Nuclear Power: Climate Activists Disagree

NUCLEAR POWER:
CLIMATE ACTIVISTS DISAGREE

For my first post of the New Year I settled on nuclear as it’s the optimal resource for energy systems in society—energy dense, dispatchable, zero-emissions, and technologically advanced and the resource itself is cheap. It’s my sincere hope that the debate on the growth and development of nuclear power in the U.S. will be broached this year with rationale, logic, sobriety, and common sense given the challenges we’re facing. There is too much at stake and we have too many environmental constraints and economic goals in play to allow this resource to fade away or simply disappear from our industrial DNA while other countries throughout the world wisely invest in it and leverage its benefits in growing and developing their own economies.

DISCLOSURE:

  1. I have substantial research activities in utility-scale solar PV;
  2. I fully support nuclear power based on economic and environmental rationale.

 

CLIMATE EXPERTS WEIGH IN

In early December 2015 and in the middle of the Paris climate talks where 196 countries eventually came to a general agreement on reducing global carbon emissions, former NASA scientist and noted climate scientist/activist James Hansen, who is credited as being the father of climate change awareness, co-authored a brief op-ed promoting nuclear power as the single energy resource that “paves the only viable path forward on climate change…and…will make the difference between missing crucial climate targets or achieving them”. His co-authors are well-respected climate scientists Kerry Emanuel, Ken Caldeira, and Tom Wigley. Hansen, et al. make lucid and factual points and they acknowledge the critical role of renewables and the need to incorporate renewables into the world’s energy resource base. Moreover, they don’t promote nuclear as the exclusive answer to the world’s energy needs. Rather, they have a realistic grasp of the intermittency issues associated with renewables and, as such, they’re quite emphatic in their assertion that the combination of renewables and nuclear constitutes what they consider to be the optimal scenario for power generation in a growing and developing world.

It probably took all of a few minutes for the editorial by Hansen, et al. to reach the environmentalist community and raise the alarm for a response to be crafted and fired off around the world in order to quash the proposal by Hansen and colleagues. Sure enough, on January 7, 2016 Joe Romm published in ClimateProgress a rebuttal that summarily dismisses James Hansen as being “wrong about nuclear power”. In his article, the highly credentialed climate activist Romm, who is a former acting assistant secretary of energy for energy efficiency and renewable energy and holds a Ph.D. in Physics from MIT, bases his objection to nuclear on two core issues that he believes undermine nuclear as a legitimate option. From Romm’s article: “The nuclear power industry has essentially priced itself out of the market for new power plants because of its 1) negative learning curve and 2) inability to avoid massive delays and cost overruns in market economies. This is doubly problematic because the competition—renewable power, electricity storage, and energy efficiency—have seen steady, stunning price drops for a long time”. Romm continues with several references to support his position. One in particular is a a major report by the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) and International Energy Agency (IEA). I’ve looked at this report and can’t determine the basis on which Romm can justify using it as a reference to support his outright rejection of nuclear power. The study points out the safety issues as well as the costs associated with nuclear, but, it states directly that the “medium to long term prospects for nuclear energy remain positive”. In addition, Romm points to the issues of nuclear safety and waste.

Romm’s rebuttal, one-sided as it is, does raise points that warrant discussion. Regarding the safety and waste issues in the nuclear cycle, these will always be paramount concerns in the nuclear industry and God help us if we ever take these lightly. However, the U.S. performance record in nuclear safety is exemplary and isolated examples from Chernobyl and Fukushima aren’t sufficient cause to stanch the industry as a whole. Regarding waste, it’s glaring that in his piece Romm selectively restricts his waste concerns to nuclear, but chooses to avoid pointing out that the renewable energy field is completely dependent on heavy metals and rare earth elements, which have serious environmental and human health concerns regarding toxicity associated with the mining and processing required to prepare them for deployment in technologies such as solar panels. Does that mean we should abandon solar PV because it doesn’t measure up to the zero-risk, zero-waste criteria that we hold forth for fossil fuels and nuclear? Of course, not. And in a fair, objective discourse on such a critical issue as energy in society, no reasonable person would propose such a thing. Romm, however, does not take such an objective approach in his selective identification of the waste issues with nuclear while choosing to not mention waste issues associated with solar PV.

