Bring It On

Why Houston should want a nuclear power plant

Smith took the podium to announce the clincher: Coal-generated air pollution in Texas each year causes more than 1,000 people to die 15 years early. "And if we increase the amount of particulate pollution," he said, "these deaths are going to increase as well."

Few of the elaborate props at the anti-coal carnival -– a pregnant woman, a cardboard windmill, a nauseous green face –- illustrated the way coal plants fuel global warming, which many scientists consider their most troubling side effect. Nearly 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in Texas come from coal. New coal plants would make things worse even as signatories to the Bush-spurned Kyoto Protocol -– and several U.S. states –- are scrambling to avert what scientists predict will be a two- to ten-degree increase in global temperatures over the next century.

Of course, Houstonians scarcely need reminding of the dire consequences of global warming. Powerful storms such as Rita and Katrina are harbingers of a warmer future. Scientists say hotter oceans will produce stronger hurricanes. Also, some climate models show greenhouse warming could quickly trigger fiercer El NiƱo events that will cause harsher rains and longer droughts such as this year's near-record dry spell.

Before Public Citizen opposed "dirty coal," it supported it as an alternative to nuclear power.
Josh Harkinson
Before Public Citizen opposed "dirty coal," it supported it as an alternative to nuclear power.
The visitors center at the South Texas Nuclear Plant is abandoned and choked with weeds.
Josh Harkinson
The visitors center at the South Texas Nuclear Plant is abandoned and choked with weeds.

The National Center for Atmospheric Research recently appointed Robert Harriss as the region's own sort of global warming czar. Even as the Bush administration ignores climate change, Harriss's job is to figure out how Houston will deal with it. He's particularly interested in how the projected one-foot rise in sea levels over the next century will affect the vulnerability of Galveston and the Ship Channel to storm surges. "The Gulf region is one that needs to be looked at very closely," he says, "because we do have so many vulnerabilities."

Smith wrapped up the press conference, called for help deflating the power plant -– "Fold it in thirds and don't step on it, please" -– and drove back to his office. He sat down in a conference room festooned with posters of sun rays bouncing between earth and its carbon-dioxide-choked atmosphere. Smith clearly takes global warming seriously. But as he shared his thoughts on Texas's energy future, it became clear he still vehemently opposes the climate-friendly nuclear option. So how would he keep the lights on?

Smith, though a great booster of alternative energy, admitted it can't immediately fulfill all of our needs by itself (see "Power Plays"). While these technologies are improving, he argued, energy conservation measures can tide us over. "Japan and Europe use roughly half the energy per dollar of gross domestic product as we do," he said, "and we are losing the race just because we use so much energy to make each widget."

Some very smart people agree. According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, a think tank that has consulted for the U.S. Department of Energy, 75 percent of the electricity used in the United States today could be saved through better energy efficiency. Simply requiring every U.S. household to replace four 100-watt light bulbs with fluorescents could supplant 30 midsize power plants.

Even so, the U.S. Congress and Texas legislature have largely ignored energy-efficiency options. A state bill last session that would have doubled energy-efficiency requirements in new homes and almost immediately recouped the costs in energy savings never made it out of committee.

It's easy to see why. The power industry is simply too powerful. Companies seeking new coal plants in the state have transmitted $750,000 to Texas political action committees and politicians since 2003, including more than $65,000 to Governor Perry. Nationally, the energy sector funneled candidates and PACs $50.6 million, 75 percent of it to Republicans. Environmental groups in the same period handed out a dim $2 million.

And that's why increasing numbers of environmentalists say it's time to get real.

"Dirty coal versus nuclear is really the debate," said Stuart Brand. He's the founder of the prestigious Whole Earth Catalog, a well-known eco-technologist and a recent nuclear power convert. "The only technology ready to fill the gap and stop the carbon dioxide loading of the atmosphere is nuclear power," he wrote last year in MIT's Technology Review. "The industry is mature, with a half century of experience and ever improved engineering behind it."

Brand joins a prestigious eco-sect of pro-nuke heretics that now includes Patrick Moore, the estranged co-founder of Greenpeace; scientist and best-selling environmental author Jared Diamond; and James Lovelock, the progenitor of the Gaia theory of earth as a self-replicating organism. "Nuclear power," Lovelock wrote recently in the London Independent, "is the only green solution."


The interest of environmentalists and the media in nuclear power has created the industry's greatest public relations opportunity in 25 years. The shift in tone among erstwhile skeptics is so massive that one could almost presume it's a trap set by devious puppeteers.

Perplexed and rather suspicious local nuclear power plant spokesmen didn't know what to make of enthusiastic calls from the Houston Press. STP nuclear facility spokesman Ed Conway refused to give a tour of his plant. So did an official with the Comanche Peak nuclear plant in North Texas. They both cited terrorism worries. They suggested interviews instead and later backed out of them. "Our owners have no interest in expanding the facility" was Conway's excuse. At least he doesn't discriminate. The Austin chapter of the American Nuclear Society gleefully announced on its Web site last year: "STP tour!" and then had to cancel it. "Security has become considerably more tight since 09/11/01," wrote the group's president, "which seems to be our main roadblock."

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