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April 18, 2005

Can nuclear power go green?

Is it time for environmentalists to reconsider nuclear power? It may be two decades since Chernobyl self-immolated, but for greens the specter never went away. Which is why, with the exception of East Asia, the number of nuclear-power plants around the world has pretty much stagnated since reaktor bolshoi moshchnosty kanalny #4 went south.

Unfortunately, climate change hasn’t gone away. In fact it’s accelerated, thanks to strong global economic growth, rapid industrialization in Asia, little real commitment to conservation in developed economies, and the fact that owning at least one SUV is now compulsory in the U.S. (Although it’s not just America's fault—as Tom Friedman notes in his new book “The World is Flat,” in Beijing alone some 30,000 new cars are hitting city streets every month.)

While global energy consumption and emissions have soared, workable green solutions haven’t kept pace. Conservation? Well, the Kyoto Protocol was a start, but at best it will cut average global temperatures by just 0.28°C by 2050. There’s natural gas, which is one of the cleaner fossil fuels, but by no means environmentally benign. And then there are those recurring green dreams—sun, wind, waves, hydro, Toyota Priuses… which even when taken together are a drop in the energy-efficiency bucket.

So: if environmentalists really want to decarbonize energy production, they're probably going to have to embrace nuclear power. As Stewart Brand writes in a thoughtful essay in the latest Technology Review:

The only technology ready to fill the gap and stop the carbon dioxide loading of the atmosphere is nuclear power.
Nuclear certainly has problems—accidents, waste storage, high construction costs, and the possible use of its fuel in weapons. It also has advantages besides the overwhelming one of being atmospherically clean. The industry is mature, with a half-century of experience and ever improved engineering behind it. Problematic early reactors like the ones at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl can be supplanted by new, smaller-scale, meltdown-proof reactors like the ones that use the pebble-bed design. Nuclear power plants are very high yield, with low-cost fuel. Finally, they offer the best avenue to a “hydrogen economy,” combining high energy and high heat in one place for optimal hydrogen generation.
The storage of radioactive waste is a surmountable problem (see “A New Vision for Nuclear Waste,” December 2004). Many reactors now have fields of dry-storage casks nearby. Those casks are transportable. It would be prudent to move them into well-guarded centralized locations. Many nations address the waste storage problem by reprocessing their spent fuel, but that has the side effect of producing material that can be used in weapons. One solution would be a global supplier of reactor fuel, which takes back spent fuel from customers around the world for reprocessing. That’s the kind of idea that can go from “Impractical!” to “Necessary!” in a season, depending on world events.

However, there’s another hurdle for nuclear power to overcome: cost. For most of the past two decades, nuclear hasn’t had a hope of competing with fossil fuels on cost, in part because Chernobyl handily coincided with OPEC losing control of oil prices (hard to believe right now, but in 1986 oil fell to $10 a barrel). That dragged down the cost of other fossil fuels too.

With oil prices stubbornly above $50 a barrel (for now, at least—I’ll blog about that little farce another time), is nuclear looking any more competitive?

Good question. Nuclear’s big problem is getting its numbers straight. While the operating costs of a typical nuclear-power plant are a bit lower than coal-fired plants (and much lower than gas-fired), capital costs are vast. For example, in a recent post, FuturePundit noted that a 2,700MW reactor being built in Taiwan will cost $6.5 billion—not exactly small change, and orders of magnitude more than fossil-fuel equivalents.

The nuclear industry reacted to this criticism as it always has—incomprehensibly. According to the NEI Nuclear Notes blog:

In order to provide competitive electricity, the nuclear industry has determined that the next generation of nuclear reactors must have overnight capital costs in the range of $1,000 – $1,200 per kilowatt of generating capacity for the so called “Nth-of-a-kind” nuclear plant. Nth-of-a-kind capital costs are achieved after first-time design and engineering costs have been recovered and as industry incorporates improvements in construction techniques and construction management gained during construction of the first few units.

Translation: we don’t know how expensive nuclear power really is either, but once we’ve built N reactors and ignored sunk costs we’ll have a better idea. Maybe. Which is one reason why even non-greens remain leery of nuclear power—and why the industry, if it wants a future, needs to open up about its economics. Oh, and actually start focusing on nuclear's considerable environmental benefits…

In the meantime, an opportunity to make real progress on climate change is being lost, and any environmentalists who speak up for nuclear power—like Greenpeace cofounder Patrick Moore—still find themselves cast into the not-so-green wilderness.

Posted by Stephen at 10:19 PM in Energy + environment | Energy + environment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (4)

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» Cost Estimates For New Nuclear Power Plants from FuturePundit
Elizabeth King and Eric McErlain of NEI Nuclear Notes blog have a post comparing the cost of new nuclear powe plants to... [Read More]

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» New Energy Currents: 04-22-2005 from Winds of Change.NET
Spring is in full bloom in the NYC, and the energy bill season is in full swing - a great time to be alive, in other words. As different technologies begin to compete in earnest for the public's attention, acceptance, and tax dollars, New Energy Curre... [Read More]

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» New Energy Currents: 04-22-2005 from Winds of Change.NET
Spring is in full bloom in the NYC, and the energy bill season is in full swing - a great time to be alive, in other words. As different technologies begin to compete in earnest for the public's attention, acceptance, and tax dollars, New Energy Curre... [Read More]

Tracked on April 22, 2005 10:32 AM

» New Energy Currents: 04-22-2005 from Winds of Change.NET
Spring is in full bloom in the NYC, and the energy bill season is in full swing - a great time to be alive, in other words. As different technologies begin to compete in earnest for the public's attention, acceptance, and tax dollars, New Energy Curre... [Read More]

Tracked on April 22, 2005 10:35 AM

Comments

absolutely not! we are not ready for nuclear engergy. similiar to the death sentence: it's absolute. a mistake lasts for many generations, and poisons the earth for a long time (depending on the half-life of the isotopes).

The Wisdom Keepers of the Mohawk Nation teach their people to respect the land, and that "... everything [we] do affects the Seventh Generation and we must think of the unborn faces looking up from beneath Mother Earth".

Posted by: nam lamore at April 22, 2005 11:48 AM