With respect to the construction of new capacity, the nuclear power industry in the U.S. has been dormant since the 1970s due to public sentiment and costs at that time. Nonetheless, the U.S. currently is the world’s leading producer of nuclear power, accounting for about 30% of global generation, according to the World Nuclear Association, all the while maintaining a stellar safety record. As for costs, I share Romm’s concern regarding construction costs but do not accept his hypothesis that the nuclear industry is suffering from a negative learning curve—this simply hasn’t been proven and the World Nuclear Association even points out in their Economics of Nuclear Power that there is significant variation of capital costs by country and with few new orders, the data set for new build costs is lacking. As such, it’s disingenuous to disparage an industry, an industry that has been throttled for 40 years in the U.S. but growing in the rest of the world, simply because that industry didn’t come out of a politically-induced coma without a stumble, misstep or miscalculation. I’ll guess that Romm is thankful we didn’t take a similar approach to solar PV back in the 80s when costs were over $20/kW (in $2009), but, instead, allowed innovation to take its due course. Consequently, solar has made great progress, albeit with substantial government subsidies.

Romm does point out one thing with which I agree and have deep concerns. That being, nuclear will struggle to compete in merchant power markets where the prevailing objective is short-term electricity prices but no incentives or mechanisms in place for capitalizing the costs to meet long-term energy needs over the course of 40-50 years. I commented on this in a previous post of mine where I discussed the shutting down of 2,148 MW of nuclear capacity recently in merchant markets in the northeast U.S. While Romm contends that nuclear has priced itself out of power markets, I’ll contend that if we have a U.S. power market model that precludes a zero-carbon energy resource such as nuclear, then it represents a flaw in the merchant market model, particularly with respect to carbon constraints. It needs to be pointed out that renewable energy itself is currently a resource in the power generation sector, not because it is inherently inexpensive or easily managed by power producers, but because it has environmental value (i.e., zero emissions). If a power market model were structured such that it precluded solar or wind based predominantly on costs the outcry from environmentalists would be deafening and they would assert that the true value of solar is not comprehended in costs alone. There are, in fact, programs that incorporate what is referred to as “value of solar” where the value of solar is calculated based on parameters ranging from easily-determined energy and line losses to highly-subjective environmental benefits. As for giving nuclear the same benefit for its environmental value, not to mention its inherent dispatchability value, the silence from the same environmentalists is equally deafening. This isn’t a fair and objective manner for debating the critical issue of energy.

Romm also claims that the cost of nuclear is doubly problematic because the competition—renewable power, electricity storage, and energy efficiency—have seen steady, stunning price drops for a long time”. This just isn’t the case. While the cost per kW for renewable energy technologies has certainly dropped significantly, renewable energy itself still cannot stand on its own two intermittent feet, but requires the backup of dispatchable fossils and nuclear—and these backup dependency costs are not reflected in the “stunning price drops” Romm mentions. Regarding electricity storage, which is certainly a critical future need in the energy industry, it isn’t economically feasible, yet. As for energy efficiency, while we should always encourage efficiency, we need to face the facts of reality on this one—energy efficiency has a floor and there is only so much energy that society can stop consuming.

My last point regarding the Hansen-Romm editorials. Hansen et al. are evenhanded in their assessment of nuclear and renewables; they don’t throw renewables under the bus, and they’re upfront about the safety and waste issues associated with the nuclear fuel cycle. However, they make the simple, realistic and obvious point that is understood by every single human being in the energy world, and that is that renewables have one fundamental flaw of nature that is problematic for energy systems in society: Renewables are intermittent. While Romm aggressively attacks nuclear, although he throws a bone to small modular reactors and he doesn’t propose shutting down all nuclear plants, he never one time addresses this fundamental flaw of renewable energy. Not one time. In fact, the word intermittency isn’t even in his article. Shame!

Actually, let me rephrase that—Typical!

CLOSING WORDS

In 2015 we witnessed landscape changes in the energy sector for the U.S. and the world. Among them were EPA’s unprecedented regulation of the U.S. power generation sector through the Clean Power Plan and a global agreement on carbon reduction at the Paris COP 21 climate talks. For environmentalists, this is like the dog finally catching the car it’s been chasing for years. The problem is it falls to industry to figure out what to do with it because environmentalists are experts at barking at cars but not operating or maintaining them.

