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Nukes are needed against climate change: yes, no, maybe?

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Parneet, a former student, recently asked me whether I thought nuclear energy was the energy of the future – especially in the context of climate change.  I said no – a bit quickly.  Turns out, it’s a complicated question.

Last week Jim Hansen and other climate scientists wrote an open letter to environmentalists who oppose nuclear energy.  Here are excerpts:

As climate and energy scientists concerned with global climate change, we are writing to urge you to advocate the development and deployment of safer nuclear energy systems. We appreciate your organization’s concern about global warming, and your advocacy of renewable energy. But continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.

Renewables like wind and solar and biomass will certainly play roles in a future energy economy, but those energy sources cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires… We understand that today’s nuclear plants are far from perfect. Fortunately, passive safety systems and other advances can make new plants much safer.

With the planet warming and carbon dioxide emissions rising faster than ever, we cannot afford to turn away from any technology that has the potential to displace a large fraction of our carbon emissions. Much has changed since the 1970s. The time has come for a fresh approach to nuclear power in the 21st century.

The open letter generated a good number of responses, including this (excerpted) one from NRDC, one of the environmental organisations targeted. 

Hansen and his coauthors are right to underscore the dangers of climate disruption from the global addiction to fossil fuels.  As longtime leaders of NRDC’s energy program, we agree with them that “energy systems decisions should be based on facts, and not on emotions and biases.”  But the authors of this letter (and other nuclear energy proponents) are on the wrong track when they look to nuclear power as a silver bullet solution for global warming.  To the contrary, given its massive capital costs, technical complexity, and international security concerns, nuclear power is clearly not a practical alternative. Instead, energy efficiency will always be the quickest, cheapest solution to our energy and climate challenges, and clean renewable energy is growing today by leaps and bounds…  the open letter suggests that that it is the environmental community that is somehow holding back a nuclear power surge.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  A US “nuclear renaissance” has failed to materialize, despite targeted federal subsidies, because of nuclear power’s high capital cost, long construction times, the lower demand for electricity due largely to improvements in energy efficiency, and competition from renewables.

Energy guru Amory Lovins responded (in a comment quoted by Andrew Revkin…scroll way down in the comments section):

Building new nuclear power plants would reduce and retard the climate protection that Drs. Hansen et al. (and I) want…Why? Because new nuclear power plants (of any kind) are so costly and slow to build that they’d save ~3-20x less carbon per dollar and ~20-40x less carbon per year than investing the same money in efficiency, cogeneration, and modern renewables.

The empirical data show that nonhydro renewables are adding 80+ GW/y, have already added more capacity in less than a decade than nuclear power has achieved in a half-century, and are attracting a quarter-trillion dollars of private capital per year. Nuclear energy is losing capacity (and was even before Fukushima), will soon fall behind nonhydro renewables in output as it already has in capacity (even China’s nuclear power was outgenerated last year by its windpower), and is unfinanceable in the capital markets.

More fundamentally, nonhydro renewables are scalable, mass-producible manufactured products. They’re exploiting the economies of mass production and fast marketwide installation that for nuclear power are a remote hope…If the concern is the supposed challenges of grid integration, I’d invite the authors to explain why Germany and Denmark (with 23% and 41% renewable electricity in 2012) have Europe’s most reliable electricity, and how the lights stay on in Spain (48% in the first half of 2013) and Portugal (70%), all without new bulk storage.

Lovins makes the most important point: nuclear is so slow that it would retard climate abatement efforts.  Renewables work, and so does conservation.  I agree with Hansen’s that nuclear energy risks pale before climate change; and that nuclear R&D offers hope of cheaper and safer nukes, and should be expanded (as should all scientific research).  But wind and solar are no longer “the energy of the future”.  Both are now the energy of the present, and, along with energy efficiency, they offer the better solution.  

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Written by enviropaul

November 11, 2013 at 2:20 pm

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