“If we let the world keep warming as fast as it is, and sea levels rising as fast as they are, and weather patterns keep shifting in more unexpected ways—then before long, we are going to have to devote more and more and more of our economic and military resources not to growing opportunity for our peoples, but to adapting to the various consequences of a changing planet. This is an economic and a security imperative that we have to tackle now.” – President Barack Obama in Paris, Dec. 1, 2015
Peter Thiel, a partner at the investment group Founders Fund, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times recently urging President Obama to get behind nuclear energy development and deployment, essentially as John F. Kennedy did with the space program, because of climate change.
Thiel acknowledges the wrong-headed nature of anti-nuclear activists who have spent the past 40 years fighting to cripple development and innovation in the nuclear energy industry, with some success. Their victory has meant dirtier air and more deaths from fossil fuel pollution.
Still, with the catastrophes of climate change looming, surely the scales of logic would tip in favor of using more nuclear energy. Surely.
Thiel writes to President Obama, “Supporting nuclear power with more than words is the litmus test for seriousness about climate change.”
Hundreds of readers commented on the Thiel op-ed. Sadly, many of them were just fine with failing the seriousness test. Let’s look at some of their arguments.
The Ramp-Up Argument
To battle climate change effectively requires new thinking at every level – and that seems to be happening in some corners. But not when it comes to changing (nudging?) the mindset of those long opposed to nuclear energy.
From one reader identified as Brian Williams: “First off, it’s impossible to build (and fuel!) enough nuclear plants (400 or so at a bare minimum) to replace fossil fuel generated power… in the time frame needed to avert catastrophic global warming.”
China seems to be doing all right with its efforts to ramp up nuclear energy generation with 140+ planned reactors, 21 under construction. That is more than one-fifth of the current U.S. nuclear fleet. France showed that nuclear energy can be deployed relatively quickly once everyone is on board with the plan. Currently, France gets about 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy – 17 percent of that from recycled fuel, according to the World Nuclear Association. See also this graph.
As we have chronicled in this blog, even a simple wind farm can take a decade to permit and build. The number of utility-scale wind and solar farms that would need to be constructed to significantly replace fossil fuel would be astronomical, certainly more than the “400 or so” nuclear plants estimated by Mr. Williams.
Peter Thiel writes that wind and solar now account for 2 percent of global energy production. Even if that number became 20 percent in the next 20 years, it would not be enough to address the magnitude of climate change effects. And the amount of natural gas (or even coal) back-up to cover renewables’ intermittency would significantly negate some of the benefits.
To think the permitting and regulatory (and activist) playing field will be cleared for wind and solar development is folly. It would take about 40 50-turbine wind projects to provide the same power as one nuclear plant; each wind project with a separate process to site and permit. And the only reason to do this is to replace fossil, which is a baseload or full-time resource, which means a gas plant (or two or three) to back up those 40 wind farms. More permitting and infrastructure. And carbon.
China gets about 4,200 TWh of electricity from fossil fuels. Can that be replaced with renewables? By when?
France replaced its fossil fuels with nuclear energy pretty darn quickly.
The Free Market Argument
From NYT reader ando arike: “What Peter Thiel is calling for here is a massive government program to stimulate and develop the nuclear industry…”
Truth be told, without government mandates and subsidies, the wind revolution in the U.S. would likely not have happened at the pace and scale seen over the past ten years.
In fact, one wind industry insider told me 90 percent of wind projects are driven by the Production Tax Credit, which pays wind operators $23 a megawatt hour for the first 10 years of a qualifying project.
Following passage of a renewable portfolio standard (I-937 in 2006) in
Washington state, thousands of megawatts of wind capacity appeared on the grid. That wind is now being balanced by reducing the generation of clean hydropower. So taxpayers chip in $23 a megawatt hour for wind and then see reduced hydro production, raising costs there, too?
In other regions, the PTC leads to market distortions.
Now, imagine if governments passed clean energy standards instead, which would obviously include nuclear energy. Imagine if states fought to keep their existing nuclear plants open through smart energy policies. The climate would be better off.
