Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Renewable Niche and The Nuclear Shrug

Writer Steven Stromberg, writing in the Washington Post Partisan blog, offers this:

Some environmentalists cheer the closing of nuclear plants, even though it makes the anti-carbon effort tougher, and they argue that the country should put all of the planet’s eggs into the renewables basket. The pro-nuclear crowd predicts that a new wave of innovative technologies will make constructing new nuclear plants much more attractive, technically and economically.

The country — and particularly environmentalists — should hope the pro-nuclear side is right; a renaissance in nuclear technology could offer the country a source of reliable, carbon-free electricity with safer designs than those of decades ago, all of which would be particularly helpful if renewables never burst out of their niche end of the market.

The “pro-nuclear crowd'” (I think I prefer mob or cohort) actually includes a fair number of environmentalists.

This is a pretty good post, though putting an energy option into the category of niche product is uncomfortable. That’s not quite quite right when referring to renewable energy sources. Floating nuclear barges such as Russia is implementing might be called a niche product because they have carefully defined and fairly limited uses. But that’s not true of nuclear energy itself – or solar or wind power or coal or natural gas. What Stromberg really wonders is if renewable energy sources can gather some market share. Well, so far, they’re like electric cars (which, due to their narrow driving range, might be considered niche projects right now) – the technology is almost there to push their benefits to the fore, but not quite yet. In the meantime, they generate electricity – which isn’t a niche activity.

But where Stromberg is exactly right is that nuclear energy deserves more respect that it often gets:

At the least, utilities, regulators and the public should be open to keeping the nuclear plants the country already has, which represent billions in capital investment, for as long as they can be safely operated. A new report from the American Physical Society finds that many of the plants scheduled for closure in coming years could have another 20 years added to their operating life as long as regulators allow it and maintenance remains vigilant.

I guess you could call this the realpolitik of nuclear energy, that these expensive, long-lived facilities might as well be kept operating because they can do some good. But if you remove the resigned cynicism, it gets to the heart of the issue. Even if Stromberg’s point is that nuclear energy should hang around until renewable energy can do baseload energy, the outcome is that nuclear energy hangs around. Stromberg may encourage environmentalists to shrug their shoulders over this possibility, but it’s okay with me.

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In the last post, we noted a Forbes takedown of an anti-nuclear energy screed. Now, it indirectly answers Stromberg’s piece with a look at the recent DOE award to NuScale for its small reactor technology.

Think nuclear energy is collapsing? Think again — now that the federal government is ponying up an additional $226 million to help advance small nuclear reactors. The Department of Energy and NuScale are entering a cost-sharing arrangement to build 100-megawatt modules.

Well, nuclear energy was never really collapsing, certainly not if companies such as NuScale can stay in business. But the sentiment is fine.

Not everyone, however, is sold on those small reactors. NuScale has yet to say from where its private funding will come, says Friends of the Earth. It adds that if the idea truly had commercial appeal, it would be able to stand on its own and be able to secure private funding.

It also says that those smaller reactors may produce expensive electricity while at same time, create more radioactive nuclear waste. The “subsidy” is “misguided as these reactors would still produce nuclear waste, still risk meltdown and have not shown to be economical,” says Katherine Fuchs, with the environmental group. “The fact that private investors are not supporting small modular reactors indicates a rather dim financial future.”

We probably could have avoided the Friends of the Earth paragraphs - having FOE in your story is like finding a snail in your birthday cake – but it can be relied on to find the most sour response imaginable to anything involving nuclear energy. Always fun.

Though the story is framed as NuScale bucking downward nuclear trends, writer Ken Silverstein provides an otherwise balanced and interesting take on the NuScale deal. Worth a read.

2 comments:

Russ Finley said...

LOL ...like finding a snail in your birthday cake. Good one.

Anonymous said...

And Friends of the Earth are up front and open about their current and prospective sources of funding?

Pot... kettle... black.