“To Save the Planet Go Renewables” by Marilyn Elie

Letter to the Editor NYT

Re: Commentary, December 22, 2016

To Save the Planet Go Nuclear

“Every time new fossil energy replaces nuclear, we are locking ourselves in to a more carbon heavily energy mix for years to come.”

                                                 Lamar Alexander

To Save the Planet Go Renewables

Recently Lamar Alexander and Sheldon Whitehouse wrote a commentary for the NYT expressing the need for “carbon free” nuclear power.  They have several things wrong in their assessment of nuclear energy.  First of all, it is not carbon free.  Low carbon, yes; carbon free no.  A quick internet search turns up multiple graphs from credible sources showing the carbon footprint of nuclear energy coming in above wind and below gas. Secondly, the unexamined main point that underlies all others in their commentary is that new gas plants will replace the reactors that shut down and raise emissions in the regions where a reactor closes.

Here is what is wrong with that argument. We have a surplus of low cost electricity produced by many different private companies.  Reactors are losing out to existing competition which means they have already been replaced in the market place.  No replacement is necessary.  They have already been replaced and cannot sell their electricity at a profit. That’s why they are closing.

Greenhouse gas emissions from existing generators have already been figured into regional planning so closing a reactor will not raise carbon emissions.  The New York State Department of State, Bureau of Ocean Management laid this out beautifully in the case of Indian Point. This is the way the market is supposed to work under deregulation – efficient low cost generation is rewarded and consumers get a price break.

Our grid is changing for the better with the advent of renewables.  What is emerging is a new way to deliver power based on many small sources of electricity generated and sold to consumers in the immediate area.  Communities get better service and the grid is more stable and less vulnerable since it continues to operates even if one part goes down.

The old economies of scale that called for enormous outlays of capital for centralized power plants just don’t work anymore.  Today’s economy of scale is multiple small local units serving their community and perhaps the one down the road.  Fast on and fast off is of prime importance because there is no profit in wasting resources to generate power that can’t be sold.  This is where reactors, like coal plants, have a problem. They operate full blast even when it is not profitable because it takes so much time to shut down and then get back in production later when electricity is actually needed.  This faulty on and off switch is one of the major reasons neither coal nor nuclear can make it in the new marketplace.

Senator Lamar is also incorrect in his reading of the figures from the New England ISO. The state did not purchase any electricity from Vermont Yankee for three years prior to its closure in 2014.  Any increase in the state’s carbon emissions would have shown up then not in 2014 and it does not.  The carbon emissions of Vermont have remained remarkably level even as their economy has improved because of their investment in renewables and efficiency.  They plan on obtaining 67% of their electricity from renewables by 2025.

Renewables can be integrated into the grid because while variable, they are also highly predictable.  Grid operators know when the wind will blow and the sun will shine with great accuracy.  Because of this predictability I recently heard California grid operators discuss how they are now considering backing up some of their renewable generation with electricity produced by renewables in Utah.

And of course reactors produce much more than electricity. They literally leave tons of high level radioactive waste in their wake.  This waste, used fuel rods, is the deadliest poison on the face of the earth and remains that way for an additional 240,000 years.  It is not a fuel or a resource for future reactors that do not even exist yet. Monju, the Japanese fast breeder reactor which was designed to solve this problem has just been shut down because it was an utter failure.

The first thing to acknowledge about nuclear waste is that there is no solution. A deep geological depository is not practical because over such a long period of time the earth moves and we simply cannot predict the future.  Geology is a descriptive science, not a predictive one. The best we can do is to stop producing high level radioactive waste, figure out how to store it above ground in dry casks and monitor it for its lifetime.  We cannot afford to bury it, forgetting about it and create a deadly hazard for those in the future to deal with. This is the very least we owe to future generations in our vital quest to control climate chaos.

Special thanks to Gordon Edwards of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, www.ccnr.org, for his scientific work on high level radioactive waste disposal and George Crocker of North American Water Office for his groundbreaking work in creating the first city utility partnership in the country.  Their combined knowledge and wisdom are amazing.

Marilyn Elie

Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition

To read the editorial by Sens. Lamar Alexander and Sheldon Whitehouse at the New York Times, click the link below:


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