The Reality of the Need for More Nuclear Energy Is Hard to Ignore

 

Shutting down nuclear power plants is a lot easier than generating reliable, carbon-free energy. As The New York Times reports on the tenth anniversary of the meltdown of three nuclear reactors in Fukushima, Japan, following a massive earthquake-tsunami: “As the share of nuclear energy in Japan has plummeted from about a third of total power to the single digits, the void has been filled in part by coal and natural gas, complicating a promise that the country made late last year to be carbon-neutral by 2050.”

Indeed, a member of the government’s advisory committee on energy policy said the nation’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2050 would be hard with nuclear — but, he was quoted by the Financial Times, “In my view, without nuclear it is close to impossible.” (So far just a fifth of the 50 shut-down reactors have been restarted.) In that same NYT piece, reporters Ben Dooley and Hisako Ueno tell the story of what’s been happening in Suttsu, an “ailing fishing town” on Japan’s northernmost major island of Hokkaido. There’s been a big pushback by residents — a firebomb was tossed at the mayor’s home — upset that the mayor agreed to volunteer the town for a government study on potential locations for spent nuclear fuel rods. No commitment, just a study.

Before Fukushima, the piece continues, resource-poor Japan had come to accept its need for nuclear power. That, despite its World War II history. Perhaps reality will be accepted once again given (a) no fatalities have ever been found to be directly attributable to radiation exposure from the Fukushima meltdown and (b) the reactor shut-downs have caused fatalities due to the national switch to dirtier and more expensive power generated by imported coal and oil. More of the rest of the world will also accept the need for a nuclear solution. More on that reality in a recent essay from the Breakthrough Institute’s Ted Nordhaus:

Nuclear energy is no panacea either. And perhaps we will figure out how to entirely eliminate emissions with carbon capture or clean hydrogen or something else. But the actual technological pathways to deeply decarbonizing the entire global economy are few and far between. Nuclear is without question one of them. It can do things, like providing heat for industrial processes that renewables simply cannot easily, and is still the only low-carbon technology with a demonstrated track record of significantly decarbonizing a modern, industrialized economy.

As impressive as the falling costs of wind and solar energy have been, we aren’t going to power the entire global economy with variable sources of renewable energy alone. We have no experience or proven capability to operate an electrical grid entirely with wind and solar energy, much less the other 80% of the global energy economy that doesn’t run on electricity.

Good to see the attention given to both fission and fusion energy in the “Secure American Leadership in Science and Technology Act” being put forward by Rep. Frank Lucas, an Oklahoma Republican and ranking member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

Published in Environment, Science & Technology
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  1. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    Nuclear should be used a lot more than it is…but it is capital-intensive, about $6000/kw, which is even higher than hydroelectric at $5300/kw…so it doesn’t make economic sense to build out nuclear capacity to handle *all* the load peaks, with much  of that expensive capex sitting idle for most of the time.  And solar/wind can’t be counted on to be there when you need them, so fossil fuels…especially gas…will need to be included in the mix.

    Lots of data on generation types and cost here, from EIA.

    • #1
  2. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    David Foster (View Comment):
    hydroelectric

    The problem with hydroelectric is 1) we’ve just about dammed as many rivers as we can, and 2) environmentalists no longer look at hydro as good and are trying to shut those plants down too.  Nuclear power is clean, has a small footprint per acre (compared to solar and wind), and has the highest energy density of any source other than fusion – and that’s still on the drawing board for large scale commercial power.  Going green isn’t cheap.

    James Pethokoukis: the reactor shut-downs have caused fatalities due to the national switch to dirtier and more expensive power generated by imported coal and oil.

    The problem is those deaths are hidden . . .

    • #2
  3. Kozak Member
    Kozak
    @Kozak

    The new nuclear technologies that have been developed are smaller, cheaper, and safer then the aging tech we are currently using that was developed in the 1950’s.  We definitely need to move towards more nuclear power, especially if the Green mania on fossil fuels intensifies.  Wind and solar are at best boutique sources of energy.  

    • #3
  4. Roderic Reagan
    Roderic
    @rhfabian

    Even considering well publicized catastrophes like 3 Mile Island, Fukushima, and Chernobyl nuclear energy is safer and has caused the deaths of fewer people than any other energy source by an order of magnitude, even including wind and solar.

    Environmentalists who refuse to consider nuclear are simply not serious about reducing carbon emissions.

    • #4
  5. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Roderic (View Comment):
    Even considering well publicized catastrophes like 3 Mile Island, Fukushima, and Chernobyl nuclear energy is safer and has caused the deaths of fewer people than any other energy source by an order of magnitude, even including wind and solar.

