The earthquake and tsunami in Japan have cast a pall over the nuclear industry once again.
Never mind that the GE Mark 1 plants have performed well for more than forty years. Or that the performance effectiveness of nuclear power has been spectacular as measured by capacity factor, cost of operations, reliability, and—yes, safety.
Never mind that fewer people have died from nuclear power than from coal or oil or wind or solar or any other energy source—or for that matter that fewer total people have died in nuclear power plant accidents in the entire history of the industry than in a single day of auto accidents or other risks we face each day in our normal lives.
Prudence Suggests Building New Nukes to Get Better Technology and Safety
The events in Japan have caused a time out for reflection, for review of safety standards and to test the public mood. Opponents of nuclear power see this as a fresh start opportunity to make their case for wind or solar or efficiency or anything else other than fossil fuels. Proponents of nuclear energy must recite the facts, refute the myths and be patient while Japan stabilizes its situation and reason balances emotion in the debate.
Reason will lead us to a balanced, prudent outcome, we hope, that considers the following:
- The World’s Economy Needs Reliable Baseload Power Generation. Without it the industrial engines of nations cannot function. There are only two generally available sources of baseload power: coal or nuclear power. Today about 20% of its total US electricity consumption comes from nuclear power and replacing it means a greater reliance on coal.
- Energy Substitution, Security, and Sufficiency. Often the energy debate gets muddled in a discussion of oil imports, but oil long ceased being a practical fuel for power generation. But the policy goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation as well as power generation forces the issue of substitution to the table. Studies of the potential for plug-in electric vehicles (PHEV) tell us we will need cheap baseload power to make the power grid adaptable for the demand increase from serious market share growth in PHEV.
- Nuclear Power is a Condition Precedent to Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction. So says the International Energy Agency warning EU countries not to rush to judgment about closing their nuclear power plants in reaction to the Japan crisis. The IEA says reducing nuclear power production will inevitably lead to increasing use of coal and natural gas and rising emissions.
- Renewable Energy Some Backup Required. Opponents of nuclear power says it can be replaced by wind, solar and other forms of renewable energy, but despite the frenzied efforts and substantial subsidies and renewable portfolio standards mandates the market share of all renewables together is still less than the total for nuclear power and a fraction of the market share of coal. The other issue is that grid stability requires that wind and solar be backed up with dispatchable energy and unless it is teamed with a natural gas combined cycle plant that can ramp up and down with demand backup is going to come from baseload power from baseload coal or nuclear generation for the foreseeable future.
- Counting on Energy Efficiency? There is one more thing to consider. The rapid market share growth of flat screen HD TVs in the past five years has consumed the sum of all the energy efficiency savings from more efficient refrigerators and other appliances over the past 20 years! That is why California adopted new energy efficiency code requirements on flat screen TVs going into effect this year. The rest of the country has not yet adopted California’s 1970’s energy efficiency standards ignoring that they have reduced California’s energy intensity to 50% of the national average for power use.
We are not going to save our way out of this decision with negawatts or renewable energy.
It was good to see the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approve the license extension for Vermont Yankee, but it reminds us that our current fleet of nuclear power plants is living on borrowed time. We have learned a lot about nuclear power plant design, operations and safety in the last 40 years but to take advantage of the advanced in science and technology we must allow the construction of new nuclear power plants, train new operators to replace those retiring, and build the power generation capacity and reliability needed to live into our economic future.
- Why America Should Not Give Up on Baseload Power Generation (insightadvisor.wordpress.com)
- Nuclear Paradox (civicchoices.wordpress.com)
- Should The Tsunami Stop Nuclear Power? (greentechmedia.com)
The international Energy Agency is warning nations to avoid a knee-jerk reaction to the nuclear power plant problems in Japan saying that achievement of greenhouse as emissions targets is not possible without nuclear power.
Wow! Think about that!
The environmental advocates who have spent decades railing against nuclear power and fossil fuels are now being told they must choose but if their choice to to use the current Japanese crisis to try to force the closure of nuclear power plants or prevent the building of new ones then the consequence of that decision will be to fore-go their climate change policy of reducing the use of fossil fuels.
