Everything 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.