the low-carbon future?

The Darlington, CC3, and STP 3&4 projects could all start, and soon, if there were concerted action at the federal government level in both Canada and the U.S. By “action” I mean a concerted effort to resolve the short term concerns that impede capital flows into nuclear projects. Nuclear plants, as Areva’s Jacques Besnainou says, are cash machines—when they are up and running. They provide huge amounts of cheap emission-free power 24 hours a day, and the companies operating them make profits. If capital is not flowing into new nuclear projects, that represents a capital-market failure. Government’s role is to address market failure when it is in the public interest.

Is cheap, reliable, low-carbon electricity in the public interest? Unequivocally yes. That is why the U.S. government introduced nuclear loan guarantees. The guarantees address the capital market failure by covering some of the early risk of financing projects that will pay off over a longer term. Having written the loan guarantees into legislation, the U.S. government has to back up the intent with real action. That means supporting CC3 and STP, both of which qualified for loan guarantees.

Canada has not codified a similar response to market failure. But the federal government could provide exactly the same assurance in the case of Darlington.

To make government support politically palatable on both sides of the border, nuclear advocates have to make sure the informed electorate sees the fallacies underlying the opposition to nuclear. The professional greens have to be made to answer for their decades-long obstructionism.

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