Skip to main content

CFR’s Balancing Benefits and Risks of Nuclear Energy

It’s been awhile since I’ve debunked a report so I thought I’d break my hiatus by starting on a new one. This one is from the Council on Foreign Relations titled Nuclear Energy: Balancing Benefits and Risks.

To start off this post, readers should note that our CEO (Skip Bowman) and CNO (Marv Fertel) were on an “Advisory Committee” for this report noted on page 37. By reading the paper one would of course think that NEI endorsed the report. Quite the opposite. The two raised serious objections to their conclusions but apparently had no weight. However, as the long disclaimer at the front of the report notes, the advisory committee “are not asked to sign off on the report or otherwise endorse it.” Instead, these advisors are a “sounding board” to provide comments on the report after it is drafted.

While Mr. Ferguson addresses the challenges to a greater role for nuclear energy, he doesn’t recognize the efforts being made today to overcome those challenges. In any event, to address climate change, we must meet these challenges and expand the role of nuclear energy. You simply can’t dismiss the one electricity source that already accounts for more than 70 percent of all GHG-free electric generation. Unfortunately, CFR missed an opportunity to take a leadership role in issues like an international regulatory regime for nuclear energy, used nuclear fuel management and non-proliferation issues.

Here are my thoughts on the report.

The CFR claims it is “A Nonpartisan Resource for Information and Analysis,” but after reading the report it appears this is not the case. While the report cites several objective groups such as the Energy Information Administration and the International Energy Agency, it uses the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research for many of their ideas.

The IEER may sound like an objective group; however, they have a serious slant against nuclear energy. When going through their website, the bulk of their material is on nuclear proliferation and how nuclear energy cannot contribute to reducing climate change. The council’s report was produced in partnership with Washington and Lee University and written by the Council’s Fellow for Science and Technology Charles D. Ferguson. It is presented as “the factual and analytical background to inform this debate.”

Not really. Let’s get into the report (p. 8):
To try to jump-start the nuclear industry, which was already receiving more subsidies than any other no- and low-carbon energy sources, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 provided billions of additional dollars’ worth of incentives to nuclear and smaller amounts of incentives to other no- and lowcarbon energy sources. (See the Appendix for an analysis of this act.)
When I go to the Appendix all I see is an analysis on the incentives for nuclear from EPACT 2005. I don’t see any source for this claim that nuclear “was already receiving more subsidies than any other no- and low-carbon energy sources” prior to EPACT 2005. Pretty big statement to make without backing it up.

Here’s an analysis I did last year on historical energy incentives. If the reader looks at the first table in the post they will see that Hydro has received slightly more incentives than nuclear over the past 50 something years making his statement bunk. The bottom line is that renewables have outpaced nuclear energy in subsidies over the past 20 years, yet nuclear energy’s return on that investment is significantly greater than all renewable sources combined!

P. 11:
To reduce the deleterious effects of climate change, the United States will need to increase use of all low- and no-carbon emission energy sources as well as promote greater use of energy efficiency. But given the current U.S. energy sources and patterns of use, nuclear energy alone does not provide a solution for at least the next few decades for significantly reducing the U.S. contribution to global warming.
Who says nuclear power is THE solution to climate change? We (NEI and the industry) know nuclear power is not THE only answer and have always said that nuclear power has to be an option in a balanced portfolio for electricity generation if the U.S. and the world want to reduce emissions.

P. 12:
How much nuclear energy would be needed to maintain global carbon dioxide emissions at the year 2000 level? Reaching this goal might head off many of the damaging consequences of climate change. The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) has recently estimated that this scenario would require between 1,900 and 3,300 gigawatts of nuclear capacity depending on differing projections of alternative energy usage and adoption of energy efficiencies.
This is my problem with IEER. I can understand doing an analysis like this to see how much is required from nuclear if nuclear plants were the only thing built. But it’s like asking me to slam dunk a 20 foot hoop. They set this unrealistic growth scenario for nuclear, and because it can’t meet that feat, nuclear power is not all it’s cracked up to be. Has IEER or the CFR report bothered looking at what actually can be done by nuclear and other “no and low carbon energy sources” to reduce emissions? Not really.

