In the second of a three-part series in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, leading world experts look at the possibility that France — which gets three-quarters of its electricity from nuclear power — might phase out of its commercial nuclear sector. The cultural angle is, in my opinion, the most interesting. The primary obstacle to a French nuclear exit, it seems, may well be France’s national notion that being a world power is inherently linked to its civilian and military nuclear efforts. The whole package. My intro.
Twice previously, while driving back to California from Arizona, I’d stopped for coffee at a nowhere-ville exit called Chiriaco Summit, way out in an unlovely part of the Southern California desert. Except for a Foster’s Freeze, a convenience store and a truck-stop-style gas station, the only thing at the exit is a very lame-looking museum in honor of Gen. George Patton — a sad little one-story building, with eight or 10 sad-looking WWI-vintage tanks rusting outside.
But on New Year’s Day 2013, I was driving back from Arizona with my 15-y-o son, the complete history freak, and my 9-y-0, brilliant-as-white-diamonds daughter when I needed the coffee. And this time, they demanded that we pay the admission and go inside the Patton museum — only to be completely blown away. I was expecting an ironic, can-you-believe-this-tourist-trap experience. Instead, the museum is larger than seems possible, and the memorabilia it throws in front of you is fascinating, voluminous, almost overwhelming in its evocation of Patton and WWII. I don’t have time right now to give a full explanation of the wonder of the place, but I’ll try describing one artifact that gives a sense of the detail that pervades: Walking into the dim depths of the musuem, I notice an extremely detailed map of the port of Cherbourg, which the Allies had to take if they were to supply their invasion of continental Europe after D-Day. So I’m staring at the map, fascinated, without much noticing what seems to be a copper-topped table, at about my mid-chest level, below the map. Then I look down and notice there are markings on the copper. Then I see that the copper “table” is actually the reverse-etched copper printing plate that the Allies used to produce the maps of Cherbourg they distributed to the troops tasked with taking the port. The museum is full of these kind of “oh my God” wonders, one after another, and if you’re ever driving through on I-10, it’s not just worth the stop. It’s a required stop. You’ll never watch Patton, the movie, in the same way again.
So why is this wonderful Gen. George Patton museum at the Chiriaco Summit exit off I-10 in an absolutely nowhere part of the godforsaken Southern California desert, anyway? The full explanation is here, but the short version: This is where Patton established a desert warfare training facility, so US forces would have half a chance fighting Rommel’s Afrika Korps in North Africa.
You know, when a Texas meat-packing company gets indicted for sending a torrent of pigs blood down the Trinity River — and I do mean a torrent, i.e. enough for it to be documented by an amateur’s drone aircraft — what are you going to do? You’re going to go with it.
Hey, shoppers! It’s an almost-half-off sale on zero-calorie noodles. You can pay a mere $39 (instead of the original $72) for the privilege of eating the near-equivalent of air for a long, long time. (And I do mean long: This would get you 24 eight-ounce packets.) I’d choke down a bowl of eels first, so a bonus prize of a six pack of Diet Coke goes to the first person who actually eats these ephemeral strings and tells us what they taste like.
We await the James Thurber of the Internet Age, the master storyteller and wordsmith who can turn a gimlet curmudgeon’s eye on the digital excess that fouls modern life and obliterate it with razor-edged whimsy. In the meantime, I guess, we’ll have to settle for Roger Cohen and “Thanks for Not Sharing.” Which is OK for now.
I’ve been remiss about posting on this blog but think there’s a reason to post now. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has just come out with a special issue, titled “The German Nuclear Exit,” that is both important and good reading. Yes, I edited it. But I’d say it’s good, even if I had nothing to do with it. The Germans have exited nuclear power and gone hard for renewables, and the preliminary results are promising, to say the least.
Here’s my intro, from the issue, with links to the articles. I think you’ll get the gist from here:
The German nuclear exit: Introduction
Shortly after the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in 2011, the German government abruptly reversed its policy on nuclear energy, deciding to phase out the country’s nuclear industry entirely by 2022. Despite the seriousness of the situation in Japan, the German decision—which shuttered eight reactors almost immediately and set staggered deadlines for nine remaining nuclear plants to close—was met with no small amount of international incredulity. Among other things, the phase-out was widely criticized as an exercise in panic politics, and, as Alex Glaser writes in this special issue of the Bulletin—“The German nuclear exit”—the news headlines were sometimes vitriolic. (The business website Forbes.com probably won top honors in the hyperbole sweepstakes with this nuanced take: “Germany—Insane or Just Plain Stupid?”) Outside Germany, major media outlets continue to question the wisdom of the phase-out, often with emphasis on its climate change implications. At a time when greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced, the critics wonder: How could any country casually give up such a huge investment in emission-free energy?