What is the difference between a carbon-free megawatt of wind energy and a carbon-free megawatt of nuclear energy?
The nuclear energy industry is simply seeking market reforms to assign the fair and proper value to the clean air energy already produced. If we face fires, drought and rising oceans, this is some very low-hanging fruit.
The Carbon-Free Argument
A few comments, though not as many as expected, attempted to make a point that nuclear energy is not carbon-free because of the carbon output of its entire fuel-cycle.
As David from The Bronx wrote: “I hear it all the time, ‘Nuclear power is carbon free.’ This is simply not true. The amount of carbon that is harvested for the construction of a plant puts the entire enterprise in a huge deficit from the moment it comes on-line. This does not even include the carbon deficit for mining uranium.”
The truth of the matter is that nuclear power generation is almost as carbon-free as it gets. Wind is a little better, but it also requires mining of iron ore and production of huge amounts of cement (see graph below from The Breakthrough Institute). And depending on the balancing source (hydro or natural gas or coal), wind could even be worse on carbon. Solar definitely is worse.
Here’s what DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory found. Because a single nuclear plant can produce tremendous amounts of electricity, carbon-free, for 60 years, its carbon footprint ends up being negligible in the long run.
Lastly, anti-nuclear energy positions for the past 40 years have resulted in a much higher use of fossil fuels and much higher carbon levels for the planet. Rather than owning that, anti-nuclear energy activists simply ignore it and move on. If one is going to take a position, one should be willing to defend the consequences of that position. Every consequence.
The Waste Argument
The effects of climate change will be devastating if realized. Here in the Northwest they already include wildfires, insect outbreaks and tree diseases according to NASA. In other regions, drought and coastal flooding will wreak havoc.
One way to stop this is to switch to low-carbon sources of energy. One low-carbon source of energy is nuclear.
“Oh, but the waste!”
This is the red herring that will likely survive any amount of ocean acidification due to fossil fuel use. This argument was used unsparingly by many NYT readers.
For instance, MRG in L.A. offered, “Nuclear waste is a catastrophic issue we have not been able to tackle appropriately…”
A “catastrophic issue?” How so?
We have dry cask storage canisters that are well-made to protect used fuel from the environment for a 100 years. If we aren’t using that fuel in an advanced reactor by then (and if not, shame on us), it can be put into another canister for another 100 years. The point is – it’s well-managed.
One hundred years into the future will Los Angeles still be utilizing the same landfills they use now? What about in 10,000 years? So the concept of setting aside ground for specific uses is not unique to nuclear energy. Every community in the United States already does it. What is unique to nuclear is the amount of space needed – it’s tiny! And unlike landfills and mercury (“Once buried, some of the inorganic mercury in the landfill is converted by bacteria living there into a more toxic form, called organic or methylated mercury.”), used nuclear fuel is a solid that will never reach the environment or people. It’s also a valuable commodity that can be recycled, providing hundreds of years of clean energy. So instead of a landfill and waste, with nuclear used fuel think Fort Knox and gold. Carbon-free gold.
Just Plain Silly Arguments
There were a few of these.
Sharon from Worchester County, Mass. writes: “Hanford, WA. located nuclear waste storage on the Columbia River!!! It is now leaking into said river. Nothing more to say.”
Hanford is defense-related nuclear waste from plutonium processing, which has nothing to do with commercial nuclear energy. Some people confuse the two even here in the Northwest. Old habits and what not.
A New Hope (Same As The Old Hope)
Some who used to be against nuclear energy are changing their minds. It’s happening more and more and that’s a good thing. With new generations fully embracing advanced technology; with more distance put between the Cold War nuclear arms race with the fear that evoked; with the realities of climate change beginning to crystallize before our eyes; perhaps we will see a seriousness to our discussions about our energy future.
And by serious, I mean embracing nuclear energy as part of a low-carbon energy strategy.
As Peter Thiel wrote: “We can keep on merely talking about a carbon-free world, or we can go ahead and create one.”
What comes out of COP21 will be telling.
(Posted by John Dobken)