Wind: The new nuclear

(Oct. 23, 2010) Both technologies are immature and premature, writes Lawrence Solomon.

In the 1980s, citizens in countries throughout the world organized to fight the nuclear plants that were being proposed for their communities. It would become the largest environmental protest movement in history, and a successful one, with nuclear expansion plans all but killed throughout the Western world. Nuclear plants were not only ruinously expensive, the leaders of the campaigns argued, but environmentally risky, unlike conservation and renewable technologies such as wind power. The environmentalists’ success was all the more striking given nuclear power’s popularity before the protests — its public approval exceeded 90%.

In the 2000s, citizens throughout the world are again organizing, this time in possibly greater numbers and against wind power, the very technology that many saw as a desirable alternative to nuclear. Like nuclear in its early days, wind power enjoys great popular support — it is typically the public’s most popular form of electricity generation. Also like nuclear power, that support is likely to quickly collapse, and for many of the same reasons.

The underlying reasons for the opposition to wind are surprisingly similar to those for nuclear. Wind, too, is ruinously expensive for ratepayers, it is unwanted as a neighbour by property owners, and it comes with health and environmental worries. Like nuclear, which was exempted from environmental reviews and received exemptions from liability in the event of a catastrophic accident, wind, too, needs the rules to be bent or broken to seem viable. Not only does wind escape public environmental hearings to assess its slaughter of birds or the long-distance transmission corridors it requires, but, to facilitate wind developments, municipalities are often stripped of their traditional rights to control developments within their boundaries.

Most of all, the agent of change that ignores the economics of the technology, that downplays its environmental and health risks, and that foists a hated technology onto communities without giving them their day in court, is a bullying remote government, acting out of some sort of ideology. The public protests are pushback against government overreach and heavy-handedness.

Neither technology is inherently undesirable, of course. Both represent, in fact, impressive technologies with promising futures. But they are immature technologies, prematurely brought to market. Massive subsidies designed to kick-start a wind power industry and foster economies of scale have failed, just as they failed in the case of nuclear: The subsidies instead bought higher taxes and higher rates.

In the case of nuclear, the fault lies with the U.S. government in the 1950s. Rather than letting the private sector nurture nuclear technology and introduce it into the marketplace gradually, as a demand for it materialized, the U.S. government began a crash program on foreign policy grounds — Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program was designed to proliferate civilian nuclear technology abroad but with strings attached, to prevent military applications.

In the case of wind, the blame falls on Canada and other Western governments as well as on the United States. Their motivation here was not in preventing a nuclear Armageddon but an environmental holocaust, in the form of a presumed global warming catastrophe. Communities would just have to accept windmills for governments to meet their aggressive carbon dioxide reduction targets, the governments determined, meaning that wind farms would need to be imposed, full blown, on the countryside.

The governments’ global warming strategy is failing, and with it so is the popularity of the governments promoting it. In the U.K., where climate change policies have caused energy prices to soar — five million Britons now suffer from fuel poverty — the global warming alarmist Labour government has fallen. In the United States, where the Democrats are expected to lose at least one house of Congress to the Republicans, the populace has turned decisively against the notion that global warming is primarily man-made. “With one exception, none of the Republicans running for the Senate — including the 20 or so with a serious chance of winning — accept the scientific consensus that humans are largely responsible for global warming,” stated a New York Times editorial this week.

In Canada, the leader of the opposition federal Liberal Party is a critic of his party’s previous advocacy of a carbon tax — an advocacy that ended the career of his predecessor and gave his party its worst electoral showing since Confederation. And in Ontario, the provincial Liberals are facing an election loss next year largely over power rates that could double or triple due to green policies.

The role of wind farms in the soaring power bills is not yet widely understood, just as the role of nuclear reactors in the rising power bills of two decades ago wasn’t initially understood. As this understanding takes hold, and as wind’s environmental costs become better known, the pushback will grow and wind will come to symbolize out-of-scale technology and arrogance — the new nuclear.

Lawrence Solomon, Financial Times, October 23, 2010

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2 Responses to Wind: The new nuclear

  1. Sean Holt says:

    Although I concur that the way nuclear energy has been done is not without its problems, this is a direct result of politics, not science. The same can be said of wind.

    However, whereas there is a vast and growing body of science in support of nuclear energy, there is literally NO body of science in support of wind energy. Furthermore, should one view the ENTIRE body of energy evidence as I have spent the last twenty years of my life doing, one soon comes to the inescapable conclusion that nuclear energy is humanities only well developed and understood energy solution.

    Much of what is keeping nuclear energy suppressed in the west is pure emotion, not science. Ironically, what is supporting wind is not science but pure emotion! Nuclear reactors need not be unsafe nor produce copious quantities of fiendishly toxic and radioactive wastes. This was already proven beyond shadow of doubt decades ago and the information is freely available in the public domain. This is the main reason why Russia is openly keen to acquire spent reactor fuel from the rest of the nuclear powered world. It was Russian scientists that coined the term “forever fuel” when referring to uranium.

    Whereas wind holds no future energy promise at all, nuclear holds the promise of “100% of the energy 100% of humanity will ever need for longer than life is likely to exist on this planet”. Yes I am cognizant of the fact that this is what was said about nuclear energy over half a century ago but humanity didn’t build the type of reactors that held this promise and only one country, Russia (surprise, surprise) has used that type of reactor commercially for many decades and still is today. (Fast reactors)
    All that spent fuel the ignorant love to hate still contains almost 99% of its original energy. It is absolutely fuel. There is nothing spent about it! Furthermore, Enrico Fermi figured this out way back in 1946!

    Wind is not the new nuclear, wind energy is useless and nuclear energy is the only answer.

    Lawrence, if you want the truth, email me and I’ll send you more scientific energy amazement then you can handle!

    Sean Holt.

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