01 June 2011

The Nuclear Power Play – Part 3: What's the Solution?

Special Series: The Nuclear Power Play – Part 3: What's the Solution?

Published Saturday, May 21, 2011 2:30 am
Special Series: The Nuclear Power Play – Part 3: What's the Solution?

John O’Leary, a deputy secretary of the US department of Energy, testified before the House panel in 1977 that “A solar power breakthrough will solve the energy crises once and for all... a viable plan to use the inexhaustible solar power source is reachable within 5 years.”

“The economics of nuclear power are bad and getting worst” says energy consultant Charles Komanoff. “In my judgment, no utility executive with an accurate perception of the cost of nuclear power and a sincere desire to minimize cost would propose ordering a new nuclear plant.” Atomic Industrial Form Committee on fuel cycle policy (1977)

The volumes of studies comparing the future of solar and other renewable energies are clearly favorable when considering investment, jobs, pollution and safety. But they have been losing their rightful place to the deep pockets of Big-Oil and the atomic based sciences hatched from the “Manhattan Project.”

Affiliated corporations to that project, have been forever rewarded with funding, paraded with Two of of these corpoclout, and embarrassed with open doors. rations are General Electric and Westinghouse – both of whom stand as the leaders in building today’s nuclear global power industry. The subsidies they and oil have received amount to over a trillion dollars over the past five decades.

When Ronald Reagan took down the solar panels from the White House, it was more than symbolic. Behind that action came billions of dollars in “oil subsidies.” Nonrenewable sources of energy would be the “fuel de jour” and individuals would not find freedom from them. Many renewable projects involving wind and solar bio-fuels were emerging through the 70s, displaying great promise, but none would find refuge from big oil nor real assistance from the government.

Melvin Calvin was one such casualty of that era. In 1961, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on “photosynthesis,” while being recognized as an authority in theoretical organic chemistry, as well as being awarded the “Priestly Medal”. 

The “Calvin Cycle” was named after his method of developing the path of carbon in Photosynthesis. This was the birth of understanding “solar energy.” In 1974, Calvin began working on a project that could have brought more of an impact to the security of this country than did the atomic bomb itself, as his focus turned to global warming and the greenhouse effect. 

Calvin had worked on the Manhattan Project and was aware of the direction the trillion dollar Pentagon budget was taking us. Years before, he had traced carbon dioxide’s relationship with sunlight to carbohydrate in plants. He then understood every enzymatic requirement needed to convert carbon dioxide into hydrocarbons.

By 1978, on his ranch in California, he had successfully produced oil from a plant. “Euphorbia lathyris,”  a relative of the poinsettia. It’s grown in a hot and dry atmosphere and produces a latex milk that consists of hydrogen and water. This mixture is processed to exclude oxygen atoms, thus producing hydrocarbons-oil – 12 percent of the plant to be exact and at $20 a barrel. Now oil is almost $120 per barrel. 

Calvin felt cloning and genetic engineering would highly improve the yield and bring the cost down. One of the advantages of fuel derived from Euphoriba is that it does not add to the carbon dioxide blanket eating the ozone. But this did not fit what modeled the “Business Roundtable’s” lock on “fossil fuels”. 

Thus, this Quantum leap in energy resourcefulness and environmental preservation died a quiet and ominous death. The last time I talked to Mr. Calvin, it was 1992, to let him know that I'd included his studies in a piece I wrote for “Creative Loafing,” that I had gathered in an interview with him a year before. He was only coming into his lab half a day a week and soon to retire. 

Calvin told me that he did have misgivings about his years of work being swept under the carpet. How many more like him were, and are still, being dismissed. Imagine California to Texas cooling the desert with green bio-fuel. Euphorbia can still be grown, but we can’t get back the precious kids, who have been sent off to fight over Middle East oil, not to mention the trillions of dollars spent protecting the profits of the oil companies, or the untold damage done to the environment.

In such, President Obama may have completely missed his chance to really be a visonary leader. Right after the BP incident, the President could have partnered with some businesses, commandeered some of those abandoned warehouses along the gulf coast and setup assembly lines building solar collectors, windmills and reversible meters. 

President Obama might have suggested that the most powerful and significant change we can make would be our choices. To be aware of low hydro-carbon products, support them and innovative pioneers like Calvin. To reduce our waste and vote with our feet to tell corporate America how we need to reduce our dependency on fossil and nuclear fuels. That this would progressively usher alternative energy sources into our future.

Making choices has a domino effect. Smart buying reduces trash - reducing trash pic-ups - reducing over burden landfills, which reduces the amount of carbon consuming topography we lose creating them and fossil fuels burnt transporting their fill. To buy smart is like eating smart, it saves you money at the doctor, so when curtailing waste, we and the planet become the benefactors of these practices.

Surely, building more NP plants will not change our habits, nor move us away from this throw-away society they represent. They are the epitome of "trash left behind" with no responsibility to the future. We can, however, insist manufacturers produce products durable, recyclable and biodegradable goods, with little to no fossil fuel. These habits can turn us to a better future in less time than we could bring the first new NP plant online, if we started breaking ground today.

Such broad scale policies would have put tens of thousands of people to work and started a trend that could have reduced dependency on oil – perhaps our greatest threat to national security. President Obama could have put thousands of people to work planting Euphoriba across the Southwest, reducing our dependency even more and helping to heal the woes from CO2. 

All of these industries would employ many, many times the amount of labor then do NP plants. In fact, after an NP plant is built it only requires 100 to 150 people to run it unless a disaster hits. There are not many catastrophes involved in solar and no mining and poisoning waters either, with little chance of a $300 billion cleanups needed to boot. 

Plus, the $36 billion in the pipe for NP as loans, will all be repaid by those who consume the electricity (you and me) and added will be a fountain of profits for the corporations facilitating that process. The longer that takes, the longer those profits flow. It really just becomes a “phantom tax” that redistributes taxpayer wealth to already wealthy, publicly-subsidized corporations. Nuclear Power is by far the most costly and victimizing direction to go down the road to our future. If one wanted to believed it offered a future at all. 

Yes, if President Obama really wanted "clean energy that would strengthen our security, protect our planet and create endless new jobs," he wouldn’t be kissing the rings of those who have taken all of that from us. He'd be standing up to give the American people something more deserving of our nation's role in humanity and we would be taking the lead in guiding the world toward a sustainable future for generations to come.

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