For nearly four decades, environmental activists have opposed nuclear power in favor of “green” energy. But as Meigs writes in the Winter 2019 Issue of City Journal, “nuclear power is finding new pockets of support around the world.”
Meigs is the former editor of Popular Mechanics and cohost of the How Do We Fix It? podcast.
Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks Podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Coming up on today’s show, our senior editor Steven Malanga talks to Jim Meigs , the former editor of “Popular Mechanics” about his first big essay for City Journal “The Nuclear Option.” Since the meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011, approving new atomic power generating stations has become almost impossible. For nearly a decade, activists around the world have pushed, not just to block new power plants, but also to decommission existing ones as well. Today though, as calls for a radical “green economy” are mounting, a new band of supporters argues that nuclear energy is actually our best source of clean, reliable, and yes, reasonably safe electricity and we’re delighted to have Jim Meigs talk about that topic today. But one announcement before we get started. Our parent organization, the Manhattan Institute is looking for nominees for its new Civil Society Awards Program. History has shown that free markets are the best way to organize economic activity, but we also know that a healthy, civil society relies on charitable giving, volunteers, and other philanthropic enterprises. That’s why the Manhattan Institute is awarding four outstanding non-profit leaders with $25,000 prizes for their efforts to tackle the most serious public problems of our day. If you know a non-profit organization that is doing good work in your community, you can nominate them by visiting the Manhattan Institute website, www.manhattan-institute.org. That’s it from me, the conversation between Steven Malanga and Jim Meigs begins after this.
Steven Malanga: Hello everyone. This is Steven Malanga senior editor, at City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Jim Meigs. He's the former editor of Popular Mechanics and call host of the, "How Do We Fix It?" podcast, which you can find on iTunes and wherever you get your podcasts. You can also follow him on Twitter at @JamesBMeigs. That's M-E-I-G-S. We're delighted to have Jim here to talk about his first piece for City Journal, "The Nuclear Option." Jim, thanks for joining us.
Jim Meigs: Hey, it's great to be here, Steve.
Steven Malanga: All right, let's just start with what's essentially the state of nuclear power here in the United States right now? Where's it trending?
Jim Meigs: Yeah
Steven Malanga: Down, up?
Jim Meigs: The state of nuclear power is queasy. It's about 20% of the power in the U.S.. But a lot of the plants are facing economic challenges primarily because the price of natural gas has fallen so much due to fracking that for a lot of power utilities, they're building new natural gas plants and some of them are considering shutting down the nuclear plants. Which also of course face a lot of political opposition even once it had been around for decades, there are active or active groups lobbying to get those shutdown.
Steven Malanga: So here's something that makes me a little queasy. You start off the story by talking about how Andrew Cuomo has negotiated to basically close Indian Point, the power plant here in Westchester. What's his plan? What's he going to replace that?
Jim Meigs: The closing of Indian Point to me is really kind of a tragedy. It's about 11% of the power that we use in the New York metro area, excuse me, 20% of the power in the New York Metro area, about 11% of the power in this state as a whole. So it's a huge amount of power, zero pollution, zero CO₂ emissions, nice and close to the city where the power is needed and yet it's getting shutdown partly because of these economics I mentioned, partly because politically that's good for the governor. A lot of the people in New York are not that comfortable, having a major nuclear power plants just 35 miles up the river. But also the environmental groups including Riverkeeper, the Great Hudson Valley Group that does a lot of good work in other areas, but they've lobbied hard against the plant. So the plant's owner decided to shut it down. They didn't want to face all the legal fights and Cuomo has been claiming victory for that. What they're saying is they're going to replace all that power with wind and solar renewables and the reality is that's just not going to happen. The, the, the group that supervises a distribution of power around the state has studied the issue and they say it's the power is all going to be replaced, are almost all going to be replaced by new natural gas, electricity plants.
Steven Malanga: Well explain why that's the case and how that works. Why we need more natural gas and water and why we're going to wind up with more natural gas.
