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Nuclear Power in Response to Climate Change

Discussants: Michael Mariotte, and Steven Kerekes
Updated: November 9, 2007


Nuclear power is still anathema to many environmental advocates who express concern about its impact on the environment. However, now that concerns about climate change are part of the policy equation, some experts believe nuclear power should be reconsidered since it does not emit greenhouse gases.

Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, and Steve Kerekes, senior director of media relations at the Nuclear Energy Institute, debate the role of nuclear power in climate change policy.

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Steven Kerekes Most Recent

November 9, 2007

Steven Kerekes

I love it! Now Michael’s knock on nuclear energy is that it’s a “mature” technology—meaning not so much that it’s been around for a while but that it’s actually generated huge amounts of emission-free electricity. Setting aside the fact that the sun and the wind have been around since, say, the dawn of time, here’s what the Cato Institute—no friend of government investment in nuclear energy—revealed in a January 2002 “Policy Analysis”: “R&D dollars have not handicapped renewable energy technologies. Over the past 20 years, those technologies have received (in inflation-adjusted 1996 dollars) $24.2 billion in federal R&D subsidies, while nuclear energy has received $20.1 billion and fossil fuels only $15.5 billion.”

So it’s a complete myth that Michael’s preferred technologies haven’t gotten the money. They have. In fact, nuclear and renewables make a nice, emission-free combination. Of course, renewables cannot meet baseload, 24-hour a day, seven-day a week electricity demand. Nuclear power can. Our industry average capacity factor—which measures actual electricity production relative to theoretical production non-stop for a full year—has been right around 90 percent for the past seven years. By comparison, the Department of Energy pegs the average capacity for state-of-the-art wind projects at 36 percent, with older projects lagging at 30 percent or lower.

I agree that it’s prudent to use limited resources wisely. Yet the investment resources for energy technologies aren’t as limited as Michael thinks. Morgan Stanley Vice Chairman Jeffrey Holzschuh has a presentation in which he notes that the U.S. utility industry investment needs for the next thirteen years total about $1 trillion. Of that total infrastructure need, $350 billion, or $23 billion per year, is needed for electric-generating facilities. Of that sum, the capital required to build an additional 15,000-20,000 megawatts of nuclear capacity over the next fifteen years is about $3.5 billion per year. Meanwhile, over the past five years, the investment capital raised by the U.S. power industry has ranged between $50 billion and $79 billion annually. In other words, new nuclear plant construction will barely make a dent in the ability of U.S. capital markets to finance new energy projects.

This is not an “either-or” scenario. We need all these emission-free energy technologies. The fact that nuclear energy has proven its value as a reliable, affordable source of clean energy is cause for hope.

Michael Mariotte November 9, 2007

Michael Mariotte

The climate crisis is the overriding environmental issue of our time. Addressing it effectively is a necessity, and requires wise direction of our limited resources to support those technologies that offer both a speedy transition to a carbon-free future and a permanent, sustainable energy future.

The thirty-one reactors now said to be under construction (probably ten of those will never be completed) are being built with governmental subsidies. In the United States, utilities and Wall Street have made clear that new reactors will be built only with taxpayer loan guarantees and other assistance. Federal support for energy technologies is not necessarily bad, but should be unnecessary for a mature technology like nuclear power—already the most subsidized energy source in the U.S. over the past 50 years. That taxpayers are being asked to shoulder the burden of new reactors—in the United States and across the globe—is an indication that nuclear power’s economics simply aren’t viable.

And I haven’t yet addressed all of the ancillary (and expensive) facilities and issues that would be required to support a nuclear power revival: new radioactive waste dumps, when no country has yet been able to build even one permanent waste facility; new uranium enrichment plants—a proliferation problem as is plainly evident over Iran’s program; a greater risk of accident, terrorism and attack; a lack of qualified people to build, operate and regulate reactors; and, since uranium is a finite resource, a resort to reprocessing and the subsequent treatment of plutonium as a commodity—which should frighten anyone concerned about the spread of nuclear weapons.

We can achieve an energy policy that is both carbon-free and nuclear-free. I want to refer our readers to two recent books. Carbon-Free and Nuclear Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy, by Dr. Arjun Makhijani of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, is a remarkable work that lays out a detailed plan for the United States to become completely carbon-free and nuclear-free by 2050—without increasing the amount of Gross Domestic Product now being spent on energy. The second is Winning Our Energy Independence: An Energy Insider Shows How, by S. David Freeman, former board chair of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Freeman argues strongly against construction of any new coal or nuclear plants, and persuasively that renewables are, in fact, ready to meet our energy needs.

