Monday, March 07, 2016

Is Nuclear Power Our Energy Future, Or in a Death Spiral?

Active cooling towers of the Byron Nuclear Generating Station outside of Chicago. (Credit: Michael Kappel/flickr) Click to Enlarge.
It is now generally agreed that the world must rapidly reduce carbon emissions in order to fight off dangerous climate change, but the “how” of that process remains up for debate.  And within that debate, nothing seems to produce such starkly opposing viewpoints as nuclear energy.  Some experts and advocates argue that carbon-free nuclear power represents the only real hope of keeping the planet’s temperature in check.  Others claim that nuclear is risky, unnecessary and far too expensive to make a dent.

The same basic data set — nuclear plants currently in existence, those under construction, the status of new technologies, the history of costs and delays, and a few striking accidents — produces those totally contradictory opinions and predictions.  Nuclear power is a Rorschach test: You see what you want to see — a rosy nuclear future or an old-world dinosaur in a slow death spiral — reflecting your own views on the energy present and future.  In all likelihood, no one will be proven right or wrong for decades.

Today and Tomorrow
Nuclear power today accounts for around 10 percent of the total electricity generation around the world.  This varies sharply by country — in the U.S. the rate is about 20 percent, in Russia and Germany it is a bit lower than that, while some other European countries get 40 and 50 percent from nuclear reactors.  France has long led the way proportionally, at more than 75 percent (it has the second most total reactors, behind the U.S.).  China, though building rapidly, drew less than 3 percent of its power from nuclear in 2014.
“I think we definitely need it in the battle against climate change.  This is broadly recognized,” says Jacopo Buongiorno, a professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  “Because now there is such an overwhelming concern about climate change, it’s like a tide that lifts all boats.  Anything that is perceived as clean is going up.  I think it is absolutely necessary.”

That type of take on nuclear isn’t particularly hard to find, but neither is this one:  “I don’t think nuclear power is a necessary component at all,” says M. V. Ramana, a research scholar at Princeton’s Nuclear Futures Lab.  “Nuclear power as a share of electricity generation is only likely to decline in the foreseeable future.  If we hold that up as a means of emission reductions, then we will not be successful with meeting any of the ambitious climate goals set” in the recent Paris agreement, in which 195 countries agreed to reduce emissions sharply.

In the run-up to that agreement, a group of the most prominent nuclear proponents — climate scientist James Hansen, Stanford’s Ken Caldeira and others — wrote in the Guardian that “nuclear will make the difference between the world missing crucial climate targets or achieving them.”

This was met with particularly harsh disdain from Naomi Oreskes, Harvard science historian and co-author of Merchants of Doubt, who wrote a response at the Guardian branding this “a new, strange form of denial.”

The heart of Hansen’s and Oreskes’ disagreement regards the necessity for nuclear and the technical feasibility of scaling up renewables:  Are other energy sources sufficient to wean us from fossil fuels?  Or is the reliable, large-scale (a single new reactor can reach 1,600 megawatts capacity, three times the size of the world’s largest solar plants) baseload power that nuclear provides a necessary component of the low-carbon future?

The anti-nuclear side of the argument focuses on several studies that have illustrated a renewables-only way to the goal, which could be cheaper and free of the risks associated with nuclear.  Mark Jacobson, director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program at Stanford University, has published state-specific plans showing how 100-percent renewables penetration would be achievable.  The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, part of the U.S. Department of Energy, published its Renewable Electricity Futures Study in 2012 and explained a clear path to 80 percent penetration in the U.S.  Others have shown similar routes forward.

Read more at Is Nuclear Power Our Energy Future, Or in a Death Spiral?

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