Going to the dump

Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant is scheduled to close. The first reactor will shut down by 2024, the second reactor goes offline by 2025. Since events in Fukushima on March 11, 2011 concerns a tsunami could deliver a knockout blow and scatter radioactive contamination across the coast of Central California is all too real. Earthquake faults and nuclear power are a match made in probability hell. There is no win, lose or draw. Consequences of a catastrophic event are unimaginable.

Fully decommissioning Diablo Canyon will demand eye watering sums of money and a span of time even Chaplin’s Great Dictator failed to grasp. Moving the spent fuel rods to a safer storage site will be litigious, expensive and one of the most hazardous engineering feats ever attempted. Containers with spent fuel rods will be hoisted onto trucks, reloaded onto trains then unloaded into an underground storage vault where the radioactive waste will slowly decay for the next one quarter of a million years.

The twin reactor buildings at Diablo Canyon will be sealed and guarded by security officers and monitored by technicians for decades. Radiation levels will drop over time and then the removal of the reactors will come at the end of this century.

Closing Diablo Canyon is pegged at $3.9 billion, a phantom number, a sprawling untethered guess. How and if PG&E, California, or humanity completes this job remains unanswered. Ratepayers should have been warned.  

In 1981 in Nevada the Department of Energy began studying a remote and isolated Yucca Mountain, then scientists described underground aquifers and seismic activities that after 27 years rendered the proposed storage site unworkable. Seventy miles south 2.3 million mortal Nevadans and one pugnacious former senate majority leader Harry Reid all breathed a sigh of relief. Las Vegas residents wouldn’t be subjected to being an experimental randomized statistical study on the incidence of cancers caused by a leaky radioactive storage facility.

A second repository has been proposed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission at a facility between Carlsbad and Hobbs, New Mexico. Locating a suitable underground storage vault where all North America’s nuclear waste can be safely stored for the next 250,000 years exceeds the limits of any previous human endeavor.  

Nuclear waste disposal is a complex yet to be solved problem. Keeping track of the materials, making sure storage containers remain sealed, monitoring the site for earthquakes, guarding against a fluke fiery meteorite plunging into the atmosphere and like a tsunami striking the disposal site, a cosmic bullseye of all bullseyes, worries of this kind are on the short list of what might go wrong and could go wrong.

Plate tectonics, continental drift, or an earth in a bad mood might trigger unforeseen radioactive extinction events. Unimagined flooding such as happened when Hurricane Harvey stalled over Houston is followed by drought, what was thought to be a stable underground vault might become plagued by swarms of earthquakes, a vent opens and there is a volcanic eruption where none had been anticipated. Scenarios such as these sound as if they were found on the pages of comic books. Setting aside all the ways a storage containment site could be breached there is the technological challenge of building a warning sign that could hold up to howling wind, sun, rain, snow, and ice over the course of tens of thousands of years. Experts have created a short list of languages and universal symbols to be placed on the mother of all sign’s that must hold up to the father of all tests of time.

The National Energy Laboratory in Idaho has cooked up a plan to build what are called miniature nuclear reactors. Utah, Montana, and Wyoming with coal going the way of the dodo bird are all considering deploying the 5-megawatt reactors across their states. Nuclear power interests who believe in this technology know that even small miniature nuclear reactors are by the billions and billions of dollars too expensive, their costs make the technology uncompetitive, even still the industry can’t seem to stop trying.     

Failure is not an option and so it has become a feature. Plutonium contamination at Rocky Flats near Denver haunts the former bomb making facility. Radiation at Nevada’s Atomic Test Site isn’t going away anytime soon. Atomic waste at the Hanford site where our nuclear arsenal was built is a mess wrapped in a riddle inside of an unsolvable conundrum. Politics, science, and journalism have no words to describe the severity of this situation. There is every reason to be concerned that a radioactive spill could work its way into the Columbia River, spread downstream to Portland, beyond to Anacortes, out into Pacific and then by ocean currents the remains of our atomic bomb making materials could be swept around the world.

The debate over whether the climate is changing is over. Dismantling last century’s fossil fuel energy system and replacing it with this new century’s decarbonized energy system is under enormous time pressure. The world must move faster than has ever been done before. It is as fantastical as sending a man to the moon, but this time, we are all going, and if it doesn’t work out, none of us will be coming back.     

In Las Vegas, the honorable Peter Guzman of the Latin Chamber of Commerce makes the case we must continue heating our homes with natural gas, that to do otherwise would damage the economy and the pocketbooks of the people he represents. Guzman took on the work of being a leader for this organization, for the people he’s been elected to speak for. The responsibility of how to respond to the climate emergency hasn’t made it into his job description, but that is going to change. All of us will be asked to participate in the solution. Deploying the new energy system is the responsibility of leaders higher up the chain of command. Powerful storms, floods and wildfire have changed minds. A sizable majority, not all but most support efforts to fight climate change.

Trust what this change means to our survival, embrace the challenges, volunteer to be part of a citizens brigade willing to try new things. Raise your hand, sign up to go work elsewhere, be a willing participant, hold up your end of the bargain, there is no free lunch, no easy way out.