Jim Meigs: The economics of nuclear power kind of tricky, so bear with me on this. But first natural gas prices have come down, so that becomes a more attractive,fuel. But by itself, that wouldn't be enough to get them to shut down the nuclear plants. The new factor is all this investment in renewable energy. Well that sounds good. Wind and solar people are generally in favor of that, but that power is so intermittent. You can't really count on it. Every time you build a megawatt of solar or wind power, you need to build a megawatt of dependable backup power. Power you can turn on and off quickly whenever the wind stops blowing or the clouds cover the sun. So what happens is you get these sources that produce a lot of power for short bursts of time. While they're doing that, they're driving down the price of electricity in unregulated markets. So all of a sudden, at least for a few hours a day, your nuclear plant, it can't shut down the power. It can't let everybody go home for the afternoon. You know, all the workers, so they are operating in the red for a few hours a day when these other sources are going, that's just enough to push some of them underwater, economically. But here's the irony, if a utility then goes and shuts down that nuclear plant because it's no longer economically viable, that plant takes with, it's so much carbon free energy that yes, you've invested in wind and solar, but if you've driven a single nuclear power plant out of business, by doing that, you actually wind up back worse than where you started. You've spent a ton of money on alternatives, but you haven't actually improved the carbon footprint of your state. You're in fact, you're doing worse than before you, you had made all those investments in wind and solar
Steven Malanga: Right. Now it's because of some of these arguments that actually nuclear does have a core group of supporters, maybe even a growing group of supporters, including among people who are considered environmentalists.
Jim Meigs: Absolutely.
Steven Malanga: Explain a little bit about that. Who they are or why.
Jim Meigs: Well, you know, back in the 60s, environmentalist tended to be for nuclear power, but then they shifted against it. Of course, you know, accidents like Chernobyl were genuinely scary and we now know that the big nuclear accidents Chernobyl accepted, really weren't the health catastrophes people thought.
Steven Malanga: Right, those three headed dogs at Chernobyl actually don't exist.
Jim Meigs: It's a wildlife. There's like a wildlife sanctuary now. But plants got saved. I mean, that was a terrible bad design. But here's the thing, the environmental groups turned against nuclear power for the most part and have been fighting ever since, but a few environmentalists who were really concerned about global warming started taking another look at nuclear power about 10 years ago. These include the climate scientist James Hansen, Stewart Brand, the guy who started the whole earth catalog, real visionary, futurist, and they realize that nothing else comes close to nuclear power if you want to produce a lot of electricity efficiently in a way that our grid is already set up to support.
Steven Malanga: And so is there anything happening in the United States? Let's, let's go to the federal level. Let's bring up the Trump, Trump administration, is there anything happening that suggests an optimism, a, a revival is possible? Because we seem to be doing a bigger job of closing these plants then opening them right now?
Jim Meigs: Yeah. There is some optimism out there. A big chunk of my article is about a couple of proposals the Trump administration has floated to try to subsidize both coal and nuclear. They're probably not going anywhere in the form, in the form. But it shows there's some interest in Trump's energy department about keeping nuclear plants open. There's also been one bill that's passed another bill that that is, it's moving through Congress that support research and streamlining of approvals and stuff for some of this research into advanced new types of nuclear plants. It's kind of small potatoes, but it's, but it's a sign of progress. But a lot of what's happening, it's really happening on the state level where a lot of states are now looking at the imminent closure of some nuclear plants, realizing that it's going to set them back in terms of their carbon emissions and they are starting to rethink the subsidies they now give to wind and solar. And a lot of those subsidies aren't in the form of direct payments from the state treasury. They're in the form of what's called, some kind of renewable energy portfolio. And those mandates basically say that the utility has to buy a certain amount of energy from wind and solar from, from renewables and then pass that cost onto the consumer. So it's a really, it's a tax on the electricity consumer. It's kind of hidden in your electric bill, but it's a, it's a, it's a large sum of money. Some states are now considering opening up those programs to include nuclear, which is a genuinely carbon free energy source. And so a number of states including Illinois and New Jersey have gone down that road to try to level the playing field a little bit and put nuclear power on the same footing that the alternative sources have.
Steven Malanga: What about around the rest of the world? I mean, we've, we, you know, we've reported extensively, for instance, on what Germany did, withdrawing from nuclear, if you will.
Jim Meigs: Yes.
Steven Malanga: You know, after the Japan incident, what's happening right around the rest of the world?
