One final point of public misunderstanding is the widespread impression that solar electricity will soon be replacing nuclear power, so there is no need to bother with nuclear energy. There are vociferous political organizations pushing this viewpoint, and a substantial portion of the public seems to be largely convinced that our primary source of electricity in the next century will be solar.
As a frequent participant in meetings on energy technology, I have come to know several solar energy experts, but I have yet to meet one who shares the above opinion. Their professional lives are devoted to development of solar electricity, and most of them are very enthusiastic about its future. Nevertheless, they have encouraged me in my efforts on behalf of nuclear power, saying frankly that the public's expectations for solar power are unrealistic. They foresee its future, at least for the near term, as a supplement to other technologies, with advantages in certain situations, rather than as the principal power source for an industrialized society.
My purpose here is to explain why that is so. It should be understood from the outset that I am not in any sense an expert on solar electricity. I have never done research in that field or even in the basic physics of semiconductors on which much of it is based. My knowledge is derived from relatively shallow reading, brief conversations with scientists working in the field, and preparing lectures for classes that I teach.
The materials that I read, mostly obtained from the U. S. Department of Energy and Solar Energy Research Institute, and the people from those organizations that I talk to, are always highly enthusiastic. They describe new records in efficiency of solar cells, ideas for new materials that have potential for much improved performance, reduced costs, new records in production and sales, new applications being undertaken, and the like. This is as it should be for a new and rapidly developing technology. If it were not, the technology would never have a chance. It reminds me of the early days in development of nuclear power, when enthusiasts thought it would be so cheap that it would drive all other energy sources out of the market. This early enthusiasm is a wonderful thing, but it should not be confused with what can be counted on to happen. Some technologies, like electronics and computers, have fulfilled the expectations of their early enthusiastic promoters, but the much more usual situation is for them to find useful niches but to fall far short of these dreams.
A recent and somewhat relevant example is the use of solar energy for heating and cooling. In the mid-1970s, enthusiasts were predicting that solar collectors would soon replace furnaces and hot water heaters in every home. New businesses were springing up everywhere for manufacturing and marketing solar heating systems and improved models kept coming out. Rampant rumors circulated about radical new improvements in the offing. I took my classes on tours of solar-heated buildings, and brought in experts on solar heating to lecture in our university.
Since the technology of solar heating is relatively simple, it matured very rapidly, and by the early 1980s it became reasonably clear that development had gone about as far as it could go. Well-developed marketing organizations made every effort to sell their products, aided by unprecedented subsidies. The federal government subsidized 40% of the purchase cost of any solar equipment, and the states added additional subsidies up to 30%, leaving only 30% of the cost to be paid by the home owner. I actually had a pen in my hand ready to sign a contract for installation of a solar water heater in my home, but I decided to delay until I did a careful cost calculation. I found that the cost of heating water in my home was 3 times as high with the solar energy system as with natural gas. I became interested in the subject, did research, and eventually published a paper on it.1 My conclusion was that in the northeastern United States the cost per million BTU (the BTU is the usual unit of heat energy) was about $8 from natural gas and $13 from heating oil versus $27 for solar water heating and $72 for solar space heating. But the best way to save money was to insulate water heaters, which costs only $5 per million BTU saved.
The solar-heating product was just too expensive, even with the government subsidies. The public did not buy it, and the industry is dying. The dreams of the early enthusiasts did not materialize.
That doesn't mean that solar energy cannot be important for generating electricity, and it may well become very important. Development in that area has been highly encouraging. There are two basic problems that must be overcome. One is that the cost is now much higher than for electricity generated by conventional sources, and the other is that no electricity can be generated when the sun isn't shining.
There are situations in which these problems are not important, and they have helped to keep the enthusiasm thriving. One example is pumping water for irrigation in an area not serviced by the power grid; it doesn't matter if the operation stops when the sun isn't shining. Another example is in underdeveloped nations where most of the country is not serviced by the power grid, leaving expensive diesel engine generation as the only alternative. The diesel fuel is often scarce and expensive to transport, so it can be saved for night-time use while utilizing solar electricity during the day. Even in this country, many buildings not easily connected to a regular power grid use solar electricity. These applications are already being exploited, and as solar electricity becomes cheaper, many more will become practical.
