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Dismantling the nuclear power option


Four energy policy experts--among them physicist Amory Lovins, founder of the Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Institute--atomized Progress and Duke Energy's case for building more nuclear and coal-burning plants to meet the state's power demands at a forum that drew 600 people to UNC's Friday Center in Chapel Hill last week.

The Durham-based N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network sponsored the forum, titled "Transitioning to Safe, Economical Electricity." It was part of a campaign the nonprofit launched last year in response to mounting evidence that global warming is an urgent though largely reversible danger that's already causing problems for the state.

Bill Schlesinger, dean of Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment and a member of the state's newly created Commission on Global Climate Change, opened the discussion with an historical overview of fossil fuel use. Today, U.S. residents' annual energy usage measured in calories could fuel 100 servants waiting on each of us, he said, illustrating just how much easier fossil fuels have made our lives.

But Schlesinger went on to detail the problems created by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases released from burning such fuels. Because they function like insulation, the gases warm the earth's atmosphere. Hotter temperatures in turn lead to glacial melt and higher, warmer seas--and thus fuel more violent storms, which are eroding coastlines.

If current warming trends continue, the Triangle will be 5 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit warmer by 2050, Schlesinger said. Vast portions of our coast will be under water. Climbing temperatures are already disrupting habitats and shifting disease patterns; within a few decades, malaria will be a problem for North Carolinians.

"We've never accounted for these costs as part of the costs of the fossil fuel energy we use today," said Schlesinger, whose solution entails levying a tax on carbon.

Lovins was the evening's headliner and received a thunderous welcome from the crowd. He then earned repeated cheers during his talk, which focused on the impractical economics of nuclear power.

"This technology is unfinanceable in private capital markets," said Lovins, a soft-spoken Oxford don who holds numerous honors for his work promoting advanced resource productivity. "That's because it's fundamentally uncompetitive."

Arguments for nuclear power simply don't withstand scrutiny, Lovins explained. First, nuclear power plants are no solution to dwindling oil supplies, since less than 2 percent of oil consumed goes toward generating electricity, he said. Furthermore, nuclear plants are not a useful solution for what Lovins called "global weirding," since they're so costly and thus displace much less carbon per dollar than renewables such as solar and wind.

And then there's the troubling fact that nuclear power "makes widely and innocently available all the key ingredients of do-it-yourself bomb kits," he said.

Safety concerns aside, nuclear power worldwide has already failed in the marketplace, Lovins said. It has less installed capacity and generates less electricity than decentralized no- and low-carbon alternatives such as renewables and fossil-fueled cogeneration. Coupled with efficiency gains, decentralized sources now add at least 10 times as much capacity per year as nuclear power, he said.

Lovins likened the recently approved U.S. energy bill--which offers about $13 billion in subsidies to the nuclear industry--to defibrillating a corpse.

"You can make it jump," he said, "but that doesn't revive it."

Mike Nicklas--owner of Innovative Design, a sustainable architecture firm in Raleigh--earned as much applause as Lovins by focusing on the hopeful possibilities of green buildings.

Since starting the firm 28 years ago, the N.C. State grad has helped build 4,700 energy-efficient homes, workplaces and schools. They include Raleigh's Durant Road Middle School, which the American Institute of Architects in 1997 named one of the top 10 environmentally friendly buildings in the United States for its extensive daylighting and overall design. And Nicklas' structures are no more costly than traditional ones and offer savings over time through conservation.

His firm alone has helped save as much energy as would be produced by a 32-megawatt power plant, Nicklas estimates. "The potential right now is only being limited by our political leaders," he said.

The political obstacles to more ecologically friendly energy production were the topic of the evening's final speaker, state Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat and longtime environmental advocate. Harrison is the sponsor of pending legislation to create a renewable energy portfolio standard that would require 10 percent of the state's electricity to come from environmentally friendly sources such as wind.

Unfortunately, the utilities don't like the legislation--and Progress and Duke Energy sponsor two of the best-funded political action committees in the state and retain dozens of lobbyists.

That's why it's so important for concerned citizens to speak out, concluded N.C. WARN Executive Director Jim Warren.

"North Carolina's political leadership will respond," he said, "if the public will lead."

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