The German decision to pursue a nuclear-free future was, however, anything but precipitous or unmindful of climate change. Because of a combination of historical and political factors, Germany has in fact been retreating from the nuclear sector for decades— and from its beginnings, the nuclear phase-out was intimately tied to what is known as the Energiewende, an aggressive, comprehensive turnabout in policy that aims for a national energy portfolio dominated by renewables. For “The German nuclear exit,” the Bulletin asked leading experts to explore the phase-out and Energiewende along historical, political, economic, environmental, and legal dimensions and, in so doing, to give some assessment of the progress made (and likely to be made) toward a nuclear-free, renewables-heavy energy supply. What these authors report is not of course uniform or entirely positive, but they do seem to converge on a theme: In part because the nuclear phase-out and Energiewende are based on serious long-term planning and broad political consensus, the German energy experiment has met with promising early success.
In his overview article, “From Brokdorf to Fukushima: The long journey to nuclear phase-out,” Glaser, a Princeton researcher and member of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board, sets the historical context for the shutdown, reviewing the massive, civil-war-like confrontations between anti-nuclear demonstrators and police that started in the 1970s, and notes that, “because of these and subsequent developments—including the 1986 Chernobyl accident—by the 1990s, no one in German political life seriously entertained the idea of new reactor construction.”
Freie Universität Berlin politics professor Miranda Schreurs’s essay, “The politics of phase-out,” offers a surprising explanation for continuing popular support for the phase-out across the German political spectrum: The shift to renewable energy sources that accompanies the phase-out has brought financial benefits to farmers, investors, and small- and medium-sized businesses.
Marshaling a wide range of observed data and predictive economic models, Felix Matthes, research coordinator at the Institute for Applied Ecology in Berlin, reaches another unexpected conclusion: The nuclear phase-out is likely to have only a small and temporary effect on electricity prices and the overall German economy.
The phase-out also seems unlikely to come with a huge legal bill. As University of Kassel legal experts Alexander Rossnagel and Anja Hentschel explain in “The legalities of a nuclear shutdown,” during early negotiations, the government shaped the phase-out so it gave utilities time to recoup their investments in nuclear power plants, thereby undercutting their ability to successfully sue later for damages.
And Lutz Mez, co-founder of Freie Universität Berlin’s Environmental Policy Research Center, presents what may be the most startling finding of all. TheEnergiewende that is being pursued in parallel with the German nuclear exit has reached a climate change milestone, Mez writes: “It has actually decoupled energy from economic growth, with the country’s energy supply and carbon-dioxide emissions dropping from 1990 to 2011, even as its gross domestic product rose by 36 percent.”
“The German nuclear exit” is the first in a three-part Bulletin series that will also look at the implications of potential phase-outs of civilian nuclear power in France and the United States. The expert essays that make up this installment of the series are hardly one-sided; they are full of acknowledgements of the difficulties Germany faces as it ends its nuclear power era and strives to reach aggressive greenhouse gas-emissions targets. But the articles make clear that the nuclear phase-out and accompanying Energiewende are not—international media characterizations notwithstanding—capricious political reactions; in fact, they are carefully planned national initiatives that are based on a rational calculation that they will ultimately benefit Germany environmentally and financially. Glaser may sum up the global import of the German energy experiment best when he writes: “Germany’s nuclear phase-out could provide a proof-of-concept, demonstrating the political and technical feasibility of abandoning a controversial high-risk technology. Germany’s nuclear phase-out, successful or not, is likely to become a game changer for nuclear energy worldwide.”
I found this KochFacts page accidentally, as I was trying to click something else on Poynter’s MediaWire (which gives me one more reason not to go there very often). The page is an amazing feat of unintended self-revelation. According to KochFacts, the New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer, Bloomberg Markets magazine, Bill McKibben, the Wall Street Journal‘s Jacqueline Palank, and Forbes magazine have all been telling dastardly lies about Koch Industries Inc. But the list doesn’t stop there; the list of haters on and liars about Koch seems to go on and on, and the language used in attacking all those liars and haters is a study in apparently unacknowledged paranoia. The page seems to live in an alternative universe, one that reminds me of the Wonderland of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, where once upon a time this was said:
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
Or has the site just gone Through the Looking Glass, where once upon another time this was said:
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Either way, KochFacts is fabulously entertaining and, it seems to me, a glimpse directly into the shriveled, baleful soul of the people who sponsored its creation. For those of you who can stand the sight, it’s a soul worth apprehending.