Energy alone is a natural resource subject to the laws of physics, chemistry and biology, and every sovereign nation in the world occupies itself with increasing its capacity to acquire it and convert it into a form that can be used in providing its own society and economy with mobility, power and heat. And, of all the energy resources in the world, nuclear is the only high density, dispatchable, zero-emission energy resource that can meet the immediate and long-term dual objectives of economic growth and low carbon emissions, particularly with respect to countries that will develop their economies and improve their own prospects for wealth and prosperity, regardless of globally agreed upon carbon targets. Yes, energy alone is a natural resource; but energy in society is something altogether different. Energy in society is power, leverage, strength and authority, and energy decisions are based on economic needs, politics, aspirations and beliefs. The debate I have presented here is an example of climate change activists disagreeing on something that you might think would be logical and easily agreed upon. However, while one side is practical, rational and forthcoming in its argument, the other side is more selective in its argument against nuclear and seems to give precedence to personal preferences and uses selective arguments to support those preferences. We cannot afford to address economic growth and environmental issues with these sorts of arguments. The human and environmental welfare of a developing and growing global community deserves better than that.

So, here’s to 2016…and the hope for a rational, pragmatic, sober and common sense conversation that will advance nuclear power in the U.S. for the next 50 years.

…ilyh…

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8 thoughts on “Nuclear Power: Climate Activists Disagree”

  1. David, … “God help us if we take these lightly”. People seem to think that worst case nuclear scenarios are catastrophic when there is no evidence for this at all. It’s clear for example, that no evacuation was required at Fukushima (in fact it killed people) … and if IAEA guidelines had been followed there would have been none. Even at Chernobyl, if the public had stayed put, then cancer rates could never have risen to the kinds of levels common in the US (for example). Proper action to counteract radioactive iodine might have included a temporary evacuation and prophylactics but not a permanent evacuation.

    That said. A nuclear plant is an inherently dangerous place, as is a blast furnace or logging area and proper safety procedures are needed for workers. They are at risk of serious radiation exposure + steam + explosions, the full set of risks in any large power plant.

    Now consider this paper … http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17059355

    Note the vast wave of bowel cancers which has swept over Japan in recent decades … we now know the risk factors for bowel cancer and the only one which is relevant here is red and processed meat. As of 2012, bowel cancers hit 112,000 annually … up from 20,000 in the 1970s (with a very small population increase). That’s a REAL cancer risk. The Fukushima triple meltdown could never have produced a wave of cancers like this.

    So we need to treat nuclear risks like other industrial risks. Protect the people at risk, the workers, and stop pandering to fear mongers by pretending their concerns about catastrophic accidents are real. They are not.

    For decades the nuclear industry has been appeasing fear mongers when it needs to come out fighting. To be fair the science on cancer back in the 80s was a little primitive, but the essential knowledge of DNA repair was fairly well understood but simply ignored. We’ve known for over a decade that any fears about a potential delayed Chernobyl impact was simply rubbish.

    See here for a full treatment of the relevant IAEA guidelines and a lay summary of recent cancer knowledge …

    http://nuclearrc.sa.gov.au/app/uploads/2015/11/Geoff-Russell-22-07-2015.pdf

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  2. http://nofrakkingconsensus.com/2013/12/02/independent-greenpeace-never-mind/ Donna wrote earlier than most about Koch funding – Greenpeace was openly funded until 2007 when some activists made a fuss. WWF was given the money and they continued to support the Greens. Science departments in universities globally are oil funded.

    NZ became an anti nuclear country in 1984 when our then PM David Lange who had believed in nuclear energy, discovered that his voting bloc was made up of activists, mainly Greenpeace who were unwittingly funded by Koch Bros. who were beginning to drill around our coasts. The PM changed his stance. NZ has been antinuclear since and need to wake up to fact we’ve been duped. Nuclear energy is the only real competition to the oil industry. Even now wind & solar need a fossil fuel unit nearby to boot up when no sun or wind. It’s a struggle to educate people about nuclear energy but unlike USA our education system gives us the basic science nous (refer Michio Kaku H1B secret weapon
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NK0Y9j_CGgM Michio Kaku US secret weapon.

    http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2015/07/28/greenpeace-co-founder-reveals-the-rigid-backwards-thinking-that-caused-him-to-leave-group/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=story&utm_campaign=ShareButtons Patrick Moore a founder of Greenpeace was on Rainbow Warrior when blown up Auckland harbour New Zealand

    James Lovelock in Gaia wrote -I hope that the Green Movement and their attendant lawyers do not continue their mistaken opposition to nuclear energy. Most of it is irrational and based on an unsustainable concatenation of mistakes and misinformation that are amplified by the media. …. too many Greens have sown the seeds of their own destruction and, if they persist, ours as well; they could mitigate their error by dropping their delaying tactics against nuclear energy more importantly they would be helping to power the lifeboat not, as now, sabotaging its engine.

