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The Lockean Project

Pandora’s Promise

“Pandora’s Promise”, Carmel Pine Cone – Sept. 1, 2023

Thank you so much for the positive, eye-opening editorial, “Even the communists understand” supporting nuclear energy. Let’s face it, renewable energy has aspirational aspects, and some of it can be economically incorporated into our energy mix. At the same time, real economic, technical, and political blockers limit what wind and solar power can achieve.

Our society and economies depend on reliable energy and always-on electricity. Most people don’t realize that we use far, far more energy than could possibly be provided by locally distributed solar panels. American energy usage is on average about 280 gigajoules a year per capita, or about 12 horsepower, 24/365 continuously, per person. Hard to collect that from your rooftop.

I grew up in Ontario, Canada, which transitioned to nuclear power plants in the 1970s. These clean energy plants phased out coal. They did not require massive buildouts of new transmission or storage. The timeline was only a decade and costs were such that electricity prices remained reasonable (even to this day). When going through engineering school, nuclear power plant seemed to me like the logical way to move forward. I didn’t really give energy much further thought until two decades later.

High tech had drawn me to California, and eventually, when my attention turned again to energy, I was surprised. About half of California’s electricity comes from burning natural gas. California claims to be a climate leader, yet its electricity system CO2 emissions are several times worse than that of Ontario, and California’s electricity prices are worse.

At a large tech company, I was a senior engineer on an ambitious project to make renewable energy cheaper than coal. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that it is not possible to eliminate the use of fossil fuels through wind and solar power, just as claimed in your editorial. It led us to publish “What It Would Really Take to Reverse Climate Change” (IEEE Spectrum).

Most of the public reaction against nuclear power plants comes from feelings, not firsthand experiences. In general, the closer people live to nuclear power plants, the more supportive they are. This reverse- NIMBY makes nuclear power plants odd ducks. Here on the central coast, an organization called Mothers for Nuclear came out to support the extension of life for the Diablo Canyon power plant, which I also support.

Nuclear power plants are surprisingly small. One way to tell how much power they produce is the size and number of electric power lines they feed. Compared to wind and solar with large land or water footprints, transmission needs, and storage costs, nuclear power plants create little pollution over their long lives, emit near zero CO2, and have a small environmental impact. Even what we call nuclear waste could be turned back into fuel if we work at it.

Today, various federal programs are aiming to create a new set of choices for the advanced nuclear energy of tomorrow. The anti-nuclear positions taken by organizations such as The Sierra Club, where Ansel Adams was supportive, and NRDC appear to be taken out of fear. Rather than fear, let’s act on logic, optimism, and opportunity, and build new advanced nuclear plants in the United States, and in California.

Ross Koningstein, Carmel