But the best hope for truly large-scale application is for utilities to use solar energy to service peak loads during hot summer afternoons when a great deal of electricity is needed for air conditioning. This is usually a time when the sun is shining brightly, making lots of solar energy available. Since utilities normally use internal combustion turbines to service these peak demands, solar electricity would not be competing directly against the lowest-cost conventional electricity sources.
Of course, solar electricity need not compete with conventional forms everywhere to be useful. It need only be competitive in areas where there is plentiful sunshine and a strong need for air conditioning, and where coal and gas are not available and oil is expensive because of difficult transport requirements. There may be situations where air pollution control regulations inhibit use of coal or oil, or where communities are not willing to depend on oil because of fears about supply reliability. With all of these applications in mind, solar electricity enthusiasts are optimistic about "penetrating" the utility market before the end of this century.
In our discussion we will consider only the three principal approaches to utilizing solar energy for generating electricity: (1) photovoltaics, popularly known as solar cells; (2) solar thermal facilities, in which sunlight from a large area is collected by mirrors that focus it onto a receiver which is thereby intensely heated, with this heat used to generate electricity; and (3) wind turbines, an elaboration of the familiar windmill (since winds are driven by forces generated by the sun's heat, wind power is often classified as solar energy). Many other solar technologies could be discussed here, such as ocean thermal gradient, satellite solar, tidal, ocean waves, and biomass. Each of these has had its own proponents, but most solar energy experts consider them to be of lesser importance, and relatively little emphasis is now being put on developing them.
There are several variations of photovoltaics involving different degrees of tracking the motion of the sun and using lenses to concentrate the sun's rays. Each has advantages, but at an added cost, which roughly compensates for them. We, therefore, simplify our discussion by considering only one of the options, a fixed flat plate. According to the directors of the government program, for photovoltaics to penetrate the utility market,2 the module cost must be reduced to $45 per square meter if the efficiency is improved to 15%, or to $80 per square meter if the efficiency can be raised to 20%, assuming that the system life expectancy can be extended to 30 years (all costs are in 1987 dollars). These are the program goals. In 1982, the best performance was an efficiency of 9.8%, a cost of $1,140 per square meter, and 15 years life expectancy. In 1987, this had improved to 12% efficiency, a cost of $480 per square meter, and a life expectancy of 20 years.3 If these trends continue i.e., if every 5 years the efficiency improves by 2%, the cost is cut in half, and the life expectancy is increased by 5 years photovoltaics will penetrate the utility market by the end of the century.4 Those involved in the development are very confident that this will happen.
Let's try to understand what a marvelous accomplishment this would be. An ordinary cement sidewalk costs about $30 per square meter. The program goals are, therefore, to be able to cover the ground with solar cells for about twice the cost of covering it with a layer of cement. A solar cell is a highly sophisticated electronic device, about one inch in diameter, based on advanced principles of quantum physics developed in the 1950s. It is made from materials of extremely high purity, a purity that was unattainable even in scientific laboratories until the late 1940s. Cells are manufactured by processes that have taken some of the best efforts of modern technology to develop. They must be capable of standing up to all the vagaries of outside weather for 30 years. To cover the ground with these sophisticated devices for just twice the price we pay to cover it with a thin layer of cement, manufactured simply by grinding up rock and heating it, would indeed be an impressive accomplishment.
The numbers quoted here also explain why solar electricity is so expensive the energy in sunlight is spread so diffusely that we must collect it from large areas with correspondingly large collectors in order to obtain appreciable amounts of power. To produce the power generated by a large nuclear plant would require covering an area 5 miles in diameter with solar cells.
