The six-word banner above the CNBC logo said it all.
"AMERICA"S OIL CRISIS: THE NUCLEAR OPTION," framed a bogus media narrative and a phony Republican talking point. A couple of clueless reporters pushed it further.
Enrin Burnett: "We do get nearly 20% of our power from nuclear, so in a sense we are more of a nuclear nation than many people realize."
CNBC Political Correspondent John Harwood: "We are, but I do think that policy is drifting in that direction now that people are paying $4 a gallon for gas and increasingly are concerned and aware that we have spent a whole lot of time spinning our wheels and not breaking that addiction to foreign oil. Obviously, the question especially for Democrats is what do you do about the waste. You've got the whole Yucca Mountain issue, which has been tied up for a long time."
Harwood alluded to the usual stereotypes: "pro-growth versus environmentalism" and "progress versus not-in-my-backyard." But "nuclear power versus imported oil" isn't a stereotype. It's a lie. If we built more nuclear power plants, the impact on our oil imports would be zero. Yes, nuclear reactors and oil are both types of energy, just as apples and vodka both types of calories. No one in the real world -- the oil business and the utility business -- considers one to be an economic substitute for the other.
I don't mean to come down harshly on CNBC and John Harwood, for whom I have great respect. This is meant as a wake-up call to all newsrooms across the country. Invest a few hours in a tutorial on the basics of how energy is produced and how the energy industry works. Whenever a politician suggests that nuclear energy will make a serious dent in our reliance on foreign oil, he's perpetrating a fraud. It's as much of a fraud as if he were suggesting there was a connection between Saddam and 9/11. And any journalist who reports those claims at face value is not doing his job.
If you read McCain's speeches closely, he never actually says that nuclear power can reduce oil imports. (Most of the time, White House speechwriters were careful to never actually say that Saddam was connected with 9/11.) But he clearly tries to conflate the two:
"Opponents of domestic production cling to their position even as the price of foreign oil has doubled and doubled again... The need for more production extends as well to another long-neglected source of energy, and that is nuclear power."
Elisabeth Bumiller at The New York Times did the same thing.
"In his third straight day of campaign speechmaking about energy and $4-a-gallon gasoline, Mr. McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, told the crowd at a town-hall-style meeting at Missouri State University that he saw nuclear power as a clean, safe alternative to traditional sources of energy that emit greenhouse gases."
Perhaps unwittingly, Harwood and Bumiller use false stereotypes that promote a political agenda. They suggest that Republicans will build nuclear power plants so ordinary people don't have to pay $4 for gasoline, while Democrats tell everyone to buy a Prius.
Here are a few basics that reporters should remember whenever a politician invokes nuclear energy:
Nuclear Power Is For Electricity
Back to John Harwood's comments. Commercial nuclear power is used exclusively for generating electricity. Less than 2% of the electricity we generate is fueled by petroleum, and about 1% of the petroleum we consume is used to generate electricity.
Could nuclear power replace that 1% of oil we consume for electricity? Not really. Nuclear plants and petroleum plants serve different purposes. There are 104 nuclear power plants in the U.S. with an average nameplate capacity of about 1,000 megawatts each. In 2006, they operated at 88% capacity. There are 3,744 petroleum-based power plants with an average capacity of about 17 megawatts. In 2006, they operated at 12% of capacity. The smaller petroleum-based plants generally serve as backup for exceptional circumstances when no other source of power is available A nuclear plant is more like an 800-pound gorilla on the electric power grid.
Oil is for cars, trucks and planes, not electricity.
The Energy Information Administration explains that, "oil continues to account for more than 95 percent of all the energy used for transportation in the United States." (Electric railways and vehicles fueled by natural gas make up the remainder.) Transportation uses about 2/3 of the oil we consume, with most of the remainder used by heavy industry. Can the oil consumed by industry be turned into transportation fuel? Not easily, since there's an upward limit on the amount of "light product," or gasoline, that any refinery can produce from crude oil.
We have no shortage of domestic energy for delivering electricity.
We get about half of our electricity from coal, 20% from natural gas, 20% from nuclear, 7% from hydroelectric, and the remaining 3% from everything else. Contrary to popular myth, we generate 25% more nuclear power today than we did 10 years ago. (Source: Energy Information Administration.) We are the Saudi Arabia of coal, and "clean coal technology" is one of those catchall terms like "energy" that can mean a multitude of things. We produce about 86% of the natural gas that we consume, with the remainder imported from Canada.
Newt Gingrich and other crackpots have suggested that we will need nuclear plants to recharge all the new electric cars on the road. That's a pie-in-the-sky notion, not a real plan that has been worked out.
Mainstream media has also missed the boat in its coverage of T. Boone Pickens' proposal. But that's for another time.