This special interest group is where you can bring thoughts and ideas on renewable energy. 

WARNING: SIGN-IN

You need to be a member of Energy Central to access some features and content. Please or register to continue.

Post

Is Nuclear Energy a Solution to Climate Change?

Diablo Canyon Power Plant. U.S. NRC. Used with permission.

"Although renewable energy is the go-to green energy solution, due to its unreliable nature—wind is not always blowing, the sun is not always shining, etc.—it likely cannot meet the requirements for the main electrical energy source. In this article, let’s discuss nuclear energy as a best possible alternative to fossil fuels, despite its bad reputation in the environmental and human aspects. We’ll also review the various nuclear energy technologies and examine the economics of nuclear sources.
...

While renewables, carbon capture and various political strategies are more commonly discussed as solutions to climate change, nuclear fission may be the most practical solution based on real engineering."

more...

Bob Meinetz's picture

Thank Bob for the Post!

Energy Central contributors share their experience and insights for the benefit of other Members (like you). Please show them your appreciation by leaving a comment, 'liking' this post, or following this Member.

Discussions

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Dec 12, 2019 5:28 pm GMT

Generally, the public perceptions of nuclear energy are negative. Nuclear waste is the most prominent disadvantage and the main reason why nuclear power “green” credentials are questionable. The nuclear waste has a quite long life cycle and remains radioactive for thousands of years. It is stored in temporary waste repositories, above-ground facilities to ensure that the waste remains sequestered from the environment.

Gets me to wondering-- when exactly did the negative perception of nuclear come about. Was that the sentiment before the first major incident at a power plant? Was there a specific trigger or just a slow bleed of information? Just looking at coal ash and various pollution that came from coal-- seems it took a long time before public perception finally came around to be negative for coal, so what made nuclear's so quick and drastic?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 12, 2019 11:20 pm GMT

Matt, some of it comes from (misplaced) associations with nuclear weapons.

But surprisingly, opposition to nuclear power is rooted in a philosophy demonizing consumption as the underlying source of humankind's troubles. In his 1798 book An Essay on the Principle of Population, philosopher Thomas Malthus argued humans had a propensity to utilize abundance for population growth, rather than for maintaining a high standard of living. The book became one of the most influential works in the social sciences, and Malthus's view has been controversial ever since. Today, adherents and detractors occupy spheres no less polarized than Democratic and Republican parties in the U.S.

The Sierra Club, founded in 1892 by conservationist John Muir, originally stated its purpose was "to explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth," and didn't take either side in the Malthusian debate. In the 1930s it viewed hydroelectric dams as an enemy of conservation, and after World War II nuclear energy was perceived as a potential solution. But the "Baby Boom", combined with a concurrent, dramatic increase in water and air pollution, ignited new interest in Malthus's theories, and Sierra Club lumped nuclear energy together with gasoline and coal as fueling the destructive growth which would eventually doom humankind.

In 1968 Stanford Professor Paul Ehrlich, at the prompting of Sierra Club Executive Director David Brower, wrote The Population Bomb, a bestselling book predicting the dire consequences of unchecked growth. It began with the statement

"The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate."

When the 1970s came and went without Ehrlich's catastrophe unfolding, he admitted his timing had been off, but maintained the catastrophe was just a matter of time. Business professor Julian Simon was skeptical, and the two made a famous bet in 1980 involving resource scarcity in the year 1990. It was widely viewed as either proving or disproving Malthus's theory.

Though Ehrlich, anti-growth dogma, and Sierra Club lost the bet, they're sore losers: like members of the renewables movement they inspired, they still believe they'll be right - some day.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Dec 18, 2019 1:29 am GMT

That's a good reply, Bob. For those interested in more, Michael Schellenberger has written and spoken about the issue in some depth. He's an environmental activist who was once anti-nuclear, but now believes that nuclear offers the most environmentally benign approach to global energy supply. I recommend his TED talk on the subject.

I can add a bit more from my own experience about origins of the anti-nuclear movement. I inherited a love of wilderness from my mother, who was an artist, poet, and mountain climber. Her father lived with us during most of the first eight years of my life. He had been a rural minister in Kansas and Missouri, but had a lively curiosity and respect for science. He deplored the materialism and consumerism that had taken hold of America in the years after World War II. Coming from that background, when I got to high school I was sympathetic to the writings of Edward Abbey. I also read articles and essays by other founders of what grew into the modern environmental movement.

