Nuclear Power: Climate Fix or Folly?


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Can nuclear-generated electricity lead us off fossil fuels?
After years of sitting in the energy dustbin, nuclear power is enjoying a renaissance. Countries such as France, Japan and China are furiously building nuclear plants to deliver cheap electricity and help combat climate change.

Yet in the U.S. nuclear power carries a great deal of baggage: safely storing spent fuel, preventing catastrophic accidents like the one that occurred at Chernobyl in 1986, and combating proliferation. "In France, where I am from, 80 percent of electricity comes from nuclear power," says Lionel Biony, director of the office of the chief scientist at Rocky Mountain Institute, an environmental research and consulting organization. "I grew up hearing nuclear power is the greatest thing in the world, even more so than 400 kinds of cheeses."

But is it?

That's the question Amory Lovins, RMI's chairman and chief scientist, discussed with the University of Chicago's Robert Rosner and Pacific Gas & Electric Company CEO Peter Darbee in San Francisco last week at RMI 2009.
Lovins points out nuclear drawbacks and a better path forward.
Lovins, who for years has argued that nuclear power is an "uncompetitive, unneeded and obsolete" way to reduce the country's dependence on fossil fuels, again reiterated that efficiency, distributed generation and renewable energy is a better path.

"Nuclear is not a very effective way to save power," Lovins says. "You save more with wind, or co-generation, or co-generation and recovery. And lots with efficiency."

Buying new nuclear power instead of implementing efficiency measures, Lovins says, results in "more carbon release than if the same money were spent buying a new coal-fired power plant."

Rosner, until recently the director of Argonne National Lab, says he and Lovins agree on a number of issues, namely that energy efficiency is the best way to address climate change and energy demand.

"If you want to spend a dollar, and get the greatest bang for your buck out of it, what you want to do is efficiency, period."

Rosner differs: nuclear has a role.
Where they differ, Rosner says, is that he believes nuclear power has a role in the country's energy mix. He concedes the U.S. "is extraordinarily inept" in developing a safe way to store spent radioactive fuel, pointing to the decades-long attempt to use Yucca Mountain as a repository.

"The fact is, in the United States, the average availability of nuclear plants is over 90 percent," Rosner says. "These plants can be run, if they're well-engineered, effectively and efficiently."

Nuclear power is already playing a large role in some states. In Illinois, 50 percent of all electricity is produced from nuclear power, and it is the cheapest power the state provides. In fact, half of this nuclear material is down-blended uranium from the former Soviet Union -- "truly turning swords into plowshares," Rosner says.

Micropower, co-generation (simultaneously producing both electricity and useful heat), plus distributed renewables such as wind and solar, are already producing more electricity than nuclear worldwide, Lovins says.

"It's making a sixth of the world's total electricity, a third of the new electricity and from one-sixth to a half of all electricity in a dozen industrial countries, not including the U.S. where it is at 6 percent."

If you add that up, he says, it's obvious that central stations such as nuclear power plants don't have as much market share because they cost too much and have too much financial risk.

"In 2007, China, Spain and the U.S. each added more wind power than the world added nuclear power," Lovins says. "And the U.S. added more wind power than we added coal power in the last five years combined."

Yet wind and solar power represent just a fraction of the domestic electricity portfolio -- wind provides only 1 percent and solar less than two-tenths of a percent.

Government obstacles to progress.
The CEO of California-based PG&E;, one of the largest utilities in the U.S, points to government roadblocks as the biggest obstacle to greater use of renewables.

"They are incomprehensible," Darbee says. "And so it is taking eight years to bring a clean renewable project to market. Government has to get out of the way and start helping."

Darbee, whose company contracts for more renewable power than anybody in the country, says the cost for renewable energy is far higher in reality than what's quoted by the financial markets, adding to the burden of easy integration into the energy mix.

Nucear too slow to expand for fast climate action.
Rosner admits that nuclear power is not going to play a role in affecting climate change over the next two to three decades. "It might play a role once we get to the latter part of this century."

But, he says, "The longer we wait, the worse it gets. We need to do everything possible now."

Rosner addressed the issue of non-proliferation by advocating that the U.S. take a less "presumptuous" role. Instead of telling other countries what to do the U.S. should influence the world by being a leader in the nuclear sector and give away its expertise. "It is a much better way than how the U.S. has approached it in the past, which is basically telling people how to behave."

Lovins, however, says the two big problems that energy analysts have agreed upon for the last thirty years "as ways to do us in" are climate change and nuclear proliferation.

"You don't want to trade those off against one another," Lovins says. "If a country with our wealth in fuels technology and money says we have to have nuclear power, then going forward that's an open invitation for any other country lacking any or all of those advantages to say the same thing."

The bottom line, Lovins says, is to take the economics seriously "and do the cheapest things first."

--Rebecca Cole, Rocky Mountain Institute

More posts on RMI and nuclear power.
Climate Strategy: Every Dollar Counts
Re-thinking the Variability of Wind and Solar Power
Drawing The Water And Energy Connection

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