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The case for nuclear power, from an energy expert

By Tom Jackson • May 6, 2019 at 3:30 PM

To learn more about the point of view of energy experts who believe nuclear power has a role to play in dealing with climate change, Tandem Media Network reached out to the Center for Industrial Progress.

Here are the three questions we posed, and the answers received from Steffen Henne, head of research for the organization.

Q: The Ohio General Assembly is debating a new bill that would subsidize our two nuclear plants to keep them open. Apparently, the plants produce 14 percent of the state's power. Would shutting them down (as seems likely if the bill fails) almost certainly raise carbon emissions, at least in the short term?

HENNE: This depends on many factors, including how much electricity from other states will be imported and how much new natural gas capacity will replace Ohio's coal fleet in the coming years to fill the gap. Ohio's power generation is dominated by natural gas (34 percent) and coal (47 percent) right now. Taking out 14-15 percent of zero-CO2 generation immediately would definitely lead to higher CO2 emissions compared to keeping these power plants alive, even if the absolute emissions might decline over time.                         

It's noteworthy that the problems of nuclear and coal power plants to turn a profit are in some significant way rooted in the presence of unreliable solar and wind. Both technologies are able to produce very cheap baseload electricity but in an environment where solar and wind can just produce when the weather is right and every other generator has to adapt to the gluts and shortfalls, the cost this creates are high for nuclear and coal plants, which have been built to run at high capacity constantly. The current nuclear reactors are usually inefficient at what's called load following because they were not designed to do that. Although solar and wind create the problem, they don't have to pay for the cost in the current regulatory framework.                  

To the extent natural gas outcompetes nuclear on fair terms, that's a different story, but it rarely makes sense to build a new natural gas power plant if the existing nuclear capacity could still do the job. And natural gas still emits more CO2 than existing nuclear power plants in any assessment I have ever seen.

Q: Does nuclear power offer the best hope as a power source that produces energy without carbon emissions and is available 24-7? Are the Generation IV nuclear power plants as promising as their proponents claim?

HENNE: There are really only two major countries that have created affordable, abundant power with low CO2 emissions, France and Sweden, and both have done it by using nuclear technology. You can use wind and solar to some extent and at a high cost, as Denmark has done, but this is not really scalable. Denmark now has the highest electricity prices in Europe together with Germany, in large part because of their focus on wind, and they are dependent on the constant imports and exports of power to stabilize their power grid. Without the availability of large conventional power fleets in their neighborhood, the wind experiment would already be over and Danes would sit in the dark. Germany doesn't even meet its short-term goals in CO2 emission reductions because their costly scaling of solar and wind is completely insufficient.

Yes, nuclear energy right now is the only way to reduce CO2 by significant margins without ruining the economy, grid reliability, and energy security. That is because of the inherent properties in nuclear technology, which turns an abundantly available raw material into a concentrated energy source that does not emit CO2 from a chemical combustion process.

Generation IV is an umbrella term that applies to a variety of different technologies. It is difficult to judge at this stage which of these technologies will be successful or most successful at delivering the most abundant, affordable, and reliable energy. But some of the concepts are really promising. There are, for example, fast spectrum reactors, which promise to be able to use the “waste” of other nuclear fission reactors as fuel and overall increase efficiency of the fuel. Today's typical reactors only use a tiny fraction of the energy content in the uranium or other fuels, which means there is huge potential for efficiency increase with innovation. Other innovative approaches seek to circumvent the cost escalations in the current American regulatory and anti-nuclear social framework, which for the industry means large reactors will be delayed for years or even decades, increasing the upfront cost. Small modular reactors, which can be built in a factory instead of requiring extensive on-site work, might be a good option to reduce cost.

All that innovation potential should be exciting news for everyone concerned about CO2 emissions and the availability of affordable energy to advance human flourishing.

Q: What do you make of the fact that green organizations generally oppose nuclear power, and also insist that climate change is an emergency that must be addressed immediately?

HENNE: I think we have to recognize that for organizations like Greenpeace it doesn't make sense to actually solve a problem. The more abstract and diffuse the doomsday narrative, the better for their business model. Both climate change catastrophism and nuclear catastrophism are really great for them.

There is also an esoteric religious component to it. The reason why wind and solar are the preferred green “solution” is that they are supposedly natural versus the “artificial” splitting of the atom. Facts don't matter in that narrative. Although nuclear is the safest technology to generate power it is still vilified as poisonous and dangerous.

Solar and wind are not proposed because they are real solutions but because they fit into that religious thinking.

The most immoral part of it is the absolute disregard for human flourishing. If you cannot afford energy, you have no energy. If you don't have reliable energy, you have no energy. But affordable and reliable energy is probably the most central aspect of our survival and safety, including safety from climate. Over the last 100 years, climate-related deaths plummeted. Not because the climate suddenly became so much better for us, although the mild warming and increasing CO2 over recent decades was certainly beneficial to us, but because we were able to use technology to protect us from a naturally dangerous environment. And that required the caliber of energy that so far only fossil fuels, nuclear technology, and to some extent large-scale hydropower were able to deliver on a scale of billions.

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