There is a limit to the miracles that can be achieved in solar cell development. In addition to the cost goals quoted above for photovoltaic cells, there is a somewhat larger cost for mounting, electrical hook up, power conditioning, and other standard engineering operations that cannot be easily reduced. It therefore seems unlikely that an operating solar power plant can ever cost less than $1,000 per peak kilowatt. Since their power output averaged over day and night is only about 20% of the peak, this corresponds to a cost of $5,000 per average kilowatt. The cost estimate for the new generation of nuclear power plants is under $2,000 per average kilowatt. A nuclear plant requires fuel and more operating and maintenance labor, but two-thirds of the price of their electricity is in the original plant construction cost.
Solar Thermal Electricity
Solar thermal facilities are of various varieties, some of them designed for small applications and others designed to produce very high temperatures for special applications. Here we will consider only central receivers, in which the sunlight falling on many acres of land is focused by mirrors onto a single receiver. The fluid in the receiver is thereby heated, and this heat is used to produce steam that drives a turbine to generate electricity, as in a nuclear or coal-burning power plant. The mirrors must be moved under computer control to very accurately track the motion of the sun across the sky in a path that changes day by day. Photovoltaics can operate on diffuse light, producing an electrical output proportional to the total amount of light striking them, but that is not the case here. An image of the sun coming from each mirror must fall accurately on the central receiver, which means that when a cloud covers the sun, no energy is collected. Clearly, this is a facility only for very special locations where clouds are unusual.
A system generating 10,000 kW of electricity, including over 1,800 mirrors, each roughly 20 feet on a side, has been constructed and successfully operated since 1984 at Barstow in the California desert.5 Several smaller facilities are also in operation, largely for research purposes. Improved methods have been developed for transferring the heat from the receiver, at the top of a 300-foot-high tower in the Barstow plant, to the steam generation facility on the ground. There has been great progress in mirror development, increasing the area of individual glass-metal mirrors while reducing their costs, and introducing stretched-membrane mirrors, which have a potential for further cost reductions. With current technology, a plant could be constructed for $3,000 per peak kilowatt versus the $11,000 per peak kilowatt cost for the Barstow plant. Government program directors estimate that the utility market will be penetrated if the cost gets down to $1,000 per peak kilowatt. Enthusiasts believe that this can be achieved by 1995.
If all goes well, solar thermal plants may be contributing to service of peak power loads in the southwest desert by the turn of the century. But their potential is limited. It is almost impossible to imagine them being built in the northeast or midwest, where cloudiness is common. Photovoltaics are based on the quantum physics of materials, which is a field where "miracles" have occurred before and are always a possibility for the future. But solar thermal technologies are relatively standard engineering developments, which is hardly an area where one can hope for "miracles," especially after well over a decade of effort. Solar enthusiasts are, therefore, much more hopeful for the future of photovoltaics, and that is where most of the research effort is now being directed.
Windmills have been used for many centuries to grind grain and pump water, and they were widely used to generate electricity on farms early in this century. But with the extension of power lines into rural areas in the 1930s, the enterprise collapsed. As a result of the energy crisis of 1974 and the big increase in energy costs that followed, new initiatives were undertaken under government sponsorship.6 Initially, there were unexpected problems with structural weakness, vibrations, and noise, and efficiencies were not as high as expected. A sizable research and development program was, therefore, undertaken to improve understanding. In order to encourage use of wind, a law was passed requiring utilities to pay for any power fed into their lines by owners of wind turbines. Substantial tax credits were offered to equipment purchasers.
About 92% of all U.S. energy now generated by wind is in California, where, by the end of 1987, there were 16,000 wind turbines in operation with a total capacity of 1,440,000 kW, more than the capacity of a large nuclear plant. However, the electricity produced was only 25% of what would be produced by that nuclear plant, because the average wind speed is far below the maximum wind speed on which the capacity of the turbines is based.
By the mid-1980s, lifetime reliability issues emerged as a primary concern, and fatigue of materials became a vital research problem which is now becoming better understood. The present assessment is that in order for this technology to become broadly competitive with fossil fuels (1) reliability and durability must be improved to achieve an expected lifetime of 30 years, (2) costs must be reduced by 25%, and (3) efficiencies must be increased by about 50%. Enthusiasts believe these goals can be achieved by the mid-1990s.
