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Crazy for Energy? Obama, Nuclear Power, and Giant Dams in the Ring of Fire

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Lago General Carrera, the second largest in South America after Lake Titicaca, is one of many pristine places that would be disfigured by the HidroAysen power lines.
   
As President Obama visits Chile, the nation looks toward even riskier solutions for its energy needs -- environment and public safety be damned. Sound familiar?

Third in a series. Read parts one and two.

Just a week ago, we all thought we knew what would happen when President Obama flew into Santiago today for his meetings with his Chilean counterpart, Sebastián Piñera. In the wake of the horrors of Fukushima, Chile and the United States would shunt their long-planned cooperation pact on nuclear energy onto the most discreet back burner they could find.

Well, it turns out we were wrong. U.S ambassador Alejandro Wolff and Chilean foreign minister Alfredo Moreno initialed the agreement last Friday. Piñera’s spin on this seems to be, what’s all the fuss about? These are only technical discussions, and nothing will actually be done to develop nuclear energy for years. Besides, Obama and I are signing agreements on all sorts of things -- let me tell you about our cool plan to bring more English teachers to Chile.

Fall 2006 Cover Story: Patagonia Under Siege

We’re all obsessed with things nuclear right now, which is understandable. But Piñera is right in a sense. Nuclear power in Chile is still more conceptual than real, and focusing on it to the exclusion of all else creates the risk that we will overlook other, more urgent problems. By which I don’t mean English teachers; I mean how far the two presidents will push the limits of what they consider to be "clean, safe energy."

The most pressing question of all, as I’ve been arguing for the past week, is the string of huge dams that a corporate consortium named HidroAysén is proposing to build in the remote south of Patagonia. Nuclear reactors may be a far-off prospect, but the Chilean government will rule on the dam proposal as early as April 15. The indications are that Piñera’s "all-the-above" view of energy development will prevail. Chile faces such a dire energy crisis, in other words, that it needs to build every power plant possible, environment be damned. Or dammed.

I wonder what Obama might think of the dam idea if he took a few days off after his visit to Santiago and took Michelle and the girls on a trip to the far south. Halfway to Patagonia, he would pass through the city of Concepción, which was devastated by an 8.8 magnitude earthquake a little over a year ago. Farther south, at the gateway to Patagonia, he would surely be stopped short by the stunning, snow-covered Osorno volcano, Chile’s answer to Mount Fuji. It’s one of the most active in South America, having erupted at least five times in the 19th century though not since. You might say it’s overdue.

The president would be over the Liquiñe-Ofqui seismic fault now, which runs north-south for more than 600 miles. Soon the dirt road would take him past the flattened cone of Chaitén, which erupted in 2008, burying a nearby town of the same name in ash. Farther still, beyond the town of Coyhaique, which was rattled during my own visit to Patagonia earlier this month by a 5.4 magnitude tremor -- small potatoes by Chilean standards -- Obama would come upon the spectacular Río Ibáñez. He would marvel at the sight of a dead forest, stretching for miles along the valley floor, a casualty of the Hudson volcano, whose eruption in 1991 was one of the largest of the 20th century.

I could go on, all the way to the mouth of the Río Baker, but I suspect you get the drift by now: this is a hell of a place to build five big dams and a 1,400-mile high-tension power line. And let’s not even talk about building nuclear plants in another of the world’s most seismically unstable countries.

Worse, volcanoes and earthquakes are not the only reason why HidroAysén’s plans are so reckless. There’s also the small matter of global warming, which brings the increased risk of glacial lake outburst floods, or GLOFs, from Patagonia’s vast Northern Ice Field. In the headwaters of the Río Colonia, one of the Baker’s main tributaries, is a lake called Cachet 2. There hadn’t been a GLOF at Cachet 2 since the 1960s, but since 2008 there have been seven (the most recent was two weeks ago). Each of them dumped about 50 billion gallons of icy water into the Colonia, and thence into a stretch of the Baker that lies smack in the middle of the two dams that HidroAysén plans to build on the river.

Don’t worry, says HidroAysén: our dams are designed to withstand floods twice as heavy as those caused by the recent GLOFs.

Worry, say the scientists who have studied Cachet 2; physical evidence suggests that past GLOFs may have discharged more than four times as much floodwater as those that have occurred in the past three years.

After tsunami-proof nuclear plants and leak-proof oil wells six miles deep in the Gulf of Mexico, does all this sound a little familiar?

The worst part of this story is not that an energy giant would disfigure one of the most beautiful places in the world; not that multibillion-dollar dams are dinosaurs that the rest of the world is tearing down faster than new ones are being built; and not that Hidroaysén (not to mention the investors who are supposed to pony up $7 billion for the project) is courting disastrous physical risks. It’s that the whole thing is totally unnecessary. Chile simply doesn’t need the additional 2,750 megawatts that the project would supply.

Chile’s problem is not that it lacks energy, but that it lacks a national energy policy. The massive privatization of the energy sector means that the development of new sources is driven not by any coherent plan but by the whims and profit motives of corporations with near-monopoly power. In his first year in office President Piñera has done nothing to change that. If examples are needed, look no further than his decision just last month to permit Eike Batista, the richest man in Brazil, to build six new coal-fired power plants -- another 2,100 MW -- on an environmentally sensitive stretch of the Chilean coast.

Piñera says that Chile will need to add another 14,000 MW to the capacity of its central grid by 2025, doubling its energy supply. But studies by Chilean and U.S. energy experts have argued that this claim is based on grossly inflated projections of future economic growth. More realistic estimates, coupled with a serious California-style energy efficiency program, could reduce the projected increase by half. (Piñera, unfortunately, has slashed the budget for Chile’s energy efficiency agency.)

The real silver bullet, however, is the country’s remarkable potential to develop genuinely renewable energy sources, not spuriously "green" ones like mega-dams. The Atacama desert, scene of last year’s emotional rescue of the 33 trapped miners, has limitless solar potential; astronomers flock to the Atacama because it has the clearest skies in the world. And in the greatest irony of all, the very things that make HidroAysén’s project so risky -- the volcanoes and seismic faults of the Pacific Ring of Fire -- also represent an untapped and virtually limitless source of geothermal energy.

To become competitive, of course, these energies of the future require the kind of start-up support and financial cushions against risk that only governments can provide. If corporate monopolies are allowed to dictate the rules of the energy market and meet the "need" with reckless projects like the dams on the Baker, they will remove the incentives for cleaner, safer, and more reliable renewable sources.

We’re at a historic crossroads right now, with one country after another making huge, far-reaching decisions about its energy future. Ever since the Pinochet dictatorship ended 20 years ago, Chile has prided itself -- with good reason -- on being a model for the developing world. President Piñera has a basic choice to make: he can make his reputation as a visionary leader, charting a path for the rest of the developing world, or he can be just one more laggard, doing things in the same old dirty, dangerous, and destructive way. And even if Obama doesn’t take that fantasy trip  to Patagonia, as he takes out his pen to sign the nuclear agreement he might ask himself the same question.

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George Black has reported from five continents, chronicling civil war in Central America, the democracy movement in China, and climate change in countries from Bangladesh to Peru. His most recent book, Empire of Shadows, is about the 19th century exp... READ MORE >