Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, made the first serious examination of energy conservation in the United States back in 1971. Last night, he told San Antonio residents at the Witte Museum that his most recent research suggests San Anto can not only do without nuclear power — but would be better off investing in parking lots.
His new book, Carbon-Free, Nuclear-Free: Roadmap to a U.S. Energy Policy, may be downloaded for free (or purchased) at ieer.org.
Dr. Makhijani, if we cast ourselves forward to 2050 or 2060 and we’ve made, as a nation, as a world, significant investments in nuclear power, what’s wrong with that?
In order to make a significant impact on climate we have to build 2,000, 3,000 nuclear reactors for it to take on the kind of role that coal has today. Probably more, considering the growth in China and India. That means one nuclear reactor every six days or so. That means we have to build two or three uranium enrichment plants every year.
Now, one enrichment plant in Iran is giving us a lot of heartburn. The problems of inspection, control, nuclear-material safeguards, even now are very, very difficult … If we multiply the nuclear establishment by 10 times and spread it all over the world, the problems of accounting will become extremely difficult and it will be much more difficult to ensure it is not being diverted for weapons.
There’s a whole lot of countries that are looking to nuclear power … I think the unstated interest is in nuclear-weapons capability. So in this kind of world to think of quadrupling, quintupling, or 10-folding the nuclear-power infrastructure doesn’t seem like a safe thing to do.
Is it either-or? I mean, is it coal or nuclear?
No. That’s the thing. My studies show that you can phase out fossil fuels and nuclear power in 30 to 50 years. And I tell you, I was surprised myself. I was not ready to come to this conclusion.
In 37 years I have never before said renewables and efficiency can provide the answer. I’ve never said that. I have never also said that solar energy will be economical in the very near future. I have not. My honest technical assessment now is that nuclear power will likely be economically obsolete by the time the first power plants are coming online. It will be made obsolete by one of the bumper stickers that have come out of my study: Parking lots are the answer. We have more area of commercial rooftops and parking lots than we know what to do with. We can supply more of the electricity of the country by shading our parking lots with solar photovoltaics. And I think Texas is an ideal state, because people will pay to have their cars parked in the shade.
Sure. And charge their cars at the same time. So, why are we hung up on nuclear?
I think there are a couple of reasons. First of all, nuclear is the lazy answer. It fits into the structure we’ve got. It’s the way we’ve always done things. We’ve got 95-percent centralized electricity and a nuclear — you can just plop in a nuclear plant in place of an old coal plant and you’re done. If you’re a stockholder, it looks very easy … Even so, Wall Street is not eager to finance it. Nuclear companies want 100-percent loan guarantees.
One of the problems with nuclear is water. I think that has not been adequately considered. Last year, a nuclear reactor was shut down in Tennessee because of lack of water during a drought. I think the South Texas Project has not that well considered the implications of large-scale water use for its new power plants in the context of what might happen if we have severe drought. They’re planning to use 100 cubic-feet per second, that could be a significant proportion of the Colorado River at low-flow times.
What can folks do to help transition or jump the tracks in regards to public policy?
The City of San Antonio should not be making a commitment to the South Texas Project. It should follow the lead of the City of Austin and of Warren Buffet. His company, Mid-America Holdings … they said they would build a `nuclear` power plant in Idaho and then last month they announced that they didn’t think it could provide economical power to its customers and abandoned the project.
I think the City of San Antonio would be making a huge mistake not only by investing in something that is risky and likely to be costly and delayed, but also it would be compromising a renewable energy future because its resources would be locked into the wrong thing. The efficiency potential has hardly begun to be tapped across the country. A few percent of renewable … is only a start. We can do to 25- to 30-percent and be much more efficient. And remember, parking lots are the answer. •