Interview: Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on 'Uninsurable' Nuke Energy Industry, BrightSource Solar Project
Last week, KQED Climate Watch's Gretchen Weber did a phone interview with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Kennedy had just appeared on KQED's Forum radio program to talk about The Last Mountain, a documentary about the effects of coal mining in Appalachia.
Weber asked Kennedy about the viability of nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels, an issue in the news today with the release of a Field Poll showing diminished support among Californians for building more nuclear plants in the state.
Listen to the RFK, Jr. interview below; an edited transcript appears below the audio clip.
What about nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels?
I believe in free markets and I've always said to the nuclear industry that I'm all in favor of it if they can make it economical and they can make it safe. The typical nuclear power plant costs about $11-14 billion per gigawatt. Well (solar energy company) BrightSource is building its plant at a little over $3 billion a gigawatt, so its close to one-fifth the cost.
In addition, no utility in this country will build a nuclear plant unless 100 percent of the construction costs are paid by the U.S. taxpayer and then 100 percent of the disposal costs, which is an enterprise that is going to require 30,000 years, five times the length of recorded human history.
Well they can't get an insurance policy, so they had to go to congress with a sleazy legislative maneuver in the middle of the night and pass the Price Anderson Act, which shifts the risk of their activities to the American public.
No other industry has that advantage in the marketplace. So it's not a bunch of hippies in tie-dye teeshirts who are saying nuclear power is unsafe. It's the insurance industry and Wall Street, guys in black ties and suits, and they're saying, 'you're too risky to insure.' In a free market capitalist society the insurance industry is the final arbiter of risk, and they're the ones saying the nuclear industry is unsafe. The first thing I say to the nuclear industry is, "if you're really safe, then get an insurance policy just like everybody else does. Don’t' tell us you're safe and then say, "oh but if we make a mistake we're not going to pay for it."
Kennedy also spoke about the controversy over the Ivanpah solar farm, a large solar energy project in the Mojave Desert by Oakland-based BrightSource Energy. A sort of internecine environmental battle erupted when the planned 370-megawatt generating system came under fire from preservation groups concerned about loss of habitat for desert tortoises. The project was halted by federal officials in April but recently allowed to resume. It should be noted that Kennedy is on the board of a green venture capital fund that is a large investor in BrightSource.
Listen to the interview below; an edited transcript follows.
What are your thoughts on the battle between environmentalists over BrightSource, in which you have a renewable energy project versus concerns over habitat destruction?
Any time you have large-scale energy development, you're going to have some kind of environmental footprint. The footprint on that project is as small as you can possibly get.
I just spent time in the Appalachians seeing what the alternatives are. Over the past 10 years, we've blown up part of the Appalachian mountains, the richest ecosystem in the entire hemisphere, the only ecosystem that survived the ice age. There's more biological abundance per cubic meter there -- the average forest in North America has three dominant tree species, Appalachia has 80. In ten years, we've already destroyed an area in Appalachia larger than the state of Delaware. Cut down entire mountain ranges, the 500 biggest mountains in the state. We've buried 2500 miles of the richest waterways in the world.
So I look at alternatives; wind has impacts. Solar has impacts. I think the least impactful form of energy is the kind of approach that BrightSource is taking. I don't think you'll get utility-scale energy production with less of an environmental footprint than will be created by BrightSource.
If we want an energy system in this country, if we want to be able to get rid of coal, which is the biggest ill, we've got to replace it with something, and anything you replace it with is going to have some minimal environmental impact.
Our object should be to have a rational system that uses systems that reduce economic environmental costs most effectively. I don't know of a project that's going to generate energy at utility scales with imposing fewer environmental costs than BrightSource, and I would challenge anybody to point me to one.