Friday, November 9, 2007

Cronyism Trumps Capitalism

Writing in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, Jeffrey Ball reports,

Nearly a year ago, with his company reeling from rising energy prices, Dow Chemical Co. Chief Executive Andrew Liveris took a stand that turned heads in Washington. He called for tougher fuel-economy requirements for auto makers -- businesses that buy some $1.5 billion of goods from Dow each year.

The move was as rational as it was risky. Dow figured that limiting oil usage by cars would ease price pressure on fossil fuels, which Dow must buy in vast quantities to feed its factories. Dow also reasoned that if car makers were forced to improve mileage, they might buy more of various Dow products that can make vehicles go farther on a gallon of fuel.

In the global push to curb energy consumption, Mr. Liveris noted earlier this year, "someone wins, someone loses."

The designated loser, however, was livid. "I called my buddy at Dow and said, 'What the -- are you doing?'" recalls a Washington lobbyist for a major auto maker. Faced with the outcry from that industry, Dow backed down, and this summer withdrew its support for the controversial fuel-economy measure.

It's stories like this that make me feel like a cold-war Kremlinologist studying photos of the reviewing stand at the May Day Parade for clues.

Industry lobbying is not news, and industry lobbying for energy efficiency, though news, is long overdue. And, so what if it's Down Chemical versus Ford? The big players fight all the time; it's not personal it's business. Everybody knows that, right?

Except, apparently, not. An angry phone call from a golf buddy and the cold calculation of profit and loss be damned--Dow backs down.

Monday, April 30, 2007

No Nukes: 30 years later

The collapse of the nuclear-power industry began 30 years ago today when authorities arrested 1414 members of the Clamshell Alliance at a nuclear construction site in Seabrook, New Hampshire.

The day is recalled in news stories in the Associated Press, the Portsmouth Herald, the Eagle-Tribune, and the Boston Globe (related Globe story here).

The industry sank under hundreds of billions of dollars of nuclear cost overruns nationwide. But it was not faceless economic forces that felled nuclear power.

Away from the marshes of Seabrook, a citizens' movement took aim at the industry's Achilles' heal and won. The strategy was to cut the nukes off from the public money supply, and in town meetings and elections and legislatures and utility commissions across the country the industry fell hard. It still has not recovered.

Though the press chose to cover this anniversary as a local story, it marks a truly democratic moment in American history.

Update: More coverage at the Newburyport Daily News.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Hub Man Dies In N Blast

In the 1980s, two New Englanders produced a parody issue of the Boston Globe that included the perfect satire of the Globe's hub-centric parochialism. One news story detailed the fate of a Boston man who died in a nuclear explosion that also happened to destroy the City of New York.

"He didn't seem like the kind of guy to die in a nuclear explosion," a friend was quoted as saying.

It was dead-on funny. But last Sunday the real Globe gave the parody a run for its money:
Arab states explore nuclear power options

Two years ago, the leaders of Saudi Arabia told international atomic regulators that they could foresee no need for the kingdom to develop nuclear power. Today, they are scrambling to hire atomic contractors, buy nuclear hardware and build support for a regional system of reactors.

Wow, nuclear power must be a good deal if oil-rich countries like the Saudis are building them. The story goes on like that until the forth paragraph:

The Middle East states say they only want atomic power. Some probably do. But United States government and private analysts say they believe that the rush of activity is also intended to counter the threat of a nuclear Iran.

Talk about burying the lead! which is about the start of a nuclear arms race in the middle east.

In the ecosystem of spin and denial that sustains the nuclear industry, perhaps no talking point is more peculiar than the dogmatic assertion that nuclear power is peaceful and separate from nuclear weapons.

This point has been muted in light of recent events in North Korea and Iran, which demonstrate that the uranium-enrichment technology used to make nuclear fuel is, as the analyst say, "dual use." It can be used to enrich uranium for bombs as well.

The article, which also ran in the New York Times the same day under a slightly less misleading headline, includes the following rare admission:

By nature, the underlying technologies of nuclear power can make electricity or, with more effort, warheads, as nations have demonstrated over the decades by turning ostensibly civilian programs into sources of bomb fuel. Iran’s uneasy neighbors, analysts say, may be positioning themselves to do the same.

By nature. Maybe they are getting it.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Stepping It Up on Carbon

I biked out to Lexington last Saturday for a very spirited save-the-planet rally and march courtesy of Step It Up.

Here is a photo of us all grouped around the famous Minuteman statue.

(I am the orange bicycle-jacket-clad arm rising into the air at far right.)

Step It Up promotes policies that cut carbon. As founder Bill McKibben puts it,
The recent elections have given us an opening, and polling shows most Americans know there's a problem. But the forces of inertia and business-as-usual are still in control, and only our voices, united and loud, joyful and determined, can change that reality.
Please join us.

This was a fun and upbeat event and there seem to have been lots of them across the country.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Uranium Shortage on the Horizon

MIT's campus newspaper, the Tech Talk, had a story this week about the looming uranium shortage.

Researcher Thomas Neff criticizes "20 years of underinvestment in the production capacity for...nuclear fuel."
"There has been a nuclear industry myopia; they didn't take a long-term view," Neff said. For example, only a few years ago uranium inventories were being sold at $10 per pound; the current price is $85 per pound.

Consequently new nuclear would entail an expansion of the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle. That's a dirty and expensive business with its own set of problems, bottlenecks, critics, regulations, and hidden costs.

Friday, April 6, 2007

We Can’t Afford Nuclear

Utility analyst Jim Harding has summed up many economic obstacles that confront nuclear power. Three highlights:

  • Construction costs since 2002 grew 4 percent faster than the rate of inflation-a more dramatic increase than during the 1980s, when nuclear construction costs mushroomed out of control.
  • Based on the actual cost of eight recent Asian nuclear plants (an optimistic benchmark), nuclear electricity would probably cost about 11¢/kWh, versus 0-4¢ for conservation and 5-7¢ for wind.
  • Western uranium consumption is about two thirds current production, and a cost crisis looms. (Harding crunches the numbers to show why reprocessing is not the answer.)

Harding concludes,

Nuclear power is therefore like a fat kid at the front of the line, insisting to be fed before anyone else, and promising in exchange to grow into another Schwarzenegger. His appetite and promises haven't changed in twenty years, and governments would be wise to stop feeding him.

There's lots more in his comments and related presentation (some great graphics), available courtesy of the Nuclear Information Resource Service.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

What's Good

Energy efficiency.

Potential energy-efficiency gains slip though our fingers every day.

It’s not a sexy as alternative energy (also good) or pie-in-the-sky nuclear (not) but efficiency is the cheapest, fastest, and least painful way to reduce global-warming emissions and other environmental harm from the production of energy.

As a bonus any economy that uses energy efficiently has a real competitive edge going forward.

The greatest potential for action is on the demand side.