Building Confidence thru Play

A path to a better world, a more whole and healthier American West, walking this trail doesn’t happen by accident. A moral compass is made of hearts and minds, understanding there is an opportunity in making a measure of sacrifice, acknowledging the journey is difficult, that our prevailing against the odds is- good trouble, that this inner guidance system, the climate challenge we face, the path we walk, asks of us that we give the best of who we are. To plant a tree, start a family, mend the roof, cook a tasty wholesome meal, remind the children by deed and word, how you believe that in their hearts, between what they trust and know and doubt and fear, that you have confidence in their power to steer their fate, that this power to imagine animates the path they will choose, it is their story that our children are creating, with their magic pen, it is the story of their life. If only we have the willingness to nurture in this new generation the most renewable of renewable energies, the power to have faith in who we truly are.  


winds of change blowing into wyoming

As Time Goes By

Out here on the western frontier, where the deer and the antelope roam there remain 33 coal fueled electric power stations. Wyoming is top mess maker, operating a dozen of these dirty devils. Toss in bait of federal tax subsidies, add lobby shops sprinkling magic money dust and Wyoming can’t put the demon coal habit down even though it takes 700 lbs. of coal to power a 100-watt lightbulb for one year.

Coal burning power stations employs people. A good paying job in Wyoming is a miracle unto itself. Hard to imagine now, but in 1886 Wyoming was the first state in the union to give women the right to vote. There was no choice. Had they not counted the women there were not enough voting men to qualify the state for entry into the United States.

Modern day Wyoming voters have shifted to the right, hard right, to the radical right. Half of Wyoming’s land is owned by “we the people,” a much smaller fraction by the state, and right on schedule the mining, livestock and timber industry all remain discontent by the regulatory restraints regulation places on their activities.

Butting Heads Against the Hard Rock

Outdoorsmen flock to Wyoming for hunting and fishing. Real estate around Jackson Hole is sky high. If you can find happiness in Casper, some do most of the rest struggle, somewhere $200,000 will get you a decent home. Wages for labor are lower than they ought to be. Libertarians pass through their resentments of governance blaming distant bureaucrats for all that ails folks here. Gas, oil and coal subsidies, federal tax dollars, inbound to Wyoming somehow escape libertarian criticism.

Wind power is coming on strong. Measured by megawatts the wind has some distance to go to catch up with coal. Nevertheless Wyoming has a lot of wind, it is renewable, you don’t have to dig it out of the ground, put it on a train, unload the rock onto a conveyor belt, burn it, shoot much of out a smokestack, then find you have no cheap or easy means of getting rid of the coal ash that remains a biohazard to the citizens for decades. You try to bury it one place or another, you go bankrupt trying, while all that free clean abundant wind keeps blowing free and easy past higher priced fossil fuel by leaps and bounds.

Politically even if coal, gas and oil are losing the fight against renewables for producing the cleanest, cheapest energy money can buy it still is causing economic disruptions that all of us will need to address. January 6th, 2021 matters in this calculation. Coal plants are going to be shut down, wind and solar facilities are going to be opened. The largest coal power plants employ 100’s of people that are going to lose jobs. This is steady work at a good pay rate. Coal provides a community with economic stability.

Emptiness- My Beautiful Reward

Bigger financial institutions are the most frequent players in the funding of generating stations. There is good reason. A bank can plug numbers into a spread sheet, this many megawatts, produced night and day, twenty-four-seven, year in and year out, ratepayers with almost no other choice than to take what they can get, works out on paper in the banking business to be as sure thing as a money-making proposition can be.

Ramping up drilling in the Powder River Basin, 5000 leases have just been fast tracked, fire hosed and blessed by Texas tea black bullion barons, billions of dollars in federal subsidies, regulatory agencies sitting on their hands, a whole lot of down on their luck drillers are lining up for a piece of the action.

This isn’t champagne, caviar or wing nuts over Yellowstone. This is not a free market economy. This is crony capitalism, regulatory capture, where the favors are doled out to the most favored.

Private equity, Wall Street, the “too big to fail banks” are all becoming reluctant players. Investment dollars are getting harder to come by because the price of renewable energy is down, and that cleaner cheaper thing is, if you didn’t know it, a better thing.

There are fewer Democrats in Wyoming than there are grizzly bears. Republicans in Cheyenne like playing hard ball, deregulate industry, say not one word about federal fossil fuel subsidies, cut the state budget, then cut taxes more, then cut them again, trigger fiscal crisis, then snarl and bark about how government doesn’t work.

What we can do is end the federal fossil fuel subsidies that keep going to Cheyenne. Switch federal tax incentives to the low-cost leader in energy, that would be solar and wind, launch a reality based economic transition program. Help Wyoming’s workers first, the fossil fuel companies second. Then, start a dialogue with the state’s politicians. Wyoming is windy. A redesigned electric power grid is needed, those are all good paying jobs.

Coal is not coming back. Nuclear power is way too expensive. By 2025 the best Ford pickup money can buy will be electric. Miners in Wyoming will be repurposed. National security will require domestic sources of lithium, copper, and manganese be developed.

I’m not kidding, it’s going to be good

We will need leadership in Wyoming to sit down at the negotiating table. Republicans need to look to the energy future. Modernizing our energy system, setting our nations table, setting a course for a cleaner, more efficient, cheaper, world class competitive electric energy supply will pay our people back many times over. World class infrastructure means providing America with the chance to remain a world class economic powerhouse. I’m good with some progressive policies mixed in with conservative ideas too. What we need is a bipartisan agreement to follow the facts wherever they may lead us. Renewables are cheaper and not helping the citizens make it through the energy transition is unaffordable. We can’t squander our most precious natural renewable resource, our people, for the sake of ideology, because we slam the brakes on last century’s oil economy. We all make a decision together, that we all agree that we can’t leave our citizens behind. If this was poker, done right the energy transition is a winning hand. Better times and brighter less expensive lighting is just ahead.