The mother of Alberta Clippers blew over middle America last month with sub-zero cold and double-digit wind chills, icing the Dakotas, then Kansas, and freezing Texas in mid-step without power and water for days.
The storm has provoked a lot of talk about climate change, energy policy and a fragile American power grid.
As the freeze began to lift, Lindsborg City Administrator Greg DuMars joined a virtual call with the American Public Power Association (APPA) to discuss the widespread storm and its impact on public utilities. DuMars knows a lot about power grids, their strength and efficiency. He is president of the Kansas Municipal Energy Agency, whose members keep the power running for their communities at a reasonable cost.
“There has been much discussion, especially amongst politicians, that either we have too much reliance on renewables or we should have relied heavier on renewables,” DuMars said in a city report on Feb. 19. In fact, none of the power sources performed at normal levels, he said. ” Coal stockpiles froze, natural gas wellheads froze, wind turbines froze, solar either had snow or cloud cover, and nuclear power had feedwater issues to reactors. Even when operating, all these generating resources operated at less than normal capacity due to the cold.”
The shock, especially in Texas, has empowered the discussion for clean energy – mostly wind and solar – and revived the tenet of nuclear power. The trouble is that no energy is pure, or clean. Electric car batteries, solar panels and wind turbines leave a special trail of waste in their manufacture and eventual disposal. And we’re familiar with the poisons of fossil fuel production and use.
The consequence of nuclear waste has loomed for decades and gives a clue to what awaits as we pursue cleaner and greener energy. In Kansas, nuclear power is generated at the aging (1985) Wolf Creek facility in Coffey County.
In early 1972 the late Jim Pearson, Kansas’ senior senator, called for an international study to search for a site for safe storage of nuclear waste – a site other than Kansas.
Pearson was alarmed on learning that the Atomic Energy Commission had been poking about central Kansas for years looking for underground sites to store nuclear waste. Scientists had claimed that Kansas’ deep salt beds could provide stable storage for the nation’s nuclear waste.
At a press conference at The Salina Journal, Pearson said that the best site for nuclear waste disposal was not Kansas because the world had not been searched.
“All humanity has a vested interest,” Pearson said. He advocated an international study because other nations were also making nuclear waste. The Kansas underground may be scientifically acceptable for storage, he said, but it could not possibly hold the world’s nuclear refuse.
Pearson’s alarm came amidst a flurry of local meetings in Kansas, most of them gloomy. Former investigators for the AEC had told The Journal of tests they had conducted, sites they had examined quietly and without public notice. The local meetings featured slide shows with charts and graphs and lectures on the dangers in the trucking or rail transport of waste, sludge with a lethal half-life of 500,000 years, the horrific consequences of even a slight spill.
In the U.S., nearly 90,000 metric tons the waste are stored at dozens of power plants in 39 states, susceptible to man-made or natural disaster.
As America turns to the greener forms of power, roughly 2,200 tons of radioactive waste is added each year, and it will remain lethal beyond our ability to imagine any generation not threatened by it.
In 2018, the House voted to resume the Yucca Mountain licensing process 30 years after Congress selected it as the nation’s permanent nuclear waste repository. This was ten years and $15 billion after the Energy Department began pursuing a license, and seven years after the Obama administration abandoned it amid intense opposition from Nevadans and sympathetic cause lobbies. The status of the project, estimated at $100 billion, is uncertain.
We should take a Kansas lesson from the furtive poking of the Atomic Energy Commission years ago, the warning from a senior senator, and the later trials at Wolf Creek.
Energy, green to black, carries consequence. We love our cheap oil and gas. We have no long-term plan to contain the threat of nuclear waste. We invite scrap toxins from the production of solar panels, giant wind farms and large batteries for electric vehicles; we incubate the predicament of what to do with them when they wear out. America, the world’s energy spendthrift, can only measure its poisons as it slowly fades to green.