Is Nuclear Power Vital to Hitting CO2 Emissions Targets?
Posted by hkarner - 16. November 2016
Source: The Wall Street Journal
New nuclear power plants are rare due to market conditions and rules favoring renewable sources of electricity.
Nuclear power is fizzling.
In recent years, many countries have largely stopped building new nuclear plants and are looking elsewhere for power. In the wake of the Fukushima disaster in 2011, Japan shut down all its nuclear reactors, though a few have restarted since last year. Germany also moved to phase out nuclear power by 2022. (China is a notable exception, with 20 reactors under construction.)
Market conditions heavily favor cheaper fuels such as natural gas over nuclear. And the regulatory climate favors other sources of energy. In the U.S., the Obama administration introduced rules requiring power plants to cut CO2 emissions 32% from 2005 levels by 2030, though President-elect Donald Trump says he will drop that rule. While nuclear plants don’t generate CO2, companies can tap federal tax credits for investing in renewables. What’s more, power companies can sell renewable electricity at higher prices because utilities need wind and solar supply to comply with state rules.
Meanwhile, fears about catastrophic nuclear accidents and unresolved questions about waste storage linger.
With all that, some experts say nuclear plants are the best way to transition to a low-carbon future until the price of renewable energy drops further. But others say the plants are too risky and costly to keep in operation.
Susan Tierney, a senior adviser at the Analysis Group, an economic, financial and strategic consulting firm, makes the case for a key role for nuclear power. Arguing against reliance on nuclear power is Michael Dorsey, a director on the Sierra Club National Board and full member of the Club of Rome.
YES: Renewables Can’t Fill the Gap Yet
By Susan Tierney
I’m all for making smart investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy. We should be aiming to reduce carbon emissions and limit the worst effects of climate change.
At the same time, we need to keep electricity affordable and accessible to regular folks and sophisticated energy managers alike. That means nuclear power is an essential piece of the equation, at least for now. We need to retain the carbon-free power produced at existing nuclear plants for as long as they can safely operate.
In the near term, existing nuclear plants are vital to hitting our carbon-reduction targets. We need them to help transition the power system to a lower-carbon profile. And getting it right economically is essential to many people’s willingness to pull carbon out of the system.
Consider: Today’s nuclear plants provide one-fifth of our power but nearly two-thirds of carbon-free electricity. Yes, the costs of wind and solar are dropping dramatically. That’s great news. But for now, they provide just 5% of our power supply. And scaling up their market share takes time. Retaining existing nuclear power is good for consumers. A nuclear plant operates around the clock, and wind and solar only operate when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining. In 2015, one megawatt of wind capacity produced power 32% of the time, one megawatt of solar produced power 29% of the time.
In the long term, of course, the current fleet of nuclear plants will eventually retire and needs to be replaced by electric resources that don’t contribute to climate change. But in the near term, any time a nuclear unit retires, its output is replaced by plants that burn fossil fuel. That’s the reality we face.
Given all that, allowing existing nuclear plants to close would be a disaster. Nuclear plants’ output helps to keep electricity prices lower than they would otherwise be, and premature loss of safely operating nuclear plants would leave the nation’s electric-resource mix much less diverse, with much higher costs and much higher carbon emissions. To repeat: I, too, want to see the nation’s power sector reduce its carbon footprint, rather than increase it because existing nuclear units are closing.
We’re already probably facing big increases in power costs due to market forces and infrastructure needs. Several nuclear plants are scheduled to retire, and many other of the nation’s 100 reactors—including some of the nation’s best-performing plants—are financially challenged.
That’s happening in large part due to the effect of historically low natural-gas prices on revenue in wholesale power markets. What’s more, most of those power markets don’t compensate nuclear units for their carbon-free generation. Companies that generate nuclear power don’t get credit for producing carbon-free electricity, the way they do for using renewables. And utilities that buy the power don’t get rewarded for buying that electricity.
It’s also important to remember that nuclear retirements differ from other generating-unit retirements: Unlike other kinds of traditional power plants, nuclear plants cannot practically be mothballed and then brought back on line if need be, because of the huge costs incurred even in a temporary shutdown. This means that once a unit is retired, its electric-system benefits go away for good. With this in mind, keeping a plant in operation provides important insurance to help keep us on course to reduce carbon emissions.
