To reduce carbon emissions, U.S. should embrace nuclear power

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This month, the first new nuclear reactor in the United States in two decades came online. The new reactor at the Watts Bar power plant in Tennessee is expected to power 650,000 homes.

For those interested in reducing the greenhouse gases that are a major contributor to climate change, that’s very good news. Nuclear power generates no greenhouse gases at all. In fact, nuclear power may very well be the key to end coal use and switch to clean energy.

The first full-scale commercial nuclear power plant came online in Great Britain in 1956 at Calder Hall. According to a BBC report broadcast at the plant’s opening, the then-Lord Privy Seal Richard Butler predicted that, by 1965, every future power plant would be nuclear. That clearly did not work out.

The world soured on nuclear power after three disasters:

  • 1979 Three Mile Island disaster: A cooling equipment malfunction led to the partial meltdown of the No. 2 reactor at the Three Mile Island power plant in Middletown, Pennsylvania. However, the reactor’s containment building remained intact and very little radiation was actually released into the environment. The incident led to new rules from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission governing everything from training of plant operators to new reactor designs.
  • 1986 Chernobyl disaster: A power surge during a reactor -systems test destroyed Unit 4 of the Chernobyl power plant in what is today Ukraine. The accident and the resulting fire released massive amounts of radiation into the environment. The fire was put out by Soviet Army helicopters that dropped sand and boron. The remains of the reactor were covered in a concrete structure to prevent the release of further radiation. The area within 30 kilometers of the plant was evacuated by the Soviet government. The majority of those suffering from radiation effects either worked at the plant itself or were involved with the cleanup. So far, the radiation effects on workers and residents of the area have been far less severe than the worst case scenario, which could have been tens of thousands of deaths. The reactor design itself has been blamed as the cause of the accident.
  • 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster: The tsunami caused by Tohoku earthquake destroyed the emergency generators that cooled the reactors. Three reactors melted down, releasing high amounts of radiation. More than 100,000 people were evacuated from the area around the plant. Although there were no deaths or illnesses as a result of the meltdown and radiation release itself, an estimated 1,000 have died as a result of the evacuation, which has been maintained to this day. A study in 2015 by the University of Southern California found that design flaws, regulatory failures and negligence by the operator of the Fukushima plant led to the disaster.

The Fukushima disaster led Germany to announce that all nuclear power plants in the country would be closed by 2022. Germany reduced its reliance on nuclear power from 23 percent to 16 percent of its energy supply from 2010 to 2014, but it has increased its reliance on renewables from 17 percent to 28 percent. However, coal has remained 43 percent of Germany’s power supply. According to Deutsche Welle, electricity prices have increased by 12 percent from 2009 to 2014. The replacement of lower-cost nuclear by higher-cost renewables will only push those prices higher still.

Switzerland also decided to phase out nuclear power after Fukushima. But earlier this year, the Swiss Parliament decided to reverse course on that decision. They declined to set a date to decommission nuclear power plants.

The United States should not entertain a nuclear phase-out, as Sen. Bernie Sanders has suggested on the presidential campaign trail. Ending nuclear power, which generates 19.5 percent of all U.S. energy, would increase greenhouse -as emissions. Instead of renewables replacing most of the shuttered power plants, they would be largely replaced by fossil-fuel burning power plants, because they’re a more stable source of power.

How can the United States get more nuclear power in the grid? For starters, nuclear reactor builders need to standardize designs. This has been the key to nuclear’s success in places such as China and South Korea. Even the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission encourages this.

There also needs to be a regulatory regime to encourage more innovation with nuclear reactors to make them safer and smaller. The accidents of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima were due to design flaws. New reactor technologies that can reduce the risk of meltdown should be explored.

Finally, there needs to be a stable regulatory environment for nuclear. Nuclear will always be the most regulated form of power generation because of its outsized risks. But that doesn’t mean that rules have to suffocate the industry. If regulation is predictable, companies would not be deterred from entering the market.

Nuclear can be a major part of a clean, carbon-free power grid. But the regulations and the technology need to catch up in order for costs to be lowered. Perhaps one day we can get to the point where most new power plants will be nuclear.

Guest blogger Kevin Boyd is a freelance writer based in Louisiana. 

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  • jdeely

    Great. Embraced. What’s next?

    “For starters, nuclear reactor builders need to standardize designs”
    Hmmm.. That sounds like it could take some time.So we need to get going on that. What’s the timeline? Who’s in charge?

    “There also needs to be a regulatory regime to encourage more innovation with nuclear reactors to make them safer and smaller.”
    Smaller would be better. Perhaps then somebody would actually want and finance one. That sounds like it could take some time. Who’s working on that regulatory regime? What’s the timeline?

    “Perhaps one day we can get to the point where most new power plants will be nuclear.”
    When is this one day?

    Here is one company that is starting to plan for their next nuclear
    http://www.ajc.com/news/business/175-million-new-nuke-study-some-regulators-want-ge/nrcgT/
    “In the hearing, Georgia Power executives said the company needs to get started on the study because it can take 17 years to license and build a new nuclear plant, which could be needed within 20 years.”

    So, what do we do this year, next year and all the other years out to 2032?

  • Chris

    Solar will soon be $1/w. Wind is already there. When nuclear is ~$2/w I’ll believe it has a future. Sadly it’s now $7/w and rising.

    • jimhopf

      You’re comparison doesn’t account for the fact that solar’s capacity factor is less than 20%, while nuclear’s is ~90%. That wipes out most of your cost difference. Also, intermittency limits the fraction of overall power than solar (and wind) can provide. As solar still provides ~1% of our power, hubris is a bit premature.

      BTW, nuclear actually was $2/W decades ago. So why is it so much more now? Only one explanation, excessive and ever increasing regulation.

      • Chris

        You’re absolutely right… $1 / 0.2 = $5/w; $7/0.9 = $7.8/w.

        BTW almost everything has become more expensive since the 70s… it’s called inflation. Solar has gotten much much cheaper… it’s called economies of scale. For Solar it’s AKA Swansons Law. Solar will be ~50% cheaper by 2020… nuclear will be ~10% more expensive.

        • jimhopf

          My figures were adjusted for inflation (i.e., nuclear cost $2/W in 2016 dollars).

          • Chris

            Yeah… we dodged a bullet with TMI… didn’t want to roll the dice again. Judging by the outcome of Fukushima the Japanese are likely wishing they had more regulation….

  • jimhopf

    Mostly a good article, but one statement is problematic:

    “Nuclear will always be the most regulated form of power generation because of its outsized risks.”

    What “outsized” risks? The facts show the opposite. Fukushima actually showed that the consequences of even a worst-case event were orders of magnitude lower than what everyone had assumed they would be. The (false) premise of the above statement is the entire reason for nuclear’s cost problems.

    Fukushima, a worst-case meltdown of three large reactors and the only significant release of pollution in non-Soviet nuclear’s entire history, caused no deaths and is projected to have no measurable public health impact. In stark contrast, fossil power generation (worldwide) causes several hundred thousand deaths *every year* and is a leading cause of global warming. Even the worst possible nuclear events are incapable of inflicting as much harm as that inflicted every single day by fossil power generation.

    Such excessive regulation is even harder to justify for the small modular and/or advanced reactors of the future. Due to their small size and fundamental characteristics, not only is the probability of a meltdown orders of magnitude smaller, but the maximum possible release (under any circumstances) is also only a few percent of what was released at Fukushima (i.e., clearly not enough to have any public health impact).

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