The United States Without Nuclear Power

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - With the start of the new session of Congress, there is a lot of maneuvering going on to establish turf and battle lines. Senator Lamar Alexander, long-time Republican senator from Tennessee, now the head of the Sub-committee on Water and Energy Development, has come out with a strong statement regarding the future of nuclear energy in this country.

The speech was entitled “The United States Without Nuclear Power,” and while that sounds like a perfectly reasonable title for an advocate of alternative energy, it was, in fact, anything but. The senator refers to a hypothetical day when the US is without nuclear power and calls it, “a day we don’t want to see in our country’s future.”

It’s not exactly clear who the “we” is that he’s referring, but it’s clear that it’s something that he wants to avoid. He gives three reasons and goes on to tell three stories.

The three reasons are:

  1. We use a lot of electricity (25% of the world total)
  2. Nuclear power provides 20% of that
  3. Since “the world’s leading science academies and many Americans say climate change is a threat,” nuclear currently provides about 60% of the country’s carbon-free power.

These facts are all undeniably true, though they don’t, by any means, add up to the conclusion he draws from them.

His first story is about Japan. Making no comments about the tremendous destruction, disruption and loss of life (now exceeding 1,650 people) due to the  Fukushima meltdown, or the fact that the situation there remains precarious, his point is that after shutting down all the country’s reactors, the cost of electricity has gone up by 56%, which has led to additional hardship and sacrifice.

It’s not clear to me how this fact, by itself, argues for a pro-nuclear future. I think it’s obvious that for any country to have to completely abandon its primary source of electricity overnight, for reasons of public safety, or for any reason, would lead to disruption of energy supply, increased prices and many of the hardships that Japan is now experiencing. At the same time, it’s hard to imagine any other source of electricity that would be the cause of such a circumstance. Windmills could lose blades, solar towers could fall over, steam boilers could explode, but none of these failures could come anywhere near the destructive potential of a nuclear meltdown that would cause the government, in response to public sentiment and their own sense of prudence, to feel the need to shut down each and every instance of that source of power.

The next story is about Germany, who has made the decision to phase out the use of nuclear power. Of the 17 reactors that were producing 25% of the country’s electricity, eight have now been shut down. The remainder now provide 17% of the country’s power.  This has literally created a power vacuum, resulting in disruption including price increases, purchases of nuclear power from France and now, the increased reliance on coal plants to provide the baseload power previously provided by the nuke plants. While it’s clear that the German example is not one we’d necessarily want to follow, it’s not so much what they’ve done, but how they did it that was most problematic. Assuming they retired the plants through attrition and built up adequate replacements more gradually, these problems could have been avoided. Alexander also mentions the large sum of money Germany has spent, developing their renewable infrastructure, $1.2 trillion, suggesting this was a fearsome folly. Indeed that sounds like an enormous number, but, to put it in perspective, it’s about as much as the US spends each year on fossil fuels. I believe the Germans see that expenditure as an investment, rather than a cost, knowing that in future years, their energy expenditures will be headed towards zero, while those of other countries, including those relying on nuclear power will continue to rise.

The third story was about the United Arab Emirates. It’s true that they are in the process of constructing four nuclear plants, which Senator Alexander says will provide carbon-free energy for more quickly than Germany has achieved using wind and solar. That may be true, though none of those plants are operational yet, and, as is well known, the nuclear power industry is notorious for delays, to ensure that the plants are as safe as intended, a concern that in the post-Fukushima world will surely be heightened. The first of those 1.4 MW plants is scheduled to come online in 2017, but  I wouldn’t count those chickens as hatched just yet.

It’s true the UAE, in keeping with the legacy of Sheik Zâyed bin Sulṭân Âl Nahyân, is eager to move boldly into a post-carbon future and has the correspondingly large checkbook with which to accomplish this.  But unless you have the bank account of a sheik, nuclear power might be unaffordable, which is why so little of it is being developed. Incidentally, the UAE has also constructed the 100MW Shams-1 solar thermal plant that combines the use of natural gas to provide consistent baseload quality power, 24 hours a day.

The question of baseload power is one that keeps coming up. Yes, nuclear plants are good at providing baseload power. In fact, it’s the only thing they are good for, since it’s anything but easy to turn them on and off. Renewables like wind and solar are very different. They tend to turn on and off, whether you want them to or not (but they do so predictably). Other renewables like hydro, geothermal and tidal power are better for baseload, but these are smaller contributors.

The key to filing this gap is the ability to integrate these variable sources and utilize them effectively. One approach is storage. The state of California has already made aggressive moves towards incorporating energy storage into their infrastructure. As electrical vehicles and the smart grid continue to expand, vehicle-to-grid (V2G) architectures will provide sizeable storage capacity. Millions of cars, parked in garages connected to the grid through smart charging stations, will charge up from nighttime winds, while providing additional storage for excess generation. Ice storage air conditioning is another way to store energy, making ice at night, then using it for daytime cooling.

But energy physicist and visionary Amory Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute says we can get all the power we need, around the clock, from renewables even without storage. Lovins claims that the grid can handle the variation in output from these sources since they are predictable.  This capability will only get better as we modernize the grid. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory predicts that 80-90% of our electricity supply can come from renewables. The rest can easily be met with natural gas or any of a number of other alternatives.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and we don’t need to go backwards in order to move forward. I recognize the fact that Oak Ridge National Lab, which played a pivotal role in the development of nuclear technology is located in Senator Alexander’s home state. But we can’t build our future on sentimentality. Last time I checked, ORNL had plenty of work in the renewable energy field.

The harnessing of atomic energy was a 20th century experiment that produced a great deal of both harm and good. As science and technology have progressed we have found safer and less expensive alternatives to obtain the energy we need. The only way, as Senator Alexander well knows, that nuclear power can make a comeback in this country is if the government steps with enormous loan guarantees to cover the huge potential safety and financial risks involved in these projects. At a time when our markets are reeling because the cost of energy has become too cheap, this seems an unlikely outcome.

Finally, in his suggestions, Alexander is saying we should stop picking winners and losers, but he’s only saying that because he knows that as long as we do, his choice will not be among the winners.

Image credit: Siebren (Siep): Flickr Creative Commons