That is what bugs me about these types of reports. They criticize, criticize, criticize but don’t ever bother looking at the alternatives and how much is required on their part as well. Instead of saying what can’t be done, why don’t they find out what can be done?

When discussing what can be done to reduce emissions the common source I always use are the Princeton wedges. And low and behold that’s where the CFR turns to next (p. 13):
In contrast to the IEER study, Stephen W. Pacala and Robert Socolow of Princeton University have proposed a more realistic, but still ambitious, plan for stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions. They have identified 14 energy technology wedges. (They used the term “wedge” because of the wedge or triangular shape of the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions plotted over time.) Each wedge technology, if fully employed, would reduce carbon emissions by a million tons per year by 2050.

The nuclear wedge would include 700 gigawatts or about 700 large commercial reactors in addition to the current nuclear-generated electricity.

Thus, these growth scenarios would pose quite significant challenges.

Of course, the CFR report paints the picture that other alternatives in reducing emissions would not be significant challenges. But what about the alternatives? Here are my quotes from the Princeton post on how much other alternatives would needed for a wedge:
It would take 50 times the current capacity of wind, 700 times for PV and 100 times for biomass. And only three times the current capacity for nuclear. Hmmm. I wonder which is more realistic. I also wonder how many people know that nuclear avoids about half a wedge in the world right now.
The CFR report goes on to discuss the cons of nuclear power in many countries and concludes (p. 15):
In the foreseeable future, nuclear energy is not a major part of the solution to further countering global warming or energy insecurity. Expanding nuclear energy use to make a relatively modest contribution to combating climate change would require constructing nuclear plants at a rate so rapid as to create shortages in building materials, trained personnel, and safety controls. Furthermore, while the nuclear industry is only structured to produce electricity, the existing abundant and cheap fossil fuels provide readily usable energy for electricity, heating, and transportation needs.
Considering that nuclear power is one of only two energy sources that provides a substantial amount of GHG free electricity (see below), if nuclear isn’t a major part of the solution to reducing emissions then no other sources are. And if that’s the case, then the world will definitely need some miracle solutions to reduce emissions.

By the way, here is a chart on the historical world nuclear capacity additions. The peak build of nuclear capacity in the world was about 200 GW in the 1980s. If the world begins that build rate in the 2010s then we could have at least another 600 – 800 GW by 2050. And there’s no reason why that build rate can’t be higher. There are more people in the world than ever meaning the world has more resources that can be tapped meaning the world can build even more than what was built in the past.

It’s easy to criticize; it’s hard to be constructive.


Anonymous said…
Why is IEER considered more partisan than NEI?

IEER opposes nuclear power, NEI supports it. Both have an agenda, but apparently, according to this blog entry, it's only citing IEER publications that jeopardizes the 'non-partisan' nature of the CFR report...not having NEI officials on the committee reviewing the report.
David Bradish said…
It has nothing to do with 'non-partisan.' It's the rest of the line I have a problem with: 'Resource for Information and Analysis.' It should say something more like 'Resource from One Side of the Story for Information and Analysis.' Guess I should have spelled it out more clear.
Rod Adams said…
The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) has long been "non-partisan" in the sense that it has included members from all established political parties. However, from its very inception it has had an energy bias towards continued and expanding consumption of fossil fuels.

Its founders were members of the J. P. Morgan and John Rockefeller families who had serious vested interests in financing, owning, controlling and selling fossil fuels and the infrastructure associated with that enterprise.

Its members have included many of the shining lights of American foreign (oil) policy ever since its secretive and shadowy founding in the early 1920s.

I like having access to fossil fuels, and have no real issue with using them to make life better for people. I do have a serious issue with their history of use as a means of incredible wealth and power. As the subtitle of Daniel Yergin's seminal work "The Prize" says oil politics is all about "The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power".

As a student of American foreign policy I recognize the fingerprints of the pursuers of that quest all over our 20th century history. As a nuke with a questioning attitude and as a former literature major, I also recognize the slanted language used against the only source of energy that has ever successfully captured markets from fossil fuels.

I firmly believe that much anti-nuclear activity has been funded because nuclear fission demonstrated the potential for SERIOUS DISRUPTION of the wealth and power of the oil, coal and gas establishment. The circumstantial evidence, means, motive and numerous opportunities for this effort are obvious to all that really look at the issue closely.

