In October, four prominent climate scientists, climatologist James Hansen, atmospheric scientist Ken Caldeira, meteorologist Kerry Emanuel and climate scientist Tom Wigley, wrote that “. . . the development and deployment of “safer” nuclear energy systems as vital if the world is to address the problems presented by climate change.” They further said “In the real world, there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power.” Later that month, Eduardo Porter, a New York Times columnist, added an additional argument: Renewables cannot scale up rapidly enough to avert the problems of global warming.
The articles were wrong. Even ignoring safety and health concerns associated with nuclear power, they rest on a fallacious set of economic assumptions about nuclear energy and an uninformed view of renewables.
Nuclear Power is not a Feasible Solution
Nuclear power is not economically viable today and the likelihood that we could build enough nuclear plants by 2030 is vanishingly low for economic, if not technical, reasons. This is true even with large subsidies that would most likely be paid primarily by ratepayers. In spite of the promise in the fifties of “electricity too cheap to meter,” the present has proven economically difficult for nuclear power.
To start, nuclear energy is not a growing source of energy. Virtually all the growth in share of power was between 1973 and 1989. Nuclear power supplies about 20 percent of electricity a figure that has been more-or-less the same since the late 1980s. And, plants are being closed because they are not making a satisfactory rate of return. Moreover, even now, with low gas prices, nuclear power is not competitive even with the subsidies and some new projects are being cancelled (US Nuclear Power in Decline).
Of the plants that are running, most are economically viable only because of indirect subsidies they receive via ratepayer mandates. The Union of Concerned Scientists, in a recent report, observes -“[t]he most important subsidies to the industry do not involve cash payments. Rather, they shift construction costs and operating risks from investors to taxpayers and ratepayers.” For new plants, the implicit subsidy is from 5 to > 11c/kwh for investor-owned plants and lower for publicly owned facilities. Finally, the Price-Anderson Act caps liabilities to third parties. This means that in the case of a catastrophic failure, public dollars, not the company’s capital, are at risk.
For example, when Duke Energy’s Crystal River Nuclear Plant closed, ratepayers found themselves on the hook for “[a] botched upgrade, the cost of buying replacement power, funds to decommission the facility and the bill for a new gas-fired plant,” according to this story on NPR.
Nuclear power cannot deal with these problems in the time-frame needed. Here’s the simple math: Nuclear now provides about 20 percent of power in the US with 100 plants built over more than 40 years and many have permits that will expire in this decade. This means we must build hundreds of new plants, including replacements, requiring substantial subsidies to make a significant contribution between now and 2030 – 17 years – toward replacing fossil fuels. It appears highly unlikely that this will happen. And while there are new, developing nuclear technologies, they are still a long way off before commercial adoption and we don’t know how much they will cost to deliver power.
And we will still have to rely on renewables to complete the task.
Efficiency and Renewables: A Better, Feasible Solution
In fact, feasible solutions need not involve nuclear power. There are three elements in the equation for a renewables-based sustainable future.
- Efficiency: According to an NRDC study, energy use per dollar of GDP has been falling since at least 1990 and is projected to continue to fall. This means the economy can grow without a proportionate growth in energy consumption.
- Renewable energy will be plentiful: According to work by Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucci and others, the US can produce enough energy by 2030 with renewables alone.
- Renewable prices are dropping rapidly: The cost of solar and wind energy has come down dramatically over time and will become competitive with or cheaper than other sources without subsidies (see here).
In short, nuclear energy does not have to be part of the plan and the future is hopeful if we depend primarily on renewables and efficiency.