Jim Meigs: Well, Germany is a good example of how to do it wrong. They spend about 150 billion euros on wind and solar and a lot of people held them up as a leader of, of green energy, but in fact, they're still getting an enormous amount of their energy from coal. Their air quality is terrible. Their carbon emissions have basically stayed flat while other countries have fallen. And meanwhile, France and Sweden, which get large, France gets most of its power from nuclear, Sweden gets about 40%. They have the best carbon footprint and affordable energy. Whereas, you know, Germany spent a ton of money, they doubled their electricity prices for their consumers, yet they didn't actually move the needle on the problem they claim they were trying to solve. Now I don't know where people might, you know, people could stand on different places on the idea of, of global warming and how crucial it is to reduce carbon. But I think everybody's got to agree that if you identify a problem and you spend billions on it, you at least ought to help fix the problem. And a lot of the areas that are doing the most are getting the worst results.
Steven Malanga: What are the odds that the thing that actually, if you will solves this problem and reignites nuclear is some type of technological breakthrough that we can't see right now?
Jim Meigs: That's hopefully that'll be my next article for City Journal.
Steven Malanga: Don't say anything more.
Jim Meigs: There's a lot of great research going on. There's a lot of great research into what are called small modular reactors, which could be actually built in factories and just kind of put together on the site like Lego, and very, very safe, impossible to melt down. There's even reaction into the "holy grail" of energy-fusion, actual fusion power. And there's some exciting new wrinkles in that, but the reality is existing nuclear plant designs are safe. They work really well. So, so what I'm advocating is first, let's not set up policies that inadvertently drive existing plants. It could work safely for decades. Let's not drive them out of business first. Let's streamline regulations, and approvals so that if people do want to take the risk of building new plants, they can do that. That's happening around the, a lot of places around the world, but not here, to the same degree. And and let's not put all our faith in renewables because that's not going to get the job done.
Steven Malanga: So let's go back then to the issue of Indian Point. Since your article came out. ConEd, the power provider for New York for the New York Metro area has essentially said it wants a moratorium on new natural gas hookups in Westchester, which has driven politicians up there crazy, absolutely bonkers. Could you explain what's going on now and what is driving that?
Jim Meigs: All the natural gas is going to be used to make electricity. That's what's going on. And this is one really interesting argument for keeping nuclear plants alive. It's good for all of us. Like the coal fired power plants are shutting down cause that's dirty. That's a dirty way to make power. It's not cheap, a lot of local and the pollution. But when the nuclear plants go under, what it really means is we'll have a power grid that's, that's basically completely dependent on natural gas and the renewable sources. Well the renewable sources are quite unreliable as we know. So you kind of put all your eggs in the natural gas basket. Then when you have a polar vortex or something goes wrong, or if there's a pipeline malfunction, all of a sudden you're really facing a potential crisis. This came up just a few weeks ago in Michigan, they had a fire in a gas distribution center and all of a sudden it was a real struggle to have enough gas for both electricity generation and people heating their homes in that historically cold weather. So it actually in New England has become a big concern of a lot of Governors up there. They're working to try to keep their handful of remaining nuclear plants open and and you know, natural gas that the fall of the price of natural, the fall of the price of natural gas is a great thing for the economy and it's been basically good for the environment compared to coal. But the distribution of natural gas is a challenge. It's got to go through a very limited number of pipelines. And so the problem for eastern New York is there aren't that many pipelines, the gas is spoken for, so now they're saying you can't, if you build a new business or a new apartment building, we can't promise you a gas hookup. That is, that's, that shows you how to sort of a unit polar energy approach to putting all your eggs in one basket can actually be a real risk for the economy.
Steven Malanga: And you know, in all of the press coverage, and I've read some of it but it, was there any sense that when they were discussing closing Indian Point that anyone anticipated or worried about this issue?
Jim Meigs: Oh all the critics worried about it, you know, then the nuclear backers worried about it. But the, there was a lot, I'm not against renewables. I think renewables have a, have a nice place in, in the energy grid and I'm, you know, I'm considering putting solar panels on the roof of my house. But there's a lot of wishful thinking about renewables that they can get everything done and oh, we can close nuclear plants because you know, by the time it's closed we'll have all this new wind and solar capacity. It's just not the case. What every time you invest in renewables, you're also, you're also building in, you're locking in future use of natural gas because natural gas and renewables go hand in hand.
Steven Malanga: Great. Well, thanks Jim. Don't forget to check out Jim's piece, "The Nuclear Option" on our website, city-journal.org also, again, you can follow him on Twitter @JamesBMeigs and also follow us on Twitter @CityJournal. Lastly, if you like our show and want to hear more, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes. Thanks for listening and thanks Jim for joining us.
Jim Meigs: Oh, it's my pleasure.
Photo: Beaver Valley Nuclear Power Plant, via Wikimedia Commons.