Interestingly enough, NEI member companies have a split personality, which is why they often talk about balanced energy choices. They are members of the energy establishment yet they employ people who understand the technical merits of uranium fission.

This has often led to cognitive dissonance in their messaging - the best arguments FOR nuclear power have to compare and contrast the benefits of that technology against the hazards and disadvantages of the fossil fuel alternatives. As many NEI members have told me over the past dozen years or so, they have trouble promoting their nuclear business by dissing their coal, oil, gas and now wind businesses.

Pretty radical thoughts for early on Saturday morning. Hope they get through the moderator.
Ohadi Langis said…
Overall, the foreign policy wonks at CFR have a dim view of the prospects for nuclear power to impact global warming. Their advice may still travel far in Congress. It is ironic that the reported plans for 110 new nuclear plants in Asia suggest that CFR's global influence on energy issues may run out of gas once it reaches the US Pacific Ocean coastline.
Tom said…
So it's anti- nuclear and you get your pants in a twist. Geez.
Serious slant?
Sounds like you can't *deal* with a non-objective view. If you come into a debate thinking that there's one correct view (nuclear is good) then you're mistaken.
David Bradish said…

Marv Fertel and Skip Bowman from NEI were apart of an "advisory" committee to help with this report but their input was not taken. If the report is "non-objective" then how come it leaves out the nuclear industry's input?

How am I mistaken if I think "nuclear is good?" It provides clean air electricity, it's reliable and it's affordable. Those aren't good enough reasons to think "nuclear is good?" Are antis "mistaken" who come into a debate thinking "nuclear is bad" as well?

Popular posts from this blog

Sneak Peek

There's an invisible force powering and propelling our way of life.
It's all around us. You can't feel it. Smell it. Or taste it.
But it's there all the same. And if you look close enough, you can see all the amazing and wondrous things it does.
It not only powers our cities and towns.
And all the high-tech things we love.
It gives us the power to invent.
To explore.
To discover.
To create advanced technologies.
This invisible force creates jobs out of thin air.
It adds billions to our economy.
It's on even when we're not.
And stays on no matter what Mother Nature throws at it.
This invisible force takes us to the outer reaches of outer space.
And to the very depths of our oceans.
It brings us together. And it makes us better.
And most importantly, it has the power to do all this in our lifetime while barely leaving a trace.
Some people might say it's kind of unbelievable.
They wonder, what is this new power that does all these extraordinary things?

A Design Team Pictures the Future of Nuclear Energy

For more than 100 years, the shape and location of human settlements has been defined in large part by energy and water. Cities grew up near natural resources like hydropower, and near water for agricultural, industrial and household use.

So what would the world look like with a new generation of small nuclear reactors that could provide abundant, clean energy for electricity, water pumping and desalination and industrial processes?

Hard to say with precision, but Third Way, the non-partisan think tank, asked the design team at the Washington, D.C. office of Gensler & Associates, an architecture and interior design firm that specializes in sustainable projects like a complex that houses the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys. The talented designers saw a blooming desert and a cozy arctic village, an old urban mill re-purposed as an energy producer, a data center that integrates solar panels on its sprawling flat roofs, a naval base and a humming transit hub.

In the converted mill, high temperat…

Seeing the Light on Nuclear Energy

If you think that there is plenty of electricity, that the air is clean enough and that nuclear power is a just one among many options for meeting human needs, then you are probably over-focused on the United States or Western Europe. Even then, you’d be wrong.

That’s the idea at the heart of a new book, “Seeing the Light: The Case for Nuclear Power in the 21st Century,” by Scott L. Montgomery, a geoscientist and energy expert, and Thomas Graham Jr., a retired ambassador and arms control expert.

Billions of people live in energy poverty, they write, and even those who don’t, those who live in places where there is always an electric outlet or a light switch handy, we need to unmake the last 200 years of energy history, and move to non-carbon sources. Energy is integral to our lives but the authors cite a World Health Organization estimate that more than 6.5 million people die each year from air pollution.  In addition, they say, the global climate is heading for ruinous instability. E…