    Never talked about is the damage to the environment and wildlife caused by solar and wind.  That damage to wildlife includes impacts to threatened and endangered species – impacts so severe, they’d shut down any other project . . .

    • #5
  6. Gazpacho Grande' Coolidge
    Gazpacho Grande'
    @ChrisCampion

    David Foster (View Comment):

    Nuclear should be used a lot more than it is…but it is capital-intensive, about $6000/kw, which is even higher than hydroelectric at $5300/kw…so it doesn’t make economic sense to build out nuclear capacity to handle *all* the load peaks, with much of that expensive capex sitting idle for most of the time. And solar/wind can’t be counted on to be there when you need them, so fossil fuels…especially gas…will need to be included in the mix.

    Lots of data on generation types and cost here, from EIA.

    But nuclear would provide consistent base load capacity.  The cost per kw may be high but would be spread across the rates, mixed in with other sources.  

    The other thing is:  The rates people pay are a confetti explosion of differences across states, even at county and municipal levels.  If the push is for a carbon-neutral energy footprint, that’ll wind up costing a lot more money – either directly in the rates or in subsidies, which means, again, that taxpayers take it on both ends.

    Mostly due to the whims of politicians.

    • #6
  7. Retail Lawyer Member
    Retail Lawyer
    @RetailLawyer

    Our electricity provider in N. California, PG&E, is running public service announcements urging consumers to not consume electricity between 4 and 9 pm!  Meanwhile, local cities are prohibiting natural gas hookups in new construction.  And state and Federal government are subsidizing electric cars.  So, soon Californians will return home from work and sit in cold, dark houses eating cold food for dinner.

    • #7
  8. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Retail Lawyer (View Comment):
    urging consumers to not consume electricity between 4 and 9 pm!

    So much for fully charging your electric car overnight . . .

    • #8
  9. Pony Convertible Member
    Pony Convertible
    @PonyConvertible

    The reason I don’t believe the environmentalists really believe global warming is going to destroy the world is they aren’t pushing nuclear power. It is the only known solution to the problem the say is imminent, yet they ignore it and push types of energy that have no hope of fixing the problem. 

    • #9
  10. Pony Convertible Member
    Pony Convertible
    @PonyConvertible

    Retail Lawyer (View Comment):

    Our electricity provider in N. California, PG&E, is running public service announcements urging consumers to not consume electricity between 4 and 9 pm! Meanwhile, local cities are prohibiting natural gas hookups in new construction. And state and Federal government are subsidizing electric cars. So, soon Californians will return home from work and sit in cold, dark houses eating cold food for dinner.

    Its what they want. They are free to do so, just as long as they don’t change their mind and move to my state.

    • #10
  11. OccupantCDN Coolidge
    OccupantCDN
    @OccupantCDN

    Finally! A post I can be agreeable with James Pethokoukis. I think that “green” types that believe that carbon emissions are a problem but are also anti-nuclear are being impractical. The majority of the population is not going to take a significant hit to their standards of living to avoid a problem a thousand years out. If we know Manhattan may be flooded a thousand years from now – it would be far cheaper to build a dyke or evacuate, than to attempt to control the weather by reducing economic activity now. While on the topic of forecast disasters – on the strength of a 10 day forecast, do you put your umbrella in the car? If no, then why would we spend untold trillions (both in direct spending and in lost economic activities) solely on the strength of a 20 000 day forecast.

    Even today, lets say there is an earthquake, and as a result a river changes course. It would be far cheaper to relocated the survivors and rebuild around the new river than to attempt to push the river back to its original bed. Its the same with climate change, except with a thousand years warning – nobody should be caught out, and nobody should drown.

    Nuclear reactors are only giant capital intensive money pits because they solely rely on boiling water pressure vessels – boiling water under pressure is dangerous, if a leak or a failure of the pressure vessel means that this pressurized water drops to atmospheric pressure – it will flash to a steam cloud 1000x larger in volume than in its liquid state. This is why the expensive, concrete containment buildings have to be so large around the reactor core. However if you remove the water from the design and instead use a molten salt coolant, you gain so much thermal efficiency, in the reactor. That you could literally make reactors small enough to fit on trucks.

    How different would the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina been, had there been nuclear reactors sea lifted into the city hours after the hurricane had passed? To power hospitals, rescue efforts, and provide clean drinking water?

    The future is nuclear – but molten salt or LFTR not continuing with the impractical designs of the cold war.

    • #11
  12. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    It is handy for identifying the posers; anyone who believes that climate change is going to kill us soon and opposes nuclear power is either lying, or stupid. In either case they should be ignored with extreme prejudice. 

    • #12
  13. OccupantCDN Coolidge
    OccupantCDN
    @OccupantCDN

    Here is a quick video about Small Nuclear Reactors:

     

    • #13