Not long ago, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was America’s top op ed cheerleader for George W. Bush’s attack on Iraq, portraying it as a “war for democracy.”
Now, in a landmark Times Magazine article, he claims naming rights to a “green” movement for nuke power and “clean coal,” portraying them as part of the answer to global warming.
This is VERY dangerous stuff.
But before we proceed, this Earth Day we can welcome the fact that major media types like Friedman finally do concede that we have a global climate crisis. The din of Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” has corporate big-wigs lining up to be washed green. For that much, we can all be grateful.
There is much that’s positive in Friedman’s writings about the need for emission-free energy. Most of it derives from countless concerned citizens seeking a Solartopian system based on solar, wind, bio-fuels, efficiency and a truly Earth-based culture.
Friedman never acknowledges them. But tens of thousands of grassroots activists have contributed decades of loving labor, often including jail time (mostly at reactor sites), to give birth to that vision.
Normally, a social movement would welcome the embrace of a New York Times columnist. For a major establishment mouthpiece to start spouting ideas for which so many have marched should be a deeply gratifying accomplishment.
But Friedman’s sales pitch also sanctifies nukes and coal. In a single horrifying phrase, he writes in the Times Magazine that “to reach the necessary scale of emissions-free energy will require big clean coal or nuclear power stations, wind farms and solar farms.”
Thus, in Tom Friedman’s new eco-Orwellian “greenspeak,” atomic energy and “clean coal” have become the equivalents of solar and wind power.
This is a suicidal double deception.
“Clean coal” is the ultimate atmospheric oxymoron. Fossil fuel corporations justify it with “carbon sequestration,” the idea of pumping CO2 emissions into caverns and other underground storage facilities.
In other words: Yucca Mountain for the coal business. The technology is unproven and the gas is certain, sooner or later, to leak out. Continued coal mining—even with a green veneer—will devastate landscapes, kill miners, cause acid rain and prolong the world’s dependence on fossil fuel.
Worse is the proven 50-year failure of nuke power. Atomic reactors are pre-deployed weapons of radioactive mass destruction. Nothing can guarantee their safety from a terror attack.
Fifty years ago the Price-Anderson Act gave federal protection to save reactor owners from paying for a major disaster. No private insurer has stepped into the void, not for the past generation of reactors, nor for the future.
There is also no solution to the waste problem. Yucca Mountain, the multi-billion-dollar alleged storage dump, cannot open for at least two decades. It is capped with perched water, marbled with an earthquake fault and surrounded by (so far) dormant volcanoes like itself. If it opens at all, it will be a casino, in one form or another.
Nukes also spew huge quantities of radioactive radon from the billions of tons of tailings that that sit near uranium mines and mills. That uranium is in increasingly short supply, with prices bound to skyrocket.
The enrichment of reactor fuel creates huge global warming emissions. The nukes themselves pump out direct heat, harming air and water. Radioactive emissions kill billions of fish and other life forms, including humans. Near-misses, as at Ohio’s Davis-Besse, which was a bare shred of thin metal away from a catastrophic melt-down, are all too frequent. Sooner or later, by terror or error, we must expect the worst.
Friedman mourns that the melt-down at Three Mile Island caused huge quantities of carbon-emitting coal to be burned for replacement power. But if the $900 million it took to build TMI had been invested in real green energy and efficiency, all those emissions could have been cheaply and safely avoided, then, now and into the future. Take the additional $2 billion required to deal with the seething radioactive mess and we could have had a countryside layered with safe, clean, cheap solar and wind farms.
Friedman never interviews the thousands of central Pennsylvanians who demanded the nuke not be built in the first place. Nor does he mention the 2400 locals who’ve tried for two decades to get a class action trial on the death and disease caused by the 1979 melt-down’s radioactive emissions. To this day, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission does not know how much fallout escaped from TMI, where it went, who it affected or what harm it did.
Friedman instead talks to TMI’s newly greenwashed corporate biggies. More nukes would be a great solution to global warming, they say. But they complain that a new reactor could not come on line for, perhaps, fifteen years. And private investment won’t do the trick. Government loan guarantees will be required, they moan, because when it comes to energy, the market “doesn’t work.”
That’s an amazing admission for a free market ideologue like Friedman. What he can’t face is that the market DOES work for nuclear power, because nobody in their right mind will invest in it without gargantuan subsidies and insurance protection. Only a Bush-style intervention like the one for “democracy” in Iraq will finance new reactor construction.
The real numbers on both existing and new nukes are disastrous. The current generation only looks profitable because the wave of utility deregulation that swept the US a few years ago forced the public to eat the true capital costs.
Back then Friedman yelled that a free market in energy would yield competition and lower prices. But with fake shortages and market manipulations, Enron and its corporate cohorts gouged California and other states for more than $100 billion. Nowhere in the deregulated US is there meaningful competition in electricity. Nor is there an accurate accounting for the true costs of atomic power.
In the 1990s, California’s REAL green power movement wanted to install some 600 megawatts of solar, wind and efficiency. That was killed by John Bryson, the “green” chair of Southern California Edison. Bryson then used deregulation to write off the multi-billion-dollar capital costs of four reactors. And then came Enron, to gouge and go bankrupt.
Now Friedman and his fossil/nuke cohorts ask that we repeat the experience in the name of global warming.
We can certainly say “thanks” to him for finally waking up to the climate crisis. But we must also say “no thanks” to fossil fuels and nuclear power.
The Solartopian solution embraces wind, solar, bio-fuels and other truly renewable sources, along with increased efficiency. Wall Street is lining up to invest in these technologies, which have high rates of real return, both financial and ecological.
We’ve seen the horrific results of Tom Friedman’s advocacy of utility deregulation. We’ve tasted the bitter fruits of his cheerleading for the war in Iraq.
Why would we now buy his fossil/nukes, which are no more green than the climate crisis itself?
Between the lines of Friedman’s columns there’s a lethal brew of carbon emissions and radioactive crud. Every dime spent on “clean coal” or “safe nukes” will only make things worse.
We’re glad so many corporate moguls finally feel compelled to line up at the media greenwash. But there’s no need to buy in to their proven failures.
The real solution to climate chaos is the Solartopian Trinity of solar, wind and bio-fuels, with increased efficiency and the return of mass transit. Accept no substitutes.
HARVEY WASSERMAN, senior advisor to Greenpeace USA since 1990, is author of “Solartopia: Our Green-Powered Earth, A.D. 2030,”