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Climate Crisis, New Nukes & Progress Energy – News and Observer Op-ed by Jim Warren

Point of View – The News & Observer:

April 22, 2008

It’s efficiency or chaos

by Jim Warren

DURHAM – North Carolina faces severe challenges that require a new relationship between Progress Energy and the public. CEO Bill Johnson should help launch the massive national effort needed to avert an unprecedented catastrophe.

The world’s leading scientists warn that climate change is far worse than Americans realize. NASA’s James Hansen wrote in March: “The Earth is nearing climate ‘tipping points’ with potential effects, many irreversible, including extermination of countless species, ice sheet disintegration and sea-level rise, and intensified regional climate extremes. A world filled with desperate climate refugees, we are warned by retired U.S. generals, would be not only tragic, but dangerous for everyone.”

Public understanding is lagging because the science is emerging rapidly and because our public information system has failed — largely due to energy companies’ efforts to distort the facts, stifle action and promote false solutions. Key developments remaining outside the discussion include:

– Oxfam International reports that weather-related disasters have quadrupled since 1987 because of climate change, with 250 million people affected annually.

– Last fall the global scientific community redoubled its warning that climate change is accelerating and weather extremes will keep increasing.

– Last week, British researchers concluded that sea level could rise nearly 5 feet this century, based on new understanding of ice sheets. Hansen believes it could go higher.

New research by Hansen and colleagues shows that atmospheric carbon levels are already 10 percent higher than the limit required to maintain a climate to which humans and wildlife are adapted. They wrote: “Continued growth of greenhouse gas emissions, for even another decade, practically eliminates the possibility of near-term return of atmospheric composition beneath the tipping level for catastrophic effects.”

If the experts are correct — as Hansen has been consistently for 30 years — this crisis could bring about failures of various social and economic systems (e.g. our food supply), very possibly within a few years.

TIME FOR ACTION IS RUNNING OUT. First, Progress Energy must stop plans for new nuclear plants. As dangerous and poorly regulated as reactors and highly radioactive waste pools are, the more critical issue is that gambling on new ones is squandering the time and money needed for genuine solutions.

While nuclear produces fewer greenhouse emissions than coal, studies show it could take 3,000 new reactors globally by 2050 just to hold even with Year 2000 atmospheric carbon levels. Even if we had the construction capacity and trillions of dollars for so many plants, this approach would ensure failure to make the tremendous carbon reductions needed to avoid disaster.

Utility allies say new plants are vital for growth. In fact, that path could ensure economic decline as our region is hammered by droughts, floods, wildfires and other climate-related calamities.

Last year, utilities and their legislative allies transferred to the public tens of billions of dollars in risk for building new power plants for one reason: the threat that projects will be cancelled in midstream, as happened with scores of nuclear plants in the 1980s, including three reactors at Shearon Harris.

New projects could fail for numerous reasons, so Wall Street won’t finance them without 100 percent taxpayer backing. One fresh example: A series of defects found during early construction of two French reactors has already caused huge delays and cost overruns.

Cost estimates for new nuclear plants in this country have risen six-fold since 2002, to $7 billion or more per reactor, and would go higher if one is ever completed.

NEXT, WE MUST GREATLY EXPAND ENERGY EFFICIENCY PROGRAMS — the quickest way to cut greenhouse gases — along with cogeneration and renewable power. These technologies are growing fast and creating jobs in free market states. A 2007 state-commissioned study proves North Carolina can more than offset growth without new power plants.

Industry documents forecast a large excess of electricity in the Southeast for many years to come, even while ignoring energy efficiency. Apparently utilities want customers to absorb new plant risks as they increase electricity sales to other regions.

In the long term, proposed Harris reactors could cost the average household over $12,000 through higher bills. Under half that amount could boost energy efficiency and add solar water heating to every home, nullifying the need for new reactors and probably allowing retirement of some coal-fired plants, further reducing greenhouse emissions.

Saving energy is many times more cost effective than building power plants. And as with water usage, we need standards to eliminate wasteful practices. We need a new rate structure that makes efficiency profitable for the utilities instead of rewarding maximum sales.

It’s time for public involvement in decisions that have long been dominated by crafty public relations and utility influence peddling over our government and civic leaders. Citizen groups are eager to stop fighting over new plants and to work with Progress Energy to avert irreversible climate change.

Jim Warren is executive director of NC WARN (Waste Awareness & Reduction Network), a Durham-based nonprofit group.

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