Thursday, November 19, 2009

Time Enough for Nuclear Energy

time-management-clock Generally speaking, folks who dislike nuclear energy have lost their footing a bit because the pressing energy issue of the day – climate change – seeks solutions that nuclear energy readily provides. A fair number of former anti-nuclear advocates have put the issues on the scale and found the risks of nuclear energy, as they perceive them, acceptable versus the potential fate of the planet. But the feeling isn’t universal and some effort stills goes into making nuclear energy go away.

Environment Maryland released a new report Tuesday (Nov. 17) arguing that it would take a decade or more and cost upwards of $600 billion to build 100 more nuclear plants, as some have advocated to ease planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. The group argues that the time and money could be better spent promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy such as wind and solar.

That’s from B’More Green, a blog of the Baltimore Sun (Get it? B’More?) It contains our favorite argument these days: it takes too long to build nuclear energy plants and thus they cannot help with carbon emission reduction.

What this neglects is that once a plant is operational, carbon emissions drop like a rock, as anything a nuclear plant happens to replace (minus another nuclear plant, of course) stops producing emissions.

So even where, for example, energy efficiency via individual action or the roll out of a smart grid has a positive impact on carbon emissions, it is vastly enhanced by the considerable impact of a nuclear energy plant - it’s a great doubling down on emissions and affords, in many cases, a tremendous boost in the emission-free electricity available to an area.

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It’s not that nuclear energy is a panacea to the climate change issue – the industry never suggests it – but that nuclear energy is a well-understood technology that answers to the need for emission-free, base-load energy.

But no one energy source represents a complete answer. Wind and solar energy, for all their positive qualities, present issues of their own.

A first concern is over their intermittent nature – because the wind mostly blows at night when there is no sun for solar energy - which makes it important to backstop them with base load energy. Advocates who want to avoid nuclear energy will tout natural gas, which is itself not emission free

A second concern is siting. Windmills and solar panels gobble up a lot of land. Third, once sited and built, they have to be attached to the electricity grid, which means, at the least, transmission build outs. This adds cost which, while doubtless below that of a new nuclear unit, is certainly more than is implied by putting up a few windmills.

But these are realities a growing number of environmental activists recognize.

It should be noted that not all environmentalists oppose nuclear power.  Locally, the Maryland Conservation Council has endorsed Constellation's bid for a third reactor at Calvert Cliffs.  The group is concerned about industrial-scale wind and solar projects gobbling up land and wildlife habitat, and argues that nuclear power is safe and least expensive, for the amount of power generated.

All true. Now, having barked about wind and solar energy, we must note that many of these concerns can be, and we expect will be, addressed – think battery technology, for starters - perhaps even in the time it takes to bring some new nuclear units online.

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To highlight their objections, Environment Maryland and other activists staged a press conference outside the downtown Baltimore headquarters of Constellation Energy, which has applied for a permit to build a new, third reactor at Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant. The press event drew a few lunchtime spectators, but the growl of traffic on busy Pratt Street often drowned out what they had to say.

They probably could have planned this a little better – perhaps at a greener Baltimore locale like Fort McHenry – but we’re okay with it.

3 comments:

Marcel F. Williams said...

A decade worth of jobs for constructing new power plants that will create permanent high paying jobs at facilities that will last 60 to 100 years producing clean carbon free energy for the US!

How is that a bad thing???

Anonymous said...

"The group argues that the time and money could be better spent promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy such as wind and solar."

Yes, the on-going mantra. How long must we put up with the repetition of demonstrably false statements?

All cost studies by official/objective organizations show that renewables are more expensive than nuclear, as shown in the (excellent) Nuclear Notes posts on 11/12 and 11/16. And this is simply the per kW-hr cost, before the effects of intermittency are factored in.

On top of that, there is the illuminating fact that all these anti-nuclear organizations vehemently oppose any policies that would treat all non-fossil sources the same. Examples would include having nuclear and renewables be treated the same with respect to all subsidy programs (loan guarantees, tax credits, etc.), including nuclear in the (15%) portfolio standard, or just having a simple CO2 tax or cap-and-trade system with no mandates or set asides for renewables.

If nuclear were more expensive than renewables, the above even-handed policies would not result in any new nuclear construction, because industry would simply choose renewables anyway. The fact that they adamantly oppose such policies speaks volumes. They know nuclear would win on any level, objective playing field. Given that this is the case, the mantra (quoted above) is demonstrably false; a lie.

Jim Hopf

Rod Adams said...

I think that two of the ideas in the post should be brought closer together and critically considered by people with questioning attitudes:

What this neglects is that once a plant is operational, carbon emissions drop like a rock, as anything a nuclear plant happens to replace (minus another nuclear plant, of course) stops producing emissions.

Not only do carbon emissions drop like a rock, but so do fuel sales to the plant or plants that were shut down when a new nuclear plant begins to generate electricity.

Advocates who want to avoid nuclear energy will tout natural gas, which is itself not emission free.

As a cynic about anything having to do with money and big business, I would put this another way:

Natural gas advocates who want to increase the demand for gas will tout their product over nuclear energy, despite the fact that it is inferior when it comes to emissions levels.

Rod Adams
Publisher, Atomic Insights
Host and producer, The Atomic Show Podcast