London, March 16 – Global warming will intensify if leading carbon emitter China drops the world’s most ambitious nuclear power building program and Germany shuts down its nuclear plants amid panic over Japan’s atomic energy crisis.
Wednesday’s decision by the world’s biggest coal burner and largest climate-warming carbon emitter to suspend approvals for new nuclear plants follows a decision by Europe’s biggest carbon emitter Germany to shut seven nuclear plants.
Japan, already the world’s fifth biggest carbon emitter before Friday’s tsunami shut several of its nuclear plants, has little choice but to burn more gas and coal to make up for the loss of its low-carbon reactors.
Reacting to the crisis caused by an earthquake and tsunami in Japan, China’s decision to freeze plant approvals threatens to increase carbon emissions. A similar response in land-locked Switzerland and major earthquake-free Germany may also mean much more is emitted by the European energy sector.
“This will definitely increase emissions as it will affect the long-term demand for gas,” Isabelle Curien, analyst at Deutsche Bank, said.
“If we want to have a low-carbon economy by 2050, not using nuclear would require huge access to renewable energy and I am not sure that can be done in such proportions.”
As well as being the leading cause of man-made climate change, burning coal is also a leading cause of smog, acid rain, bronchitis, aggravated asthma and premature death, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
China, which U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern estimates could be emitting 60 percent more carbon than the United States by the end of the decade, had been banking on nuclear power to cut its dependence on coal over the next decade, with a target to start building 40 gigawatts of new capacity by 2015.
It seems unlikely Beijing will abandon those plans and it has not yet ordered its existing ones to shut. But the freeze could delay their construction while coal-fired power plant building continues unabated.
Germany’s decision to shut seven of its oldest reactors at least until June will also likely lead to more pollution being billowed into the atmosphere.
“I would expect plants that burn coal to be the most likely replacement for those reactors. Which means you will have between 8 and 11 million additional tons of CO2 in the coming months,” said Matteo Mazzoni, a carbon analyst at Italy’s Nomisma Energia.
Should Germany go a step further and shut all of its exiting reactors down, replacing them with fossil fuels could boost its emissions by at least 400-435 million tons between now and 2020, analysts estimate.
The head of Greenpeace International’s renewable division said the closure of the nuclear plants would have no carbon impact because Germany’s coal plants already run flat out most of the time.
“They are usually running 24/7 anyway so an increase in output is almost impossible,” Sven Teske said.
“We do have a lot of surplus wind power we could add which are usually switched off,” he said, adding that more energy efficiency and a little more gas-fired production could fill in the gap.
The global impact of Japan’s nuclear problems on climate change is impossible to judge with the plant’s operators still trying to avert a major nuclear disaster.
The International Energy Agency, which advises the world’s biggest industrial member countries of the OECD, warned against a knee-jerk reaction against nuclear and said it was impossible to slash carbon emissions without atomic energy.
But as the global panic around Japan’s nuclear problems grew, Europe’s energy chief raised the prospect of a nuclear-free future, which environmental groups say could and should be greener but others say will likely be gassier.
“The Japanese tragedy could lead to a setback for the world’s nuclear renaissance (except perhaps in China),” analysts at French bank Societe Generale said, adding that gas will likely become the fuel of “no choice” in OECD countries where voters may decide against nuclear power.
SocGen estimates that if all 34 countries in the OECD, which does not include China, were to shut their nuclear power plants and replace them with gas plants before technology to capture their carbon emissions is developed, OECD carbon emissions could rise by nearly one billion tons of CO2 a year.”
