Sunday, April 08, 2018

The Simple Argument for Keeping Nuclear Power Plants Open - By David Roberts

We need more carbon-free power, not less.

Wave goodbye. (Credit: Wikipedia) Click to Enlarge.
Environmentalists have a long, strange, and vexed relationship with nuclear power, a great historical accretion that, in your author’s humble opinion, makes it difficult for them to see this issue clearly.

Part of the problem is that the question of what to do with existing nuclear plants gets tangled up in all sorts of peripheral arguments, many of which involve strong tribal loyalties.  (If you want to see what I’m talking about, try going on Twitter and expressing a strong opinion about nuclear power.)

So I’m going to try to untangle things a bit, by showing what this argument is not about.
To get to zero emissions, natural gas must be phased out over time, but I have more faith in batteries, smart grids, EVs, and other grid-edge innovations to close that gap than I do in nuclear coming back to life.  Maybe the industry will come through with the long-rumored small, modular, meltdown-proof nuclear generators that consume spent nuclear waste.  I hope so!  We should research the hell out of those, though it doesn’t seem wise to bank on them.

Again, though, my point is that your position on these matters, whether you are “pro” or “anti” future nuclear, is immaterial to the issue at hand.  It has nothing to do with the question of what to do with existing nuclear power plants.

You do not have to like nuclear power, or ever want to build another nuclear power plant, to believe that existing sources of carbon-free power should be kept running as long as practicably possible.  You only have to like carbon-free power or dislike climate change.

It’s not about nuclear versus renewables
Some environmentalists seem determined to establish a zero-sum conflict between renewables and nuclear power — not only new nuclear but existing nuclear.  They say it can be replaced with efficiency and renewable energy, which are safer.

Problem is, we’ve seen several nuclear plants shut down in recent years and now have a pretty good idea what replaces them.  It’s mostly natural gas and some coal. 
Today, variable sources like wind and solar are not a one-to-one replacement for firm capacity like nuclear.  They might be someday soon, with help from batteries, but in the short term, the time horizon of these nuclear retirements, they are not.  That means more natural gas.

A PJM spokesperson told E&E reporter Sam Mintz, “in the short term, on a day-to-day basis, under the current economics and likely future conditions, the [retired nuclear] energy would be replaced by natural-gas-fired generation.”

For practical purposes, the choice is not existing nuclear versus renewables; it’s existing nuclear versus natural gas.  And as a fossil fuel, natural gas creates more greenhouse gases — an easy choice for climate hawks.
It’s just about math
When an operating nuclear plant shuts down, a big chunk of carbon-free energy is lost.  A big chunk. There’s just no way to spin that as a good thing.  The five nuclear plants shut down between 2013 and 2016 alone produced as much electricity as all US solar put together.  Carbon-wise, that means the next doubling of US solar will mostly be spent trying to make up for nuclear losses.

According to the EIA, in 2017, nuclear energy provided 805 TWh of US power, around 20 percent of the total.  Renewables, excluding hydropower, provided 387 TWh, or 9.6 percent.  Like it or not, we currently get twice as much carbon-free power from nuclear as we do from renewables.

Some 15 to 20 nuclear plants are at risk of closing in just the next five to 10 years.  EIA’s reference case shows nuclear capacity experiencing a net decline of about 20 GW through 2050, with potentially much larger losses.

That means by 2050, something like 160 TWh a year of renewable energy will go to replacing the carbon-free energy lost from retired nuclear — instead of going to, say, reducing the consumption of fossil fuels.
No matter what it’s replaced with, the loss of carbon-free energy is a tragedy, a blow to climate change efforts when there is no time to lose.

An enormous amount of such energy is about to be lost in the mid-Atlantic and, in coming years, across the US power fleet.  The question of how some of it might be saved is complicated, and finance and safety decisions will ultimately be made on a plant-by-plant basis.

But saving it, or at least as much of it as possible, seems like an obvious and urgent priority for anyone who values decarbonization.

Read more at The Simple Argument for Keeping Nuclear Power Plants Open

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