It would take 50,000 wind turbines of the type being used in California to replace the average electricity produced by a single nuclear or coal-burning plant, which is hardly an inviting prospect for an electrical utility. Management costs would be horrendous. Important efforts are, therefore, being made to develop larger systems. The largest to date is a 3,200 kW, 320-foot in diameter turbine at Kahuku, Hawaii. Conditions in Hawaii are especially well suited for use of wind; moreover, coal or oil must be imported from long distances, making them expensive. A blade the length of a football field mounted on a tower and turning in the wind is a relatively major installation, but it would still take a thousand of these to produce the average electricity generated by a single nuclear or coal-burning plant.
An important disadvantage of wind turbines is that they are not well adapted to servicing peak loads on hot summer afternoons, since winds blow mostly on winter nights. A wind turbine should, therefore, be thought of only as a fuel-saving device. It does not reduce the need for other power plants. For remote areas not serviced by utility power lines, however, wind turbines are already quite useful. They are well suited to pumping water for irrigation.
Persistent high wind speeds are, of course, an essential requirement, and these are not to be found in many areas. However, as efficiencies of wind turbines are improved, more locations will become suitable.
Since electrical energy is difficult to store, it must ordinarily be used as it is produced. Our principal uses, unfortunately, do not vary in time in the same way as sunshine and wind vary. There is little seasonal variation in our use of electricity, but the influx of solar energy is 2 to 3 times higher in summer than in winter. Therefore, if all our electricity were solar, the capacity would have to be large enough to provide the 24-hour needs even during short, dull winter days, leaving most of it idle and unproductive during the long, sunny days of summer. A more difficult problem is that we use a great deal of electricity at night when there is no sunshine. The most obvious solution is storage, and in this connection we first think of storage batteries like those used in automobiles. These could solve some of the short-term problems; for example, $6,000 worth of batteries replaced every 2 years could be charged during the day enough to handle ordinary night time uses in a home without air conditioning. The problem would be much more difficult for businesses and factories that use a lot of electric power at night and in winter. These costs would clearly be unacceptable.
The only other practical storage system for electricity is using it to pump water up to a reservoir on a hill; it can then generate electricity when it is allowed to flow back down. This is expensive to construct, wastes about one-third of the electricity, has various environmental problems associated with flooding large land areas, and is applicable only in places with plenty of water and hills. The most important project of this type ever undertaken, the Storm King reservoir on the Hudson River north of New York City, was delayed for many years and finally abandoned because of opposition from environmental organizations.
Aside from storing electricity, the other simple solution to variations in availability is to have back-up sources of electric power. One might consider having a nuclear or coal-burning power plant available, but this would make no sense economically. The standby plant would have to be constructed, and it would need nearly a full complement of operating and maintenance personnel. The only saving by using solar energy would be in fuel costs, which represent only about 20% and 50%, respectively, of the total cost of nuclear and coal-fired power. The cost of back-up power to the customers would have to be not much less than the cost of obtaining all their electricity from those plants.
We often hear stories about individuals with windmills or solar cells using a regular utility line for back-up power and selling the excess power they generate at various times back to the utility utilities are required by law to purchase it. This does little harm as long as only a few individuals are involved, but it wouldn't work if a large fraction of customers did it. The utility would not only have to build and maintain back-up power plants without selling much of their product, but they would have to buy a lot of power they don't need when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. The utility could survive only by raising the price of the electricity it does sell sky high.
In general, the amount of back-up or storage capacity needed to overcome the variable nature of sunshine and wind depends on how much inconvenience we are willing to endure. But even to approach the dependable electrical service we now enjoy would be extremely expensive.
In order to improve on this situation, the U. S. Department of Energy is supporting a substantial research effort to develop improved batteries.7 The most promising one is the sodium-sulfur battery, which operates at high temperatures about 600°F. Like all batteries, it consists of many individual cells connected together, and if a few of these fail, the efficiency drops dramatically. At early stages of the development, 60% of the cells were failing after 250 chargings, but this has now been reduced to 5%. The goal of the development program is to achieve 80% efficiency, 2,500 charge-discharge cycles, and a cost of about $90 per kilowatt-hour. For one charge-discharge cycle, the cost would then be ($90 / 2500 x 0.8 =) 4.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, roughly equal to the costs of electricity generated by coal or nuclear power given in Chapter 10. If this goal is achieved, we still must add the cost of installation and maintenance. This would make the cost of storage alone somewhat higher than the present total cost of electricity. Clearly something much better is needed.