Spending hundreds of billions of dollars—potentially trillions worldwide—on nuclear power would tie up the capital necessary to implement the safe, sustainable energy future the climate crisis calls for, while providing minimal carbon emissions reductions. That’s the fundamental issue. Our choice is stark: we can effectively address the climate crisis, or we can choose nuclear power. We can’t do both. Fortunately, the choice is an easy one.

Steven Kerekes November 8, 2007

Steven Kerekes

It's increasingly clear that Michael prefers to debate how NOT to respond to climate change. Nuclear energy is a proven technology. It is by far the largest U.S. source of electricity that doesn’t emit greenhouse gases, and it provides more than 45 percent of emission-free electricity worldwide, second only to hydroelectric plants. Yet Michael insists on erecting the straw man of a ten-year U.S. construction window (even as thirty-one new reactors are being built internationally), as though this problem could be solved in that time frame.

Let me refute you with the same construct, Michael:

1. No matter how many billions of dollars we throw at your preferred sources of emission-free electricity, they won’t begin to approach in the next ten years the amount of electricity already generated by nuclear power plants—at which point we’ll start to bring additional emission-free, 1,000-megawatt-plus reactors on line.

2. Your preferred sources of electricity cannot build the number of facilities needed to make a meaningful reduction (by themselves) in carbon emissions.

To try to make this a productive discussion, I’ll point readers to the August 13, 2007, news release from the Electric Power Research Institute. It announces a study “that shows that the aggressive deployment and implementation of a full portfolio of advanced electricity technologies could reduce the economic cost of cutting future U.S. CO2 emissions bymore than 50 percent while meeting the continuing growth in demand for electricity.” That portfolio includes demand-side management, renewables, clean coal and, yes, nuclear energy.

As for Michael's misstatements:

  • Nuclear power plants are operating safely.
  • Radioactive waste is being managed safely.
  • Proliferation is important, but the reality is that nations do not need commercial nuclear energy to manufacture nuclear weapons.

And while there are economic challenges to meet in building new nuclear plants, there’s nothing unique to nuclear about the phenomenon of rising costs. The Department of Energy reported last May that wind- turbine prices have increased 60 percent since 2002.

Lastly, let’s deal with the bizarre claim that renewable energy is being squeezed out of federal R&D [research and development] funding because private-sector investment in new nuclear plants is substantial. First, renewables received more than $1 billion in federal R&D funding in a single year as far back as 1979. Second, even the Energy Policy Act of 2005 authorizes 37 percent more for renewable energy R&D than it does for nuclear energy R&D. These numbers aren’t bad—they simply reveal the truth that it can take considerable time and money to jump-start the technologies that will help our nation.

Michael’s argument is this: “The technology hasn’t yet proven itself capable of meeting the large-scale energy and environmental needs of modern society, so let’s mandate it.” I’ll stick with mine.

Michael Mariotte November 7, 2007

Michael Mariotte

Steve is unable to refute either of the central theses of my first posting: 1) no matter how many billions of dollars we throw at nuclear power, there will be no new atomic reactors in the United States in the next ten years; 2) the industry cannot build the number of reactors needed to make a meaningful reduction in carbon emissions.

So, given nuclear power’s well-known and unsolved safety, radioactive waste, nuclear proliferation and economic problems, why bother building any? Steve’s argument essentially breaks down to: the technology exists, so let’s use it.

One reason not to bother is cost. The world has limited resources; we need to apply them effectively. If nuclear reactors could be built for $1500 kilowatts, as the Nuclear Energy Institute claimed a couple years ago, nuclear could potentially make an economic case for itself. But a funny thing happened when utilities started looking at actual cost projections rather than engaging in wishful thinking. Even before the first shovelful of construction dirt has been turned, costs for new reactors have skyrocketed. NRG and Constellation Energy, the two earliest license applicants, project costs on the order of $2,500-$3,000/kw and they are certainly low-balling. The experience in Finland, where Areva is building an EPR reactor (PDF) is instructive. After thirty-six months of construction, the project is already twenty-four months behind schedule and 50 percent over budget: costs for the single reactor are expected to reach $6 billion, or almost $4,000/kw. (U.S. utilities have said they intend to build 7 EPRs; Areva is hoping to sell EPRs globally.)

Six billion dollars for one reactor: that’s more than four times the U.S. Department of Energy’s annual spending on all renewable energy programs—no wonder renewables continue to lag behind their potential.

Moody’s Investors Service is even less optimistic. Their October 2007 projection is that new U.S. reactors will cost on the order of $5,000-6,000/kw. At those prices, even solar begins to look competitive—and its costs are trending down worldwide, not up. That’s why Google and other Silicon Valley entrepreneurs see solar power as the next Internet in terms of financial potential, and why they’re investing heavily in the technology.

