Thursday, January 23, 2014

Nuclear Pros and Cons As Winter Returns

electric-wire-ice-snowJohn Kemp, a Reuters market analyst, offers a negative view of nuclear energy. There's nothing in it that we haven't heard before, but it's interesting (I suppose) to hear the same arguments percolating as though they are new insights:

But the promise of safe, clean and reasonably priced nuclear power seems as far away now as it was 60 years ago. We are still waiting for the safe, cheap and reliable reactor designs that were promised in 1956.
Well, after watching a chemical spill send Charleston back to the 19th century - and beyond, since it could use the river then - I'd say safe and reliable is in the devil's eye. As for cheap:
In the United States, the economics of nuclear power have been fatally disrupted by cheap gas, and in Western Europe as a result of cheap coal.
This bit verges on the dishonest, especially the notion about coal - Kemp needed something to balance natural gas at home, but really? Coal? Eastern Europe in particular choked on coal in the Soviet era, is not too eager to return to those days and has begun a headlong rush toward - wait for it - nuclear energy. The U.S. has benefited from natural gas - it has proven a true market disruptor - but whatever financial blow was landed - to coal, renewable energy and nuclear energy -was not particularly fatal. None has gone away or begun a decline to irrelevance (well, coal is dealing with issues not solely related to natural gas and Kemp explains away renewable energy by noting federal subsidies for it, somehow allowing the old saw against nuclear energy - that it is too dependent on subsidies - to slip away.)
But to Kemp's credit, he does allow nuclear energy in under the wire:
It is possible that large-scale nuclear power could offer part of the solution to global warming, just as it promised to avert Hubbert's fears about peak oil. But the industry appears no nearer than it was then to building a favorable consensus or solving its cost and safety problems.
And just under the wire at that. Read the whole thing, but it certainly does seem a rear guard action of no particular moment.
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The performance of nuclear energy facilities during the Polar Vortex proved very controversial, at least to some of our readers, so it'll be interesting to see how things go during the extended sub-freezing weather that has started moving south. This, of course, is called Winter, and though we haven't had a real Winter in some years, it's not a particularly unusual occurrence - it has a name and everything. It's fairer to to say that the vortex was unusual in that it took whatever temperatures it ran across and flung them downwards quickly. The current cold snap has a less violent profile.

Still, the Dallas Morning News has noticed that, hey, it's cold out there:
Global warming notwithstanding, 2013-14 is likely to go down as America’s coldest winter in decades. As of the second week in January, 187 million people were dealing with subfreezing weather, and record low temperatures were being recorded in many Eastern and Southern communities.Not surprisingly, the electric power grid is being tested as never before, with some utilities asking customers to dial back their thermostats and to avoid using appliances during hours of peak demand. Even so, a few power companies have had to impose rolling blackouts and brownouts as they bump against their generating capacity.
And writer Bernard Weinstein has an answer for this:
Investing in nuclear energy remains the best strategy for ensuring long-term diversity and reliability of the power grid. Despite recent plant closures, nuclear power isn’t going away. Five new plants will come on line by 2018, and 14 other applications are pending before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.The value proposition for nuclear energy is stronger than ever. Nuclear plants operate around the clock safely and reliably, thereby providing stability to the power grid. They also provide forward price stability and are not subject to the price volatility associated with gas-fired plants. Nuclear operations support large numbers of high-paying jobs and add mightily to the tax base of host communities. Finally, nuclear power is environmentally benign: no particulates, no sulfur dioxide, and no greenhouse gas emissions. Just steam.
Oops, an argument against natural gas? What will John Kemp say? I guess this is special pleading of a kind - the issue is larger than just throwing more plants up - but it is true that nuclear plants benefit from being emission free and producers of gigantic amounts of electricity. Also, natural gas can take a big hit in winter because it is used by individuals to heat their homes and those folks get preference over energy plants in many parts of the country. Until the flux capacitor is invented, uranium has no such worries. Nuclear energy basically took over in New England during the vortex because natural gas was thus diverted.

Weinstein works at the Maguire Energy Institute in the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, so he's an interested party, but I assume he is, like Kemp, interested in the whole energy picture.

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