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Steve Kirsch

Steve Kirsch

Posted: June 15, 2009 05:22 PM

Waxman-Markey: Three Tough, Unanswered Questions


On June 10, 1Sky sponsored a conference call with Waxman, Markey, and their staff to talk about the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES) a.k.a. the Waxman-Markey bill. I had three really tough questions that weren't addressed in the call, so I e-mailed the House staffers who spoke on the call.

I received a response which I've included below, but the response didn't directly answer my questions.

So I thought it would be fun to speculate at how they might have responded if they were required to answer each question directly, without being "politically correct."

Question #1: Jim Hansen did an analysis of the bill. He told me on June 7 that he will write something soon showing that Waxman-Markey "locks in terrible results for two decades."

Now we all know that Hansen is a really smart guy that we wished we had listened to back in 1988 when he first testified about global warming. His prognostications have all materialized.

Since we are so late in addressing climate change, and we really cannot afford to make any mistakes this time around (our last chance), how can you be so certain that Hansen is wrong in his assessment of Waxman-Markey? Do you have an expert who is as smart as Hansen (and as right in his prognostications) who has convinced you that Hansen is wrong?

Answer #1: No, we haven't seen Hansen's analysis.

Question #2: Both Secretary Chu and the President of MIT point out that nuclear has to be a key part of the energy mix going forward. We can't supply all our clean energy needs relying on just renewables.

Yet this bill has over 932 pages, and the word "nuclear" only appears twice.

That seems pretty odd considering that 70% of our CO2-free power is from nuclear. Even more odd considering we haven't built a new nuclear plant in 30 years and it's still 70% of our clean power!

I'm sure you all know that the energy content contained in light water reactor (LWR) spent fuel and depleted uranium exceeds all the known oil reserves in the world. It's an energy resource that is 10 times bigger than the energy of the coal we have in the ground. And that's just the stuff we have on hand! That's not even counting the stuff we haven't mined. Using fast reactors, we can run the entire planet for over 700 years on just the uranium "waste" we have on hand and for millions of years if we are willing to use the uranium that hasn't yet been mined.

So we have this huge energy resource just lying there and we invented the fast reactor technology (known as the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR)) at Argonne National Laboratory 25 years ago to use it 100 times more efficiently than in an LWR with minimal waste, lower cost, and better safety than existing nuclear plants. It also solves our nuclear waste problem since it uses the existing nuclear waste for fuel. But we aren't talking about it at all in this bill on clean energy security. It's not even a footnote in the bill.

Secretary Chu is talking about fast reactors as a critical piece to moving forward, yet nobody in Congress in the last 15 years has brought it up and it sure isn't anywhere in this bill. Isn't this a bit short sighted to not even mention this in the bill? The current DOE funding for this is ridiculously inadequate.

I spoke to the former top guy in charge of civilian nuclear for DOE (Ray Hunter) and he thinks this is a travesty. He was so disgusted he sent a letter to Senator Reid and a few other Senators explaining all of this, but they all ignored his letter (Senator Mikulski's office sent him a "thank you for writing us" response). That's a bit odd considering this is our biggest energy resource and this guy was the top civilian nuclear guy at DOE.

Unfortunately, this bill is no different. Jim Hansen has been building a fast reactor as one of his top 5 priorities for Obama to fix global warming. I heard that Congressman McNerney was briefed on fast reactors and tried to have a hearing on it. Nothing happened and this bill has nothing on it at all.

Is there any chance we can fix that? Or at least acknowledge the reason for this stunning omission?

Answer #2: No. Congressman Markey hates nuclear and he always has. He isn't going to let little things like "facts" and "science" change his beliefs. Even if nuclear supplied 99% of our clean energy, it still wouldn't be called out in the bill. However, the bill doesn't penalize utilities for constructing nuclear plants.

Question #3: One of the reasons we are in this crisis is due to our government's lack of a long term vision and a viable strategy with respect to global warming. This seems to me not to have changed. Am I wrong?