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  3. The anti-nuclear arguments posed by climate activists is one of the most illogical I’ve ever heard and I’ve concluded that those arguments aren’t about climate, but, instead, are driven more by personal preferences and politics than reality. If the issue is carbon and climate for activists, electricity for economic development, and reliability for power generators, then nuclear is the last-man-standing among energy resources.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. David:

      Re: Illogical

      When I first started studying the anti-nuclear movement in the early 1990s, I found the general agreement that it was led by “Environmentalists” to be quite confusing. I had just completed a decade worth of service as an engineering officer on nuclear submarines. One of my many responsibilities included controlling the closed environment that sustained 150 human beings in places where no human could possibly exist without powerful technology.

      Even though we had an operating power plant as a shipmate, we had clean air, clean water, and plenty of resilience to live comfortably in a harsh environment.

      It took me a while, but I finally came to the conclusion that “Environmentalists” opposed to nuclear energy were being well funded by foundations, individuals and corporations that had strong interests in maintaining a hydrocarbon based economy. They often engaged in public activism against NEW fossil fuel developments, but existing wells, mines, pipelines, ports, tank farms, etc. were rarely, if ever, the target of their protests.

      Strong opposition is eminently logical in the case where the goal is slowing the growth of a potent competitor whose acceptance would sharply reduce sales revenue and profitability. It’s also logical in this case for those interested in various aspects of the hydrocarbon economy to have created a warm and fuzzy stand-in.

      After all, few people would actively fight against nuclear energy just to ensure that “the oil companies,” “the railroads,” and “the banks” maintained their wealth and power. It’s also not hard to understand why the advertiser supported media has been a useful ally; nuclear energy companies don’t buy much ad space or sponsor many television programs.

      Rod Adams
      Publisher, Atomic Insights

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      1. Rod,
        Understood. I’ve tried to keep my own arguments in support of nuclear as simple as I can for the sake of a general public that’s being drawn and quartered by experts from the four corners of the earth. To that end, since environmentalists claim that climate change is the single greatest threat to mankind, then their opposition to nuclear is illogical in that context. Although, I don’t believe that the greatest issue of concern for the environmentalist movement, in general, is climate change. I believe many among them see capitalism as the source of mankind’s environmental problems as per Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything”, which I’m sure you’re familiar with.
        However, an equal concern to me is the structure of power markets, which still hovers out there as problematic for nuclear in certain parts of the U.S.
        david

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      2. David:

        As my friend Ben Heard emphasizes, what people do is often far more important that what they say.

        While many of the troops in the environmental movement practice what they preach and aim to live simple, agrarian lives without much energy use, that’s often not true for the gurus or organizational leaders.

        Case in point – Amory Lovins has been paid more than $350 K/yr over the past decade. Another example is the COP habit of holding world conferences in destination cities.

        They decry capitalism, but love living the high tech, high dollar, high energy lifestyle. That’s what made me dig deeper to find out who’s paying the bills.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Rod,
        Activists are afforded significant latitude and forgiveness. Another example being DiCaprio, a vocal environmental enthusiast, who recently lamented in an interview that the impacts of climate change really hit home for the cast and crew of his recent move, The Revenant, where he said: “We’re seeing firsthand so many climatic changes that we had to change locations to the southern tip of Argentina just to find snow, and here we are today seeing unprecedented weather events all over the world,” DiCaprio explained.
        Never mind the carbon footprint required to film this movie or the footprint of DiCaprio’s personal home(s) in Malibu or wherever it is he lives. These folks love to hide behind their green curtain.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on Talking Southern Auckland and commented:
    Whether it be the Generation III+ Pressurised Water Reactors (conventional) or the new Generation IV Molten Salt Reactors (currently a scheme got CAD$5m to do get started on one in Canada) that use Thorium fuel rather than uranium the point is this:

    If we are serious about lessening needs on oil, coal and gas and where hydro is not available for baseload power production then nuclear becomes your next best option especially for the big 10 nations.

    I saw a picture of a 250 hectare Solar Farm producting some 350MW of power. A Nuclear Plant that side with 4 times 2GW reactors can produce 8GW of power in the same amount of space with heat and steam byproducts that heavy industry could use if built near by.

    That said technology has allowed conventional reactors and the MSRs to get right down to modular level and produce 225MW of power without a problem. As a comparison a Huntly Coal/gas boiler was 250MW while Otahuhu B now shut down produced 385MW.

    The applications are there and nuclear where viable deserves a shot again if we are serious in dealing with emissions with power production.

    Liked by 2 people

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