Local view: Nuclear is best climate-change fuel
Local View writer Bernie Hughes’ heartfelt warning on the Sept. 4 News Tribune Opinion page about the urgency of addressing climate change was correct in every way but one: Moving to natural gas — also called methane, which is 20 times worse than carbon dioxide — is just kicking a feel-good can down the road.
Even Louis Allstadt, the former executive vice president of Mobil Oil, opposes fracking for natural gas. “With hundreds of thousands of wells leaking methane, you’re going to exacerbate global warming,” he said. “Something has to wake up the public. It will either be education from the environmental movements or some kind of climate disaster that no one can ignore.”
In 2014, satellite observations of oil and gas basins in eastern Texas and North Dakota revealed staggering 10 percent leakage rates of heat-trapping methane. And those natural-gas explosions that periodically shatter homes and businesses are proof that methane leaks abound. According to a 2014 United Nations report, atmospheric methane levels never have exceeded 700 parts per billion in the past 400,000 years; but they reached 1,850 in 2013.
The methane industry doesn’t seem to care. In 2015, thanks to a “discovered” email from Lenny Bernstein, ExxonMobil’s former in-house climate expert, we learned Exxon knew about climate change in 1981, long before it became a public issue, but then spent about $30 million on decades of climate-change denial.
“Exxon first got interested in climate change because it was seeking to develop the Natuna gas field off Indonesia,” Bernstein wrote. “This is an immense reserve of natural gas, but it is 70 (percent) carbon dioxide.”
Fortunately, Exxon didn’t develop the field. But in repeating the atrocious actions of the tobacco industry, Exxon became the larger villain because its denials raised the odds against securing a healthy planet and the future of civilization.
Even worse are the pretty but intermittent bird-, bat- and human-killing windmills that are so inefficient. They yield just 20 percent to 25 percent of their capacity. It takes thousands of these windmills to equal the output of just one nuclear plant, which, unlike a natural gas plant, creates no carbon dioxide. Despite tax subsidies of $56 per megawatt hour (nuclear gets $3), windmills require 24/7 backup by other power plants that usually burn carbon. In addition, windmills use magnets made from rare earth minerals mined primarily in China, where immense dumping grounds and toxic lakes are creating high rates of cancer, osteoporosis, and skin and respiratory diseases.
There’s more. According to the Bulletin of Atomic Sciences, creating those magnets produces a huge amount of radioactive waste. By adding 13,000 megawatts of wind capacity in 2012, the U.S. used about 5.5 million pounds of rare earths while creating a similar amount of radioactive waste.
Our nuclear industry, while creating 20 percent of our electricity, produces about 4.7 million pounds of spent fuel per year. But our wind industry, while making just 3.5 percent of our electricity, produces more (though less hazardous) radioactive waste than our nuclear industry.
Yes, we must get cracking on climate change, but natural gas and windmills throw gas on the fire while nuclear power cools the flames.
George Erickson of Eveleth is a member of the Cambridge, Mass.,-based Union of Concerned Scientists (ucsusa.org) and of the Thorium Energy Alliance (thoriumenergyalliance. com). He’s also a past vice president of the American Humanist Association (americanhumanist.org) and the author of four books (see tundracub.com) who lectures on the safety of nuclear power and the need to slash the use of fossil fuels.