On the call, Markey correctly pointed out that in order to control climate change, we not only have to reduce our emissions at home, but we also have to get other countries to dramatically reduce their emissions. Coal is the big problem. If we can't virtually eliminate coal use worldwide, we are just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Is there a strategy for how we are going to move other countries off of coal? Markey talked about developing and then exporting carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), but such a strategy would rely on exporting a technology that doesn't exist (at scale), that may never exist, that nobody really wants, that would raise the price of electricity to be unaffordably high, and which can only be retrofitted onto coal plants originally designed to capture CO2 of which there are none.

That's a lot of assumptions. Is that our official core strategy to save the planet??!?!?!

Wouldn't it make more sense to invest in commercializing the IFR fast reactor technology that we invented 25 years ago, spend lots of money to modularize and mass produce the pieces, have the US finance construction of the plants in foreign countries, and make in-country joint partnerships with the local government to build and operate the plants? Such a plan could displace existing coal plants because it would provide power at a cheaper cost. It would be the equivalent of Walmart moving into town and displacing higher priced competitors. And of course, it will also eliminate the construction of new coal plants.

The benefits to the US would be huge: a nice recurring profitable revenue stream helping our trade deficit and creation of a huge number of high paying jobs to build these plants and the parts for them and to operate them. So we make tons of money and create lots of jobs. And the benefits to the world are huge in terms of CO2 reduction. We'd also virtually eliminate the nuclear waste worldwide. And the host country gets cheaper power. Everyone wins.

Isn't the latter a fundamentally better strategy than Markey's "pray for CCS" strategy?

Or is there a better strategy for getting other countries to eliminate CO2 from all power generation?

Answer #3: Sure, a strategy that relies on pure economics for getting people to abandon coal is better than a strategy of relying on an uneconomic and unproven technology and the threat of economic sanctions for non-compliance. Carrots are always better than sticks. Look at our own country for example. We are having a heck of a time getting enough votes for this bill and it we've already watered down the renewable portfolio standards so much that they basically don't require much change from the status quo at all. So sure, that's a better strategy, but that's not the strategy we are pursuing.

Look, it's not about economics or what is in the public's best interest for saving the planet. If you are trying to get enough votes to pass a bill in Congress, the political realities are this: We want to do the right thing for the planet and for the public. But If we don't have a strategy that makes the coal, oil, and gas companies happy, they'll spend lots of money on misleading ads to try to ensure that we don't get re-elected. Unfortunately, there are a lot of Members who are afraid of that.

The official response

Here is the response to the three questions that I did receive from one of the House staff members:

Thanks for your emails. We wanted to provide some information on how the Waxman-Markey bill (ACES) provides opportunities for new nuclear power:

● Because nuclear power generates far fewer greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels, utilities will need to hold far fewer emission allowances for the nuclear plants to comply with the carbon limitations in ACES. According to EPA modeling, twice as many new nuclear plants would be built by 2025 under ACES than without the legislation.

● Under the federal Renewable Electricity Standard, electricity generated from new nuclear units is not added to a utility's baseline electricity level. As a result, the addition of a nuclear plant would not require a utility to obtain additional renewable electricity. This ensures that the RES provides no disincentive to the construction of new nuclear units.

● ACES establishes a self-sustaining Clean Energy Deployment Administration (CEDA) within the Department of Energy to promote the domestic development and deployment of clean energy technologies. CEDA would be empowered to provide direct loans, loan guarantees, and letters of credit to support clean energy technologies that might otherwise be unable to secure financing, including nuclear power.

● ACES includes reforms to the existing Department of Energy loan guarantee program. The Department has received applications for federal loan guarantees from 21 proposed nuclear power plants, totaling $122 billion in requested assistance.

Chairman Waxman is committed to developing the strongest legislation that can pass Congress. Our staff is all working very hard to get the bill ready for the House floor next week, but if you'd like to talk about this issue or others, please let us know and we'll be glad to talk to you during the next recess.