SOLAR versus NUCLEAR POWER
The electric power requirements that a utility must supply consist of the sum of (1) base load, which continues day and night and accounts for about two-thirds of all electricity used; (2) intermediate load, which is the increase above the base load that is normally encountered during most of the day and early evenings; and (3) peak load, which occurs for a few hours on most days and for longer times in special circumstances, like on very hot days when there is abnormally heavy use of air conditioning, or on exceptionally cold days in areas where electric heating is in widespread use.
Nearly all of the cost of nuclear power is in the construction of the plant. Fuel costs are much lower than for fossil fuel plants. It therefore pays to operate nuclear plants whenever they are available; consequently, they are used to provide base load service. A utility would not build more nuclear plants than it needs for its base load because it cannot afford to have a nuclear plant sit idle. For electricity derived from fossil fuel steam plants, 50-75% of the cost is due to the cost of the fuel. Hence, there is a substantial savings in shutting them down at night when the power in not needed. This makes them well suited for servicing intermediate load. Where nuclear plants are not available, they are also used for base load.
Since fossil fuel steam plants are still rather expensive to construct, it does not pay to build them for peak load service; they would sit idle the great majority of the time. Peak load service is normally provided by internal combustion turbines, which are relatively inexpensive to purchase but are inefficient, use expensive fuel, and hence are costly to operate.
Solar electricity is most ideally suited to providing peak load power due to heavy use of air conditioners on hot, sunny days during the summer. In that peak load application, solar will compete mostly with the internal combustion turbine, which is the most expensive source of electricity now in use. The optimism of solar electricity enthusiasts for penetrating the utility market by the end of the century is based on the prospect of succeeding against that competition. Since using solar energy to replace internal combustion turbines would reduce our use of oil and of machinery that is largely imported, it is very much a socially desirable goal.
Since solar energy is available during the daytime, it also has the potential of competing for service of the intermediate load. Of course, solar plants installed to supply peak power would be used all year and would contribute to the intermediate load. Since they consume no fuel, it saves money to use them but this contribution would be relatively minor. However, since steam plants normally used to service intermediate loads are much more efficient and use cheaper fuel than internal combustion turbines, solar competition for the bulk of intermediate load will be much tougher. Moreover, intermediate load is normally as high in winter as in summer, so it is winter-time solar energy, which is much less available, that must compete here. However, in areas where coal is not available, as in most of our coastal areas, where a substantial fraction of the population is located, this competition would become easier if oil prices rise sharply. This might allow photovoltaics to penetrate the utility market for the bulk of intermediate load service. Solar electricity may thus serve as a check on price increases imposed on us by OPEC, a highly desirable goal.
If environmental restrictions on coal burning should become really severe, the price of that technology might escalate. This would improve the competitive position of solar energy for the rest of the intermediate load. Since solar energy is much less harmful to the environment than fossil fuel burning, and since it would be highly desirable to save these fossil fuels for other uses (see Chapter 3), it would be socially desirable for solar energy to take over as much of the intermediate load as possible. This hope is included in the dreams of the solar electricity enthusiasts, and we must wish them well in these endeavors.
The situation with regard to base load service is very different, however. Since base load electricity is the lowest in cost, the price competition becomes much stiffer. But more importantly, solar electricity can only contribute here in combination with a very large capacity for electrical energy storage, presumably with batteries. Even if current development goals are achieved, this storage alone will be more expensive than current base load electricity. Hence, for solar electricity to compete for base load service, two independent "miracles" would be needed, one in drastically reducing the cost of solar electricity, and the other in substantially reducing the cost of batteries beyond present program goals. Of course, if electricity storage should become really cheap, nuclear power would be in a position to compete for peak and intermediate load service.
