Thursday, September 12, 2019


It's Complicated

Just when you think you know that "everyone" loves renewable energy and hates nuclear power, some news pops up to recalibrate your thinking.

Last week, I saw almost back-to-back news articles that upended the "conventional wisdom."  The first was a report on the opposition of German residents to the installation of new windmills.  The article talks about more than 600 citizen initiatives against the installations, which are central to the German goal of weaning itself from the use of coal and nuclear power.  A classic case of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard), I thought.

The very next day, a news article arrived in my inbox that announced that government officials in Nye County, New Mexico, were open to discussing the development of a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, which is located in their county.  Yucca Mountain, as many people reading this blog will know, was selected decades ago as the site for the disposal of waste from U.S. nuclear power plants, but stalled due to opposition from the State of New Mexico.  Wait, I thought--what about NIMBY?

Now, obviously, both situations are very complicated.  The brief news article on the opposition to new windmills in Germany mentions factors including a drop in government funding and the intervention of a far-right political party of climate skeptics.  These factors could be pumping up the opposition.

In New Mexico, of course, there is a start contrast between the views of the state and the views of the county.  To date, the state views have dominated.  The views of the county, of course, are not motivated by a love for nuclear power so much as they are by the economic benefits such a major facility in their county would bring.  However, it is important to note that they emphasize that they would only approve the facility if the analyses show that it is safe.  What they are asking at this point is only for the assessment to be done.

The message I draw from this is not that the people of Nye County are opportunists.  Far from it.  Rather, they are pragmatists.  They are insisting that safety comes first, but if the safety standards are met, they see benefits that offset the impacts on their community, such as the disruption of construction, the increase in traffic, etc.  And the people of Germany are also being pragmatic.  Nuclear power-related facilities generally bring a lot of high-paying jobs, and wind-power installations generally don't, so in their case, there is little benefit to offset the disruption in their communities.

Admittedly, there have been cases where local communities have opposed a facility, even though it would bring jobs or other benefits, so the issue of public acceptance around any kind of large installations--power plants, waste repositories, factories, or anything else--is complicated, and there is no guarantee that the community reactions we see in these 2 cases will always occur in other cases.

Nevertheless, the contrast in the reactions to the windmills in Germany and the nuclear waste repository in Nye County are instructive.  Most of us tend to think mainly of the big picture, which mainly means that we think of how power plants and other facilities benefit the greater good.  But we have to keep in mind that all such facilities inevitably bring some disruption to a community.  In cases where the only impacts are negative ones, it is quite logical for communities to oppose these facilities.  In cases where there are positive impacts as well, the local communities may be more receptive to hosting such facilities. 

In all cases, of course, the first focus should be on safety.  The second should be on building and operating the installation to minimize any negative impacts on the community.  But those measures alone may not be strong enough to combat the NIMBY factor.  Ultimately, the potential benefits to a community may also be a factor in public acceptance at the local level.