- Snap Analysis: World to warm if Japan panic spreads (reuters.com)
- China, Germany pause nuclear plans amid Japan’s crisis – USA Today (news.google.com)
- A Nuclear-Free World? Be Ready for a Lot More Gas (ecocentric.blogs.time.com)
- Nuclear power plants shut down in Germany (ashwathputtur.wordpress.com)
- Facing Up to Nuclear Risk (businessweek.com)
Once upon a time in a land not far away from our memory, we experienced an extended period of economic growth. We actually manufactured things here in the US instead of importing them from China. We built homes by the subdivision instead of tucked them into some odd-ball sized inner city space. We needed mobility so we built the interstate highway system. We sent men to the moon and imagined entirely new ways to communicate with each other. I’m describing, of course, the post WWII America that gave rise to the baby boomers and the technology revolution they created.
We needed energy to run that America and we built power plants that were fueled with coal because we had plenty of it and it was cheap. Yes it polluted the air and over time we got progressively more serious about cleaning it up with new rules and better technology.
And then the world turned upside down with oil embargos, energy crisis after crisis, the Fuel Use act which prevented using natural gas and then the Natural Gas Policy act which encouraged it, the Energy Policy act which allowed wholesale power competition and then the emergence of renewable energy from wind and solar since Three Mile island scared us off from building more nuclear plants and inflation and regulatory delays made them prohibitively expensive.
We went from being optimistic and growth focused to pessimistic and constraints focused.
Fast forward a decade and we’ve reached a middle ground where we’d like to manufacture things in America AGAIN to create jobs, but we’re worried about global warming (or climate change or climate disruption depending upon how Al Gore explains the latest meltdown of his Inconvenient Truth) so today we focus on optimization and venture capital is being thrown at smart grid and its assorted technology disciples to conquer this middle kingdom.
Coal has not gone away but we don’t build as much of it anymore. Nuclear power has not gone away and we plan to build one new nuke in the South if the Japanese will build the containment vessel, the Chinese will let us into their AE queue, and the NRC will stick with the plan approved instead of changing it constantly whenever some group gets nervous.
Living in a scenario driven by optimization around green goals is a wonderful place to be if you can get there. But the costs are high because the technologies are new. Wind and solar are plentiful but intermittent and need back-up and besides the wind blows in places far removed from the markets we need to serve and the transmission lines are not always adequate to the task. And then there is still the Chinese quest for market share buying every commodity they can for domestic use, building export capacity to drive down prices just enough to discourage US manufacturing competitiveness in wind turbines, solar panels and many other products which as an intended consequence reduces industrial demand enough to discourage building the kind of baseload power plants with cheap domestic coal we used to build.
The question is are we getting the energy future wrong?
- Lower Average Energy Costs with Baseload. If we want to manufacture more things here at home and create jobs we will need steady or lower energy costs. The kind of energy costs we got from building baseload generation in a market environment where the incremental costs of new capacity brought down the average costs for all.
- Improve Efficiency through Competitive Market Forces. We’ve learned that wholesale competition for power generation is great at driving out the excess costs and driving up the capacity factors and efficiency of the plants. In a study we did of divested old power plants in the last decade we found that the improvements in the way the divested coal plants were operated produced enough efficiency gains to power 25 million typical American homes for a year. Similar improvements were found in the divested nuclear plants.
- Create Competitive Market Conditions for Manufacturing and Job Growth. There is much the US can do to restore its competitive market position and create jobs—driving up taxes and the costs of doing business are not among them. When we get serious about growth again we can get our groove back. The recession has officially ended but the pain continues, but America seems ready for changes in tax laws, investment policy and a focus on growth and job creation to create those competitive conditions.
There is nothing wrong with adding renewable energy, smart grid, efficiency and other technologies and strategies to our energy mix. But they are not sufficient to get the job done without tax and investment policies and certainty in our regulatory conditions to attract investment, restore economic growth and create jobs.
Our policy should focus on bringing down the average cost of doing business and that includes lower average energy costs. The only way to achieve that is through economic growth to increase energy demand with the baseload energy and competitive market policies (not un-sustainable dependence upon subsidies) to achieve it.
The place to start is creating a ferociously attractive market in off-peak energy use to jump start manufacturing and production again and then sustain that with the baseload resource to live into our long term economic growth strategy of getting our groove back.