Friday, September 19, 2014

Nuclear Fills in Big Blind Spot as the U.N. Gathers

Former EPA Administrator and New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman weighs in on climate change in the Boston Globe, but also tilts the discussion toward local concerns:

During the polar vortex event, nuclear energy facilities around the country helped to save the day in the face of extreme weather. Because uranium fuel is plentiful and stable in price, nuclear energy facilities aren’t affected by the same type of fuel price fluctuations as other sources of energy. Neglecting clean energy sources such as solar, wind, and especially nuclear, can result in blackouts, increased power bills, and will take a heavy toll on our efforts to reduce greenhouse gases.

I’ll add that uranium doesn’t get diverted to home heating, which really hurt the natural gas supply in New England last year. If predictions of a powerful winter come true, expect nuclear energy’s reliability to once again play a part in keeping people warm.

Whitman’s larger point is that New England is becoming over dependent on natural gas while the new EPA rules regarding carbon emissions will have a decided impact on its use. Still, about 33 percent of the region’s electricity is supplied by nuclear energy, so what’s needed is a bit more variety. More nuclear energy wouldn’t go amiss, either. “State-based plans for supplying clean energy and reducing the amount of pollutants into our air must include keeping a balance in our energy portfolio,” writes Gov. Whitman. The governor is currently the co-chair of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition.

It’s a sensible editorial. It’s also well-timed, with the U.N. Climate Summit coming up this weekend.

Another editorial – op-ed, really – by Lawrence Mone and Alex Armlovich for the New York Daily News addresses the summit directly. It’s called “A climate march with a big blind spot.” Care to guess what that big blind spot is?

With the UN climate summit set to kick off, environmental activist Bill McKibben on Sunday will lead what is being advertised as history’s largest climate-change march through the streets of Manhattan. McKibben calls it “an invitation to change everything.”

Notably absent from McKibben’s agenda is any endorsement of the one carbon-free electricity source that, unlike many other forms of alternative energy, can be affordably scaled up to power modern economies: nuclear energy.

I really like that formulation - “can be affordably scaled up to power modern economies.” That’s important, especially for developing countries.

Mone and Armlovich gather together a lot of factoids, many of which are quite useful:

Household electricity costs the French just 21 cents a kilowatt-hour — cheaper than what Con Ed charges in New York. France also emitted 87% less carbon dioxide per unit of electrical energy than Germany, according to the most recent data.

France being the nuclear star, Germany the nuclear goat – bien sur! And they take on some of McKibben’s own dumber statements.

McKibben recently claimed nuclear power is “like burning $20 bills for energy.” Yet according to the federal Energy Information Administration, utility-scale solar power — even with a lavish government subsidy — remains nearly 40% more expensive than nuclear. Onshore wind at a small scale is slightly cheaper, but requires nearly 850 square miles (or most of Rhode Island) of turbine-covered land to equal the output of a typical two-unit nuclear plant.

The authors make a lot of good points – I suspect the U.N. Climate Summit will be pretty friendly to nuclear energy – so this is more of a complement than a corrective. Still, worth a full read – and not only for the terrific array of data points to memorize.

2 comments:

Engineer-Poet said...

Slowly, inexorably, the Overton window shifts toward nuclear power.

The point about uranium not being diverted to heating in cold snaps is a good one.  But I wonder if anyone is seriously thinking about cogeneration with nuclear?  Placing small reactors underground in urban areas would allow the spent steam to be used for heating, displacing even more natural gas.

This is when I wish I knew more about the light-water breeder experiment at Shippingport.  A uranium-thorium core for something like a NuScale reactor could run for a very long time—but how long?  I have no idea if the reactivity was going down at the end of the experiment or if it was rising.  If you could put a reactor down in a tunnel and have, say, ten years of electric power AND space heat without having to crack it open, that could potentially be very cheap.

Vinod Arora said...

Safe and reliable energy is recommended any time over fossil fuels provided:
1. Nuclear safety concerns expressed by Utility nuclear workers and NRC Resident Inspectors are resolved safely by NRC and Utilities.
2. San Onofre Units 2 & 3 shutdown is an example of not resolving the nuclear safety concerns expressed by San Onofre Nuclear Oversight Auditor and Professional Engineer by NRC and Southern California Edison.
3. Diablo Canyon power plant is safe but nuclear safety concerns expressed by Dr. Peck have not been resolved by NRC and PG&E.
4. NRC & NEI should follow the example and approach of Government of India in resolving the nuclear safety concerns.
5. Chernobyl, Fukushima, Three Mile Island and Brown's Ferry Accidents are example of Utility and Regulatory Mistakes.