Cook: Beyond Alstom

Cook: Beyond Alstom

March 10th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

This is far more than 80 jobs lost.

It could indicate -- like the last song in a long opera -- the beginning of the end of American nuclear power.

Friday morning, the bosses at Alstom -- the big blue factory at the bend in the river -- gathered everyone together for the bad news: starting in May, layoffs for 80 workers.

On the most immediate level, this news is tragic and personal. These are people with mortgages. Light bills. Kids in college. (On Friday, the day officials delivered their news, flat-screen factory TVs scrolled through announcements of employee birthdays. An upcoming blood drive. The company bowling team.)

Theirs is not mindless labor; they are well skilled and well trained, building turbines for nuclear plants in a factory they -- and we -- believed would be at the forefront of a global nuclear renaissance.

Based right here in Chattanooga.

"We're here to stay," an Alstom leader said one year ago. "Worldwide there will be a demand in nuclear."

Like betting on three-of-a-kind when your opponent has a full house, the Alstom prediction has come up short.

There is only one reason.

"People are not ordering new nuclear equipment," an Alstom spokesman said Friday afternoon.

(He listed two reasons: the global aversion to nuclear since Fukushima and growing investments in American natural gas.)

The big blue factory has been like an unofficial welcoming sign, greeting drivers as they make the I-24 bend around the Tennessee River into our city.

At the plant's opening ceremony in 2010, folks cheered. Mayor Ron Littlefield said he was "giddy about the nuclear industry coming back to Chattanooga."

Alstom officials promised 350 employees by 2013.

Yet when layoffs start this summer, Alstom's turbomachinery plant will be left with about 60 workers.

And the rest of the local energy manufacturing landscape?

Wacker, the polysilicon (solar-panels) manufacturer? It slowed the pace of its nearby $1.8 billion plant construction.

Aerisyn, the maker of wind towers?

The factory right next to Alstom? Bankrupt.

(Good news: the continued success of Signal Energy.)

Consider VW.

In admirable fashion, the German automaker (headquartered in a country that made a post-Fukushima decision to be nuclear-free within 10 years) built the largest solar array for any U.S. auto plant, which glaringly indicates -- a manufacturer of fossil-fuel-using cars leading the way in harvesting solar energy? -- the complex diversity of the future of American energy.

But what happens when gas reaches $6 a gallon? How much will "market conditions" -- that vague phrase used by Alstom officials on Friday -- affect VW's ability to employ?

And that's just VW. Every job in America is greased by gasoline. Nearly every part of our lives is petroleum-based.

And this commodity will not last. Its supply will only decrease; its cost, only to increase. Yet we continue to live under this collective fantasy of cheap oil.

In his excellent book "Green Metropolis," David Owen claims that gasoline is the cheapest-priced liquid we have.

Go into a gas station he says, and gas will be the cheapest liquid there. Cheaper than milk. Beer. Even water.

He calls it a liquid civilization, built on a limited supply of oil that we have drastically underpriced.

And sooner or later, it will dry up. Our reckoning with fossil fuels is not a matter of if, but when.

(Meanwhile, how do our state legislators spend their time? Arguing over the legality of switchblades. And why folks should carry guns in their trunks).

For Chattanooga, Alstom's layoffs should trouble us as we try to write out -- seems more like a game of Scrabble some days -- the future of our city. Manufacturing? Who knows anymore.

(Don't think Andy Berke's not paying attention).

Think I'm exaggerating? Consider the setting.

Alstom, which has shipped nuclear parts around the world, sits in the shadow of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. In the state of the most pro-nuclear senator in America (Lamar Alexander). Surrounded by the pro-nuclear policies of TVA.

And it's nuclear manufacturing is going dry.

This summer, Alstom's turbine plant will employ barely twice as many people as are on the Chattanooga Lookouts roster.

All of this indicates how shifting, mysterious and utterly fragile our energy narrative is right now. The invisible hand, more invisible than ever.

"The focus is on the future," Alstom officials said Friday.

I'm not sure anyone knows what that means.