Since nuclear power is used only for base load service, there will be no competition between nuclear and solar electricity in the foreseeable future. Each has its place in our nation's energy mix, and these places are very different. Each serves to reduce the environmental problems from fossil fuels discussed in Chapter 3. Each serves to alleviate the political and economic problems incurred in importing oil. The fact that nuclear and solar electricity are not in competition and probably never will be is the bottom line. If I were to return to Earth thousands of years from now, long after fossil fuels are gone, I would not be surprised to see nuclear reactors generating base load power and photovoltaics providing the intermediate and peak loads.
ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS OF SOLAR ELECTRICITY
Even if there were a competition between solar and nuclear electricity, there is no technically valid reason to prefer the former. It was pointed out previously that production of the materials for deploying a solar cell array requires burning 3% as much coal as would be burned in generating the same amount of electricity in coal-burning power plants. Roughly the same is true for the power tower and wind turbine applications of solar energy. That means that they produce 3% as much air pollution as coal burning. This is not a great environmental problem, but it still makes them more harmful to health than nuclear power. In addition, there are long-term waste problems, discussed in Chapter 12, which pose many times more of a health problem than the widely publicized nuclear waste. There are lots of poisonous chemicals used in fabricating solar cells, such as hydrofluoric acid, boron trifluoride, arsenic, cadmium, tellurium, and selenium compounds, which can cause health problems. Also, there is much more construction work needed for solar installations than for nuclear; construction is one of the most dangerous industries from the standpoint of accidents to workers.
If photovoltaic panels on houses become widespread, how many people would be killed and injured in cleaning or replacing solar panels on roofs, or in clearing them of snow? What about the dangers in repairing the complex electric conversion systems? Over a thousand Americans now die each year from electrocution, and the power-conditioning equipment needed for a solar electricity installation would represent a major increase in this risk. Back-up systems, most especially diesel engines in the home, have serious health problems. Diesel exhausts include some of the most potent carcinogens known, and they contribute to most of the other air pollution problems discussed in connection with coal burning in Chapter 3.
Large solar plants also create environmental and ecological problems. What happens to the land and animals that live on it when a 5-mile diameter area is covered with solar cells or mirrors? Desert areas, which are most attractive for solar installations, are especially fragile in this regard.
Wind turbines are noisy, and some consider them to be ugly, especially if they dominate the landscape for many miles in every direction recall that it takes a thousand very large installations to replace one nuclear plant. Central receivers use a great deal of water, which is generally in short supply in deserts where these installations would be most practical. All solar electricity technologies require a lot of land, inhibiting its use for other purposes.
SOLAR versus NUCLEAR POLITICS
In spite of the facts cited in the last section, the public considers solar energy to be the safest, soundest, and most environmentally benign way of obtaining electricity. It also seems to believe that solar electricity will be very cheap and will eventually replace nuclear power for that reason alone. Everything about solar energy is viewed as good and desirable. I often wonder why this is so, since sunshine is the principal cause of human cancer. Even if we consider only fatal cancers, it is worse than radiation in this regard.
This favorable public image of solar energy has been very important politically. The Carter Administration went to great lengths to promote it, while nuclear energy was officially labeled "the source of last resort." The Carter appointee as head of TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority), our nation's largest electrical utility, refers to the present time as "the presolar age." Government agencies stumbled over one another in rushing to distribute pro-solar propaganda, while any public distribution of information favorable to nuclear power met with harsh criticism from Congressmen and administration officials. My use here of the word "propaganda" is intentional. I call the solar material propaganda because it created false impressions by not mentioning the very serious cost and intermittent availability problems discussed above and by implying that our electricity has an exclusively solar future.
This mixing of science and politics is a dangerous tendency more suited to a Banana Republic than to a nation so heavily dependent on technology. Unfortunately, nuclear science has not been immune to it. Liberal Democrats seem to be against nuclear power, while conservative Republicans seem to favor it. This split does not apply to the involved scientists, most of whom are politically liberal Democrats, who on the basis of their scientific knowledge, strongly favor nuclear power. I personally have been a liberal Democrat all of my life, as has every member of my family for over 60 years. I, as well as the majority of my scientific colleagues, are passionately devoted to the welfare of the common people (this is my favorite definition of a "liberal"). It is clear to us that their welfare is heavily dependent on a flourishing nuclear power program.