And there are potentially benefits to nuclear in the long term—if we continue investing in nuclear and figuring out how to design advanced technologies to bring down their construction and operating costs, bring them to markets in much shorter time frames, and address the core safety and waste-management problems of this fuel.
It’s too soon to know that we can do that, and it’s also too soon to throw out them out of the running. We need to keep our options as robust as possible if we want to address climate change both urgently and cost-effectively.
We’ve got our work cut out for us, even with existing nuclear plants as part of our near-term mix.
Dr. Tierney is a senior adviser at the Analysis Group, an economic, financial and strategic consulting firm. She can be reached at email@example.com.
NO: Nuclear Isn’t Clean—or Cheap
By Michael Dorsey
“A ridiculously expensive way to boil water!”
That’s what a good friend always remarked when asked what he thought about nuclear power.
In October 2016, the world experienced an unprecedented historical milestone. For the first time in history, the International Energy Agency confirmed that in the previous year renewable energy, largely from solar and wind, became the biggest source of new global electricity capacity, surpassing coal. This achievement received headline attention.
In fact, solar and wind alone already have more energy-generation capacity than nuclear power. By the end of 2015, the world-wide capacity of wind-power generation all by itself reached 432 gigawatts, while global nuclear-power-generation capacity was only 383 gigawatts.
Nuclear advocates have always faced a tough reality. Questions of safety aside, the costs of licensing, maintaining and running a nuclear-power plant and properly disposing of the waste are becoming increasingly impossible to manage.
Approximately a quarter of U.S. reactors have underwater operating expenses. They are cost-ineffective and noncompetitive at current electricity-generation rates. Upside-down nuclear finances are worsened as the prices of solar- and wind-energy generation continue to fall.
From California to New York and at many points in between, like Illinois and Nebraska, nuclear plants have been closed, are closing or are scheduled to close. The Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s leading trade association, has forecast that possibly an additional 15 to 20 nuclear plants are at risk of a premature shutdown in the next decade due to financial troubles.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is currently overseeing the decommissioning of 19 closed nuclear reactors across the country. Some countries—Belgium, Germany, Spain and Switzerland—have announced that they are phasing out nuclear power entirely.
Some critics argue that closing nuclear plants will increase the amount of fossil-fuel use, and, by extension, the amount of greenhouse gases that are then released into the atmosphere.
But the only way that fossil-fuel power generation goes up is if those plants increase their output. The reality is that every efficient power plant already operates at its maximum output. And when energy companies make their big investments these days, they are moving in two dominant directions: building new renewable capacity and making their inefficient fossil-fuel plants efficient—they aren’t building new, “dirty” plants. There aren’t huge amounts of new carbon that are about to come on line if we close down nuclear plants.
Some also say renewables are costly and take too long to get up to speed, so we need nuclear in the meantime.
First, nuclear plants are retired over years—sometimes it can take almost a decade. Meanwhile, the price of solar took just five years to drop almost 70%, and it continues to fall at record rates. Renewables are now vastly cheaper than nuclear power, and the price will continue to fall.
Finally, there’s one big falsehood at the core of arguments for nuclear: that it’s “clean.” The full life cycle of nuclear power—from mining, milling, the separation of the uranium from the ore, to ultimate plant decommissioning—collectively generates vast amounts of carbon dioxide.
To put it another way: Nuclear reactors are only carbon-free when they are created out of thin air, like something in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. And they bring many other environmental costs beyond carbon, such as the disposal of their waste, When we account for the full environmental cost of nuclear plants over their lifetime, they do not make fiscal sense.
Continuing advancements, steadily falling prices and economies of scale are rapidly accelerating the spread of renewables. Spending time and resources on 20th-century nuclear power plants is folly.
Focusing efforts on a cleaner, renewable energy future is a triple win: for the environment, the economy and public health.
Dr. Dorsey is a director on the Sierra Club National Board and full member of the Club of Rome. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.