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In Response: Nuclear power still the best for environment, economy

I hope the three commentary writers featured on the Nov. 23 Opinion page read the important Dec. 1 article in the News Tribune about the effect of soil warming on climate change (“Study finds warming soils may magnify global warming”). If they did, perhaps they would begin to put the environment first instead of just focusing on economics, which all three did in their commentaries.

Rep. Erik Simonson of Duluth even claimed that utilities don’t need to “worry about fuel costs — because there are none.” (His commentary was headlined, “Renewables already bringing savings to Northeastern Minnesota”). His statement was deceptive because wind and solar farms only produce 30 percent of their advertised power on average with the rest provided primarily by burning coal or natural gas, largely methane — and methane, a greenhouse gas, is initially 70 times worse than carbon dioxide.

Unfortunately, new studies reveal that so much methane is leaking from fracking wells, storage facilities and distribution systems that it is more than offsetting any gains achieved by burning natural gas instead of coal. In other words, our reliance on inefficient solar farms and bird-, bat- and human-killing windmills has been a step backward for wildlife and the environment.

Simonson also stated that “folks remain confused about the true cost of wind and solar.”

So let’s enlighten them with this from Newsweek in April 2015: “Over the past 35 years, wind energy — which supplied just 4.4 (percent) of U.S. electricity in 2014 — received $30 billion in federal subsidies and grants. These subsidies shield people from the truth of just how much wind power actually costs.”

Simonson, like the other writers on Nov. 23, hardly mentioned the environment.   

Because the headline above the comments from Chris Kunkle, the regional policy manager for western states for St. Paul-based Wind on the Wires, a nonprofit advocate for the wind and solar industries, mentioned clean energy, I expected an endorsement of carbon dioxide-free nuclear power, which has the best safety record of all means for producing electricity. However, the article (“Clean energy ‘makes the most sense for customers’”) predictably endorsed renewables and echoed Simonson’s absurd claim that wind power has no fuel costs.

Annie Levonson-Falk’s brief comments (“ ‘Wind is significantly cheaper’ ”) also focused on costs — and ignored the environment. Falk is executive director in St. Paul of the Citizens Utility Board, a consumer-advocacy organization.

Although we have enough uranium and thorium to last 100,000 years, 90-percent-efficient nuclear power deliberately was defined as non-renewable by our science-deficient legislators and environmentalists, by those who profit from building 30 percent-efficient windmills and solar farms, and by those who supply the fossil fuels that back them up.

Windmills are killing millions of birds and bats every year, even as insect-borne diseases like Zika, dengue fever and malaria increase. According to the May 2011 issue of Science magazine, a “single colony of 150 brown bats has been estimated to eat nearly 1.3 million disease-carrying insects each year,” and Pacific Corp., which operates 13 wind farms, has sued our U.S. Department of Interior to keep it from revealing how many birds and bats its windmills kill.  

And it’s not just birds and bats. According to the Caithness Windfarm Information Forum, “Just in England, there were 163 wind turbine accidents that killed 14 people in 2011, which translates to about 1,000 deaths per billion kilowatt hours. … In contrast, during the same period, nuclear energy produced 90 billion (kilowatt hours) in England with no deaths.”

Why hasn’t our media featured the image of two Dutch engineers, ages 19 and 21, waiting to die high atop a burning windmill. The photo and others have been available for years. Could money be involved?

To equal the output of one smallish nuclear plant with a 50:50 mix of wind and solar farms (which must be replaced every 20 years at a cost of about $12 billion), we’d need 150 times more steel, 15 times more concrete, and huge amounts of aluminum and copper. We’d also be making carbon dioxide 70 percent of the time, and our letter writers would be calling these alternatives “green.”

However, with less than

$6 billion, we could build a modern nuclear plant that creates no carbon dioxide, has a 60-year lifespan, requires less than 1 percent as much land, and can even consume our stored nuclear waste as fuel. This according to a 2011 report for Vestas Wind Systems in Denmark.

According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, “Sweden has cut its per capita emissions by a factor of 3 since the 70s while doubling its per capita income, (and it did so) by building nine nuclear reactors.”

A final concern — and it’s a big one: Our oceans, which provide 20 percent of our protein and about 50 percent of our oxygen, already are in trouble due to excess carbon dioxide that combines with water to form carbonic acid, which hinders survival of all shell-forming organisms. This includes the phytoplankton that comprise the base of the ocean food chain. Damage it sufficiently and everything goes.  

We must value our planet more than profit. For every energy proposal, we must consider its carbon dioxide and methane emissions, its carbon footprint, and its ecological impact. Nuclear power wins all three. Renewables fail.

George Erickson of Eveleth is a member of the National Center for Science Education and of the Thorium Energy Alliance. Contact him at tundracub@exede.net or at (218) 744-2003. His website is tundracub.com.

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