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TIME and the Nuclear Energy Conundrum

time coverTIME Magazine offers a bit of a head scratch today. For most of Bryan Walsh’s article, mostly about nuclear energy, the author is quite the downer on doing anything with any energy source. And his approach is peculiarly inexact. For example:

Even with massive help from the Obama Administration, renewable energy start-ups like Solyndra went bankrupt, challenging existing technology.

Not “start-ups like Solyndra,” “Solyndra.” Most other solar panel companies are doing okay. The last phrase, “challenging existing technology,” is completely mysterious. Other solar technologies? I just don’t know.

This is how Walsh rolls, apparently.

With the fracking revolution pumping out cheap natural gas in the U.S. and renewables preferred in much of Europe, nuclear will remain in decline in the developed world unless it can get cheaper.

If Germany is much of Europe, fine, but otherwise, nuclear energy is not seen as in decline in Europe. But after being annoyed with Walsh’s style and uncertain grasp of facts for several paragraphs, he suddenly has an epiphany – with which one can agree.

According to statistics from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2013, between 1993 and 2002, carbon-free sources — meaning nuclear, hydro and renewables — made up 19% of total increase in global energy consumption. Between 2003 and ’12, as the rate of global energy consumption doubled, carbon-free sources made up only 14% of that increase. (Hat tip to Roger Pielke Jr. for pointing out these trends.) Despite the very rapid increases in renewables like wind and solar over the past decade — albeit from a very tiny beginning — we are losing the war to decarbonize our energy supply.

This still suffers from details scattered all over the place. At least they’re the right details and the point is good: even with all the best intentions, it’s tough to get to a carbon free profile on renewable energy alone – not tough at all with nuclear energy.

I think nuclear can play a significant role in decarbonization, but it will only happen if atomic power isn’t expensive — all the more so given that most of the increase in global energy consumption will be coming in developing countries that are especially price sensitive.

To be clear, “atomic power” isn’t expensive, though it does have daunting up-front costs. Additionally, the electricity it adds to the grid won’t blow any holes into an electricity bill. For some countries – we’ve recently talked about UAE – it’s not essential to decarbonize, though that’s a excellent goal, but to make a lot of electricity. Here’s a bit from ENEC, the UAE government agency overseeing nuclear energy-related activities:

Energy demand in the UAE is growing at an annual rate of about 9 per cent – three times the global average. Developing a reliable supply of electricity is critical to the future growth of the Nation. ENEC is taking on this challenge, with a target of delivering electricity to the UAE grid in 2017.  By 2020, it is projected that nuclear energy will produce nearly a quarter of the nation’s electricity needs.

Significant quantity significantly fast. ENEC doesn’t ignore global warming, yet it does not even get a mention here. It’s important, but “the future growth of the nation” is more important. (I don’t necessarily agree with the priorities, but UAE is allowed to have its own, yes?)

Walsh’s piece is headlined Nuclear Energy Is Largely Safe. But Can It Be Cheap? with the subtitle: Outside of the developing world, nuclear energy is on the retreat, thanks largely to the spiraling costs of new atomic plants. But innovative reactor designs could change the equation.

TIME makes nuclear energy and its use seem more a conundrum than it really is, even though its heart is in the right place. Take a look at the article – I did not mention the innovative reactor design (spoiler: molten salt) at all.

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