Monday, April 20, 2015

Nuclear Caviar

caviarYou can tell right away that this report from the World Uranium Symposium in Quebec City is not very friendly toward nuclear energy, but I have to hand it to redoubtable attendee Arnie Gundersen for coming up with the least apropos simile ever:

The nuclear industry is gamely trying to rebrand nuclear power as the solution to climate change, but, as former nuclear industry executive Arnie Gundersen quipped at the symposium, "Trying to solve global warming by building reactors is like trying to solve global hunger by serving caviar."

Gundersen means that nuclear energy is as expensive in its way as caviar.

But caviar is also a deluxe food product. That works better. Caviar may be a poor choice for solving world hunger because its output is relatively sparse. That’s what makes it deluxe. The deluxe nature of nuclear energy is that, once you spend the (admittedly lush) sum to build a reactor, you have inexpensive, emission-free energy for 60 or more years that is far from sparse. Caviar, for all its yumminess, is, shall we say, a one-and-done affair.

Caviar is also a renewable resource. It depends on precise conditions to generate those salty little eggs. If those conditions falter, and sturgeon don’t spawn, then caviar becomes an even dearer commodity. If the sun don’t shine and the wind don’t blow, etc… Perhaps Gundersen could have found a more precise match in the energy world there.

Because nuclear energy putters along without worrying about the elements. Like sturgeon, it needs water, but otherwise, it just keeps pushing out energy – more efficiently, we should note, than sturgeon can produce roe but just as reliably.

Like any base load energy source, nuclear energy does not insist that its users maximize energy efficiency to realize its utility. Leaving aside the benefits of energy efficiency – which are considerable – that means that electricity flows even in an age of transition. The article kicks off with this:

On Saturday, April 11, 25,000 people marched on Quebec's National Assembly to demand action on climate change. Canada's premiers discussed energy and climate policy at their meeting on Tuesday, April 14, one day after Premiers Kathleen Wynne of Ontario and Philippe Couillard of Quebec signed off on a cap-and-trade system to reduce CO2 emissions.

With new rules coming from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, there will be a lot of uncertainty about base load energy sources in the short term. That will get sorted in time, but one thing is sure: nuclear energy is utterly unaffected, because it doesn’t produce any carbon emissions. Only nuclear and hydro among baseload energy generators can claim that –and as we’ll see, that’s important to eastern Canada.

That gives these energy sources extra value: as reducing carbon emissions becomes a priority in energy policy, nuclear and hydro remain stable providers. (Call it rebranding if you must, but it has always been true. It just wasn’t an issue in the early years of domestic nuclear energy – or hydro, either. That they have these qualities should be considered environmental lagniappe.)

We can’t know, but we’ll assume Gundersen likes caviar just fine.  In the fish egg world, the drive is toward sustainability, something that ought to appeal to Gundersen about nuclear energy in the energy sphere. The value of caviar sustainability is that it stabilizes both its price and availability, the same as has long been true about nuclear energy.

So nuclear energy and caviar have a few points of contact. Maybe there’s one more. Nuclear energy helps caviar farmers and fishermen do their work reliably and sustainably. And perhaps caviar does contribute to the well-being of plant workers, at least on big splurge nights. I think we can conclude without fear of contradiction that the nuclear-caviar reciprocity is heavily weighted toward the atom.

Note: Quebec has no operating nuclear reactor, but a lot of hydro – making about 97 per cent of Quebec’s electricity. Its neighboring province Ontario derives almost 60 per cent of its electricity generation from nuclear energy. Frankly, the cap-and-trade bill referenced above seems almost a symbolic gesture – what is there left to trade much less cap?


Jaro Franta said...

Actually, Ontario got about 62% of its electricity from nuclear last year (2014), as shown in the linked graphic.

Quebec has one operating nuclear reactor - a Slowpoke research reactor at the Polytechnique.
Quebec's Gentilly-2 CANDU-6 power station was shut down at the end of 2011 at the political behest of the provincial government in power at the time.

Marcel F. Williams said...

Actually, trying to solve climate change with wind and solar energy is far more expensive than with nuclear energy.

I've seen a lot of reports lately that wind and even solar is just as cheap or even cheaper than nuclear to build.

But people forget that wind only produces electricity when the wind is blowing and solar only produces electricity when the sun is shining.

Solar energy is only maximally effective in producing electricity about 8 hours a day. So you'd have to build three solar plants to attempt to make up for the electricity requirements for the other hours of the day plus the energy storage facilities to produce the power during the night or when its cloudy. That alone would raise the capital cost of a solar power facility, said to be equal in cost to a nuclear facility, at least five times. Of course, since these solar facilities would probably last only 30 years while nuclear power plants would last at least sixty years, the capital cost for solar should be at least 10 times that of a nuclear facility.


Jim Van Zandt said...

And hydropower is not carbon-neutral after all - those reservoirs can be significant sources of methane:

Atomikrabbit said...

"Trying to solve global warming by building reactors is like trying to solve global hunger by serving caviar."

Trying to understand nuclear energy by listening to Arnie Gundersen is like trying to cure a headache with an ice pick.

jimwg said...

Love these indepth informative articles! I just so WISH they can as passionately examine antinuclear bias in the general media. It exists in spades. It's time to discuss a tainted messenger.

James Greenidge
Queens NY