Liberal Democrat politicians have not always opposed nuclear power. These days, people view nuclear power as being favored by the utilities, with lukewarm support from government bureaucrats, against the resistance of an unwilling body politic and Congress. But in the past, it was quite the opposite. Congress, under the leadership of its House-Senate Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, was the original driving force behind development of nuclear power in the 1950s. The government bureaucracy represented by the Atomic Energy Commission, favored a slow, drawn-out development program, while the utility industry was heavily resistive. In fact, the utilities were brought into the program only with the threat that if they didn't cooperate, the government would develop its own nuclear power program to compete with their coal- and oil-fired plants. The early history of nuclear power development was punctuated by strong pressures from Congress to speed things up. During this period and up to the early 1970s, such well-known liberal Democrat Senators as John Pastori, Clinton Anderson, Henry Jackson, Albert Gore, and Stuart Symington served on the Joint Committee and played key roles in promoting nuclear power. When information critical of it appeared on the scene, the Joint Committee held hearings for which they called in prominent scientists to explain the facts. Intelligent deliberations were held among well-informed and mutually respecting people, and questions were thereby settled.
The opposition to nuclear power among politicians started in the early 1970s when they stopped taking advice from the scientific establishment and instead began taking it from political activist groups belonging to what is generally referred to as "the environmental movement." These groups, principally led by Ralph Nader, used or desired little scientific information. They largely formulated their beliefs on the basis of political philosophy, and then found scientists wherever they could to support them, without regard to the consensus of opinions throughout the scientific community.
Somehow, their political philosophy told them that nuclear energy is bad and solar energy is good. They built a case to support that position as lawyers often build cases the only object was to win. Facts and scientific information were introduced or ignored in accordance with how they affected their case. They weren't seeking the truth they were sure they knew it. They were only seeking material to help them convince the public.
They sold their case to many liberals. "Solar is good, nuclear is bad" became an article of faith in the liberal establishment, and the public was soon convinced by the barrage of propaganda that followed. In this process, the scientific experts were essentially ignored. We scientists are inexperienced and inept at political gamesmanship. Still we have fought, and will continue to fight, to get our message to the public. It has been a long, uphill battle.
Our case is based on science, while the opposition is based on political philosophy. When a nation whose welfare is highly dependent on technology makes vital technological decisions on the basis of political philosophy rather than on the basis of science, it is in mortal danger.
Before closing this section on politics, I should mention that there are some people who foresee the day when all our electricity will be solar, but they envision a very different world than our present one. It is a world of low technology and a simpler life, a more desirable lifestyle, in their view. It will of necessity be a life of more unmechanized farming and manual labor, of fewer machines, comforts, and conveniences. They call it living in harmony with nature, but it might also be called sliding back toward the lifestyle of our primeval ancestors. In such a world, they contend that there would be no place for large nuclear or coal-fired power plants, and little place for other large industrial operations except, presumably, for manufacturing solar cells.
The validity of their views depends on social, political, demographic, and psychological considerations on which I have no claim to expertise. I only want it to be clearly understood that their ideas are driven by political considerations rather than by scientific, technical, or economic analyses. Their attempts at the latter have been shallow and heavily biased and have generally received rebuttal rather than acceptance by experts.
It would be nice to conclude this chapter with a statement that politics doesn't matter, that scientific and economic facts make it clear that nuclear and solar electricity are not in competition, and that they probably never will be. But as we found in Chapter 9, politics cannot be ignored in a democracy like ours. If the public believes strongly enough that solar is good and nuclear is bad, and that it is worth any price not to use nuclear power, we will not have nuclear power. Our country will suffer economically from competition with others that do use nuclear power, but that will only be part of the price we will pay. It is therefore extremely important that the public be properly educated before making such a decision.