Even under current inadequate federal energy policies, Steve notes that wind expects to reach 20 percent of U.S. electricity generation by 2030—the same percentage nuclear holds now. Taking the hundreds of billions of dollars we could spend on nuclear power to achieve minor carbon emissions cuts and investing that in solar, wind and energy efficiency would be far more effective, and ultimately cheaper. And the emissions cuts could begin now, not in a decade or more.

Steven Kerekes November 6, 2007

Steven Kerekes

It’s a shame this is an online discussion, because surely Michael Mariotte couldn’t have written his remarks with a straight face.

You do the math: Nuclear energy annually has provided 20 percent of U.S. electricity supplies since the early 1990s, and even with a marked increase in overall electricity demand, it constitutes more than 70 percent of the electricity that comes from sources that do not emit greenhouse gases or controlled pollutants into the atmosphere. Renewable energy technologies over that same time period—even with subsidies like production tax credits in place—have increased their share of U.S. electricity production to 3.1 percent from 2.9 percent. At that rate of growth, it will take renewable technologies another twelve hundred years just to equal the share of electricity production that nuclear energy has provided since 1992.

But just to give Michael the benefit of the doubt, let’s take a more generous look at what wind power’s true believers are saying, as reported by Reuters last June from the American Wind Energy Association’s annual conference in Los Angeles: “The U.S. wind power industry will see half a trillion dollars of investment by 2030 to take the renewable source up to 20 percent of U.S. electricity generation, an industry conference heard on Monday.”

Hmmm … 20 percent by 2030. Remind me again which technology’s offerings Michael proclaims to be “too little, too late.”

The silly premise that Michael and many other critics employ with regard to nuclear energy’s clean-air benefits is to suggest that, simply because a substantial number of new nuclear plants is needed to accommodate our sector’s “wedge” of carbon prevention, then construction shouldn’t be undertaken at all. That line of thinking used to be called throwing out the baby with the bath water. The reality is that all carbon-free energy technologies, working hand in hand with improved energy efficiency and conservation measures, are needed to meet this threat. If Michael short-sightedly wants to oppose nuclear energy, he’s free to do so. But he shouldn’t do it with bogus arguments about which technologies are ready for prime time and which aren’t.

Nuclear energy is our country’s only large-scale energy source capable of producing electricity around the clock while emitting no air pollutants or greenhouse gases during production. Nuclear energy is also the lowest-cost large-scale producer of electricity in this country. And nuclear’s production costs are stable and not subject to fluctuations in the natural gas or oil market. As a domestic energy technology with fuel from the United States and reliable trading partners, nuclear energy is essential to our nation’s energy security.

Michael Mariotte November 6, 2007

Michael Mariotte

Environmental advocates considering “reconsidering” nuclear power in light of climate change are too late. The accelerating pace of the climate crisis and the dawning realization that we no longer have the luxury of a few decades to address the crisis already have made nuclear power an irrelevant technology in terms of climate.

Even if the nuclear industry had solved the safety, radioactive waste, proliferation, cost, and other issues that ended its first generation—and it hasn’t solved any of those problems—it wouldn’t matter. What nuclear power can offer for climate is simply too little, too late.

The major studies that have looked at the issue—MIT, the National Commission on Energy Policy, etc.—generally agree that for nuclear to make a meaningful contribution to carbon emissions reduction would require reactor construction on a massive scale: 1,200 to 2,000 new reactors worldwide, 200 to 400 in the United States alone. And that would have to be done over the next f40 to 50 years.

Pity poor Japan Steel Works, the world’s major facility for forging reactor pressure vessels (there is one other, small-capacity facility in Russia): working overtime it can produce twleve pressure vessels per year. Do the math: That’s less than half of what is needed. Even if someone put in the billions of dollars and years necessary to build a new forging facility, it’s still not enough, not fast enough.

There are 104 operable reactors in the United States today. In November 2017, no matter how much taxpayer money is thrown at the nuclear industry, there will be 104—or fewer. Even with streamlined licensing procedures and certified reactor designs, it will take ten, twelve years or more to license, build and bring a single new reactor online. And since most of the reactor designs being considered are first or second of a kind, count on them taking even longer.

Our energy future ultimately will be carbon-free and nuclear-free, based primarily on solar and wind power, energy efficiency, and distributed generation. What is perhaps less obvious is that the future is now. In the years we’d be waiting for that first new reactor to come online, we can install ten times or more solar and wind capacity, and save twenty times or more that much power through increased efficiency while building the mass production that reduces costs, especially for photovoltaics. By the time that first reactor could come online, solar could already be cost-competitive, while wind and efficiency already are cheaper than nuclear.

We no longer have ten years to begin reducing carbon emissions. Waiting around for a few new reactors won’t help our climate, but it would waste the funds needed to implement our real energy future.

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