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Nuclear Power No Climate Cure-All

By Joe Romm  

"Nuclear Power No Climate Cure-All"

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nuclear-power.jpgEverything you could possibly want to know about nuclear power — and its (limited) potential as a potential climate solution — can be found in the new Keystone Center Report with the less-than-captivating title “Nuclear Power Joint Fact-Finding.”

Reuters is confused in its article on the report, “Nuclear Power Can’t Curb Global Warming – Report,” and actually overstates the case for nuclear:

Nuclear power would only curb climate change by expanding worldwide at the rate it grew from 1981 to 1990, its busiest decade, and keep up that rate for half a century, a report said on Thursday.

Specifically, that would require adding on average 14 plants each year for the next 50 years, all the while building an average of 7.4 plants to replace those that will be retired, the report by environmental leaders, industry executives and academics said.

Incorrect. You would need 8 to 10 times faster growth (3 nuclear plants built each week for 50 years) — and some 100 Yucca Mountains to store the waste for nuclear to curb global warming on its own. How did Reuters get it wrong?

The huge growth in nuclear power examined in the Keystone report amounts to only one of the so-called “stabilization wedges” needed to fight global warming. The “wedges” idea, created by Princeton’s Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow, has become a term of art in the climate debate which you can read about here.

The short version is that a wedge represents a climate solution that starts slowly but then rises in impact over the 50 years and ultimately avoids the emission of one billion tons of carbon per year. If the average car on the road in 2057 got 60 miles per gallon, that would be one wedge.

The world needs 8 to 10 wedges, starting now, to avoid catastrophic global warming. Interestingly, the Report makes clear that

For nuclear power to be even one wedge we would need 10 Yucca Mountains to store the waste.

We would have all of the proliferation risks associated with spreading nuclear power across the planet.

And the power isn’t cheap: 8.3 to 11.1 cents per kilo-watt hour.

So nuclear is not a climate cure-all. Even climate advocates like John McCain get this wrong. In a March 2006 interview, he stated he would demand legislation to expand U.S. nuclear power as part of his efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions:

It’s the only technology presently available to quickly step up to meet our energy needs.

Incorrect. As the Keystone report makes clear — and as former Vice President Al Gore told Congress earlier this year — nuclear may be a part of the solution, but probably only a very limited part.

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5 Responses to Nuclear Power No Climate Cure-All

  1. Actually this essay simply states the case of the mass production of breeder reactors. Only breeder technology would provide the nuclear fuel for all the reactors imagined here. The only way that such a large number of reactors could be built is on an assembly line basis. Since we are going to be recycling so called “reactor waste”, there will ne little need for long term repositories for spent reactor fuel. Assembly line production of reactors, which then can be shipped to on ships and barges to the power production sites around the world, will enable reactors to be manufactured for a fraction of their present costs.

  2. Patrick M says:

    “So nuclear is not a climate cure-all. Even climate advocates like John McCain get this wrong. In a March 2006 interview, he stated he would demand legislation to expand U.S. nuclear power as part of his efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions:

    It’s the only technology presently available to quickly step up to meet our energy needs.

    Incorrect. ”

    Not incorrect. Name another non-emitting source of electricity that could be used for 75% of baseload generation and do it cost-effectively? You cant. There arent any others besides nuclear. And nuclear is far from 8cents/kwh. more like 4-5/kwh. McCain is right to insist that nuclear is *part* (not all) of the solution.

    “So nuclear is not a climate cure-all. ”
    No one energy source is, but none comes closer than nuclear. Nuclear energy has displaced more CO2 emissions than any other source of energy. Its clean energy compared to the coal that it replaces.

    “Actually this essay simply states the case of the mass production of breeder reactors.” – Correct, we can reuse nuclear fuel, if we so desire and thereby stretch uranium supplies and reduce waste volumes.

  3. Peter S says:

    The Keystone study, which was funded by the nuclear industry, mentions a
    levelized cost of between 8 and 11 cents per KWH. This is probably low, given the
    rate of cost increases for new large power plants.
    In the new generation of nuclear plants, the project furthest along is Turkey Point
    3 and 4 in Florida.
    Estimated construction costs have ballooned to 18 to 24 billion, according to the
    company’s own estimates.(Nucleonics Week, 2/21/08) Imagine for a moment if any state were to spend that amount of money on efficiency, solar and wind.

  4. Tom says:

    Show me a study demonstrating that $24 billion invested in solar/wind would produce as much energy as that nuke plant, and I’ll agree. But right now, you are arguing by hand-waving.

  5. mike says:

    Are you guys living in a dream world? Hundreds of reactors for every 50 or 60 years of energy? So I guess you have figured out some way of making them non-radioactive upon decommissioning them. Terrorist earth quakes all that wont breech them some day? Necular