In the area of energy policy under the presidency of Donald Trump, two concerns loom above all others.
One is Trump’s support for nuclear power and fossil fuel energy, at a time when other powerful countries are going renewable. Trump’s economic commitments to nuclear energy and fossil fuels contrast sharply with China’s massive new commitment to energy sources including solar and wind. If China, the world’s number-two economy, joins Germany (number four) and possibly Japan (number three) in converting to 100 percent renewable sources, the U.S. economy will be left in the dust.
The other concern is geriatric atomic reactors. The nation’s 99 nuclear plants now have an average age of more than thirty-five. Some, like Ohio’s Davis-Besse, are literally crumbling. Others, like New York’s Indian Point, and Diablo Canyon on the California coast, are surrounded by active earthquake faults.
A single Fukushima-scale disaster at an American reactor could poison millions, destroy our continental eco-system, and bankrupt our economy.
Sixty years after America’s first commercial reactor opened, not one can get private liability insurance. When the next one blows, the public will be stuck with the damages, which could easily soar into the trillions.
Nuclear waste management has already failed miserably. In February 2014, a single barrel of radioactive trash exploded at the hugely expensive state-of-the-art disposal facility in Carlsbad, New Mexico. More than a dozen workers were irradiated and the facility was shut for more than two years at a cost of more than $2 billion.
Now the nuclear-utility lobby nationwide is strong-arming state governments for massive bailouts to prop up decrepit reactors. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo recently approved a $7 billion handout for money-losing upstate reactors that cannot compete with fracked gas or renewables, whose owners wanted them shut, and whose extremely serious safety issues grow more severe every hour. In Illinois, the nuclear lobby has won more than $2 billion to sustain three ancient reactors that are literally falling apart.
Ohio’s FirstEnergy is now begging the Public Utilities Commission and state legislature for billions to keep running the infamous Davis-Besse reactor, which has suffered numerous accidents and whose shield building is literally crumbling. In Michigan and elsewhere, as utilities move to shut the most dangerous and money-losing reactors in their obsolete fleet, the nuclear lobby is crying for more taxpayer handouts, both state and federal.
The Nuclear Information & Resource Service estimates the public cost of a nationwide wave of such bailouts at about $280 billion. In business terms, that’s like jumping into the mass manufacture of Edsel automobiles, or turning away from cell phones to stake our future on land lines.
In New York, Cuomo did finally move to shut two badly deteriorated reactors at Indian Point, but then diluted the decision by allowing them to operate for several more years. In California, a deal to shut two reactors at Diablo Canyonallows them to operate (also with expired licenses) well into the 2020s even though they are surrounded by a dozen earthquake faults.
Trump is expected to pour federal money into the nuclear kitty. The incoming president says he “loves solar,” but has also said it’s too expensive. It’s likely that Trump will end tax credits for renewable energy, which has been a major support for emerging industries, and decimate Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which would have pushed states to cut power plant emissions. And Trump’s pick for energy secretary, former Texas Governor Perry, has been deeply supportive of the growth of fossil fuel and nuclear industries in Texas throughout his career.
But things are shifting on the international scene. China’s cities are choking on lethal air pollution from its consumption of coal, and while the Chinese are still debating a potential major commitment to nuclear, they have also committed to a $365 billion investment in renewable energy by 2020.
Similar things are true of Germany and its energiewende commitment. Immediately after the 2011 catastrophe at Fukushima, German Chancellor Angela Merkel ordered the shutdown of eight reactors, with the rest of Germany’s nuclear power plants planned for closure by 2022. Tens of thousands of Germans put solar panels on their rooftops, rendering many communities energy self-sufficient, and dropping electricity prices throughout the country.
The glut of cheap energy has forced numerous fossil fuel and nuclear energy plants to shut, leading to disruptive crises in supply and pricing. But the transition will sort itself out, establishing Germany as a dominant supplier of clean electricity, giving it the industrial high ground in Europe and on a global scale.
Japan may soon follow suit. Despite the pro-nuclear stance of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a massive grassroots movement has prevented the reopening of nearly all Japan’s fifty-four reactors. A number of smaller countries have also made substantial investments in renewables, including Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Costa Rica, and Scotland. Even oil-rich nations are getting in on the renewables game. The United Arab Emirates just announcedplans to invest $163 billion in renewables to generate half the nation’s power by 2050.
Meanwhile, the United States continues to bleed billions to prop up dying coal and nuclear industries. Nuclear bailouts like those in New York and Illinois are crippling a transition that the U.S. must make if it is to have a competitive future in world industrial markets.