Skip to main content

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.


Popular posts from this blog

How Nanomaterials Can Make Nuclear Reactors Safer and More Efficient

The following is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior communications advisor at NEI. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

From the batteries in our cell phones to the clothes on our backs, "nanomaterials" that are designed molecule by molecule are working their way into our economy and our lives. Now there’s some promising work on new materials for nuclear reactors.

Reactors are a tough environment. The sub atomic particles that sustain the chain reaction, neutrons, are great for splitting additional uranium atoms, but not all of them hit a uranium atom; some of them end up in various metal components of the reactor. The metal is usually a crystalline structure, meaning it is as orderly as a ladder or a sheet of graph paper, but the neutrons rearrange the atoms, leaving some infinitesimal voids in the structure and some areas of extra density. The components literally grow, getting longer and thicker. The phenomenon is well understood and designers compensate for it with a …

Missing the Point about Pennsylvania’s Nuclear Plants

A group that includes oil and gas companies in Pennsylvania released a study on Monday that argues that twenty years ago, planners underestimated the value of nuclear plants in the electricity market. According to the group, that means the state should now let the plants close.


The question confronting the state now isn’t what the companies that owned the reactors at the time of de-regulation got or didn’t get. It’s not a question of whether they were profitable in the '80s, '90s and '00s. It’s about now. Business works by looking at the present and making projections about the future.

Is losing the nuclear plants what’s best for the state going forward?

Pennsylvania needs clean air. It needs jobs. And it needs protection against over-reliance on a single fuel source.

What the reactors need is recognition of all the value they provide. The electricity market is depressed, and if electricity is treated as a simple commodity, with no regard for its benefit to clean air o…

Why Nuclear Plant Closures Are a Crisis for Small Town USA

Nuclear plants occupy an unusual spot in the towns where they operate: integral but so much in the background that they may seem almost invisible. But when they close, it can be like the earth shifting underfoot., the Gannett newspaper that covers the Lower Hudson Valley in New York, took a look around at the experience of towns where reactors have closed, because the Indian Point reactors in Buchanan are scheduled to be shut down under an agreement with Gov. Mario Cuomo.

From sea to shining sea, it was dismal. It wasn’t just the plant employees who were hurt. The losses of hundreds of jobs, tens of millions of dollars in payrolls and millions in property taxes depressed whole towns and surrounding areas. For example:

Vernon, Vermont, home to Vermont Yankee for more than 40 years, had to cut its municipal budget in half. The town closed its police department and let the county take over; the youth sports teams lost their volunteer coaches, and Vernon Elementary School lost th…