It's dangerous to generalize about the motivations and beliefs of individuals behind movements. They're many and varied. But I can testify that the driving energy behind the early anti-nuclear movement was not any mundane concern about reactor safety or the hazards of radioactive wastes. It was outrage at what industrial society was doing to nature and the natural world. The way we casually preempted the habitat of our fellow creatures, our willful blindness to the beauty we were destroying, our worship of wealth, power, and material posessions -- those were things that outraged me as much as they outraged those early scions of the environmental movement.

Where we parted ways was in our ideas about what to do about the situation. I'm by nature a conservative reformer. I want to solve problems and make things better. They -- many of them -- were not reformers but revolutionaries. They weren't interested in fixing anything; they were alienated from the system around them and wanted to overturn it. For those individuals, "back to nature" was not just a personal choice. It was a prescription they wanted society as a whole to follow.

Reform is the enemy of revolution. From the perspective of a revolutionay environmentalist, nuclear power was something to oppose not because it threatened the environment in any direct way, but for the opposite reason. It would prop up the system they wanted to overturn. It would render technological civilization cleaner, less destructive to the environment, and less onerous to citizens. Evolutionary change would undercut the drive for revolutionary change.

To a revolutionary environmentalist of that period (late 1950's to early 60s), dirty coal was preferable to clean nuclear. In fact, the dirtier the better. CO2 emissions weren't yet recognized as anything needing to be addressed, but smog and air pollution were bad and getting worse. The revolutionaries' hope was that it would become bad enough that people would wake up and reject the whole system. Didn't quite work out that way, but kneecapping nuclear power manage to extend the reign of coal for decades.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Dec 18, 2019 1:54 pm GMT

Really interesting to hear how your personal experience speaks to these issues. Thanks so much for sharing, Roger!

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 19, 2019 2:15 am GMT

Second that, Matt.

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on Dec 12, 2019 11:19 pm GMT

From article:

Climate scientists have assessed that all coal-fired power plants should be phased out by 2030 in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries and by 2050 in the rest of the world.

Coal peaked in OECD countries in 2007 and has dropped steadily(-25%) since then.

Nuclear peaked in OECD countries in 2006  and has dropped(-18%) since then.

How is a fuel which is going backwards in generation going to help replace coal?

It would be nice if nuclear could at least not drop further - then coal would drop a lot faster.

Note: once this chart has been upgraded to 2019 - the coal share will have dropped a good deal more. 180,000 GWh in the US alone.

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 12, 2019 11:21 pm GMT

How are renewables going to help us replace natural gas?

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on Dec 13, 2019 5:04 pm GMT

Climate scientists have assessed that all coal-fired power plants should be phased out by 2030 in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries and by 2050 in the rest of the world.

Coal first Bob.  

Let's see if there is any new nuclear generation available by 2030s to help   renewables replace Natural Gas.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Dec 13, 2019 10:20 pm GMT

I definitely agree that coal needs to be public enemy number 1 here, but I'm not sure I agree with the idea of 'let's get rid of coal and then start planning the next step.' We're so close to the brink of running out of time that not having a forward-looking enough plan now that accounts for the coming decades beyond 2030 and how the transition will look could cause more problems in the long run

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 14, 2019 4:43 pm GMT

Agree, Matt. The only end game ever offered by renewables has been "let's wait and see." We've seen. Time's up.

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on Dec 16, 2019 12:00 am GMT

but I'm not sure I agree with the idea of 'let's get rid of coal and then start planning the next step.'

Of course not. Coal is just top priority. But that doesn't mean you don't work on eliminating NG as well.

In places where, coal is already gone or mostly gone, like California,  Nevada or UK - renewables will be replacing NG over the next decade. 

In the OECD as a whole, there is still a huge amount of work to be done replacing coal.  That needs to remain the focus for time being.

 My point in prior comment is that nuclear will provide ZERO help in replacing that OECD coal before 2030.  Perhaps by mid 30s nuclear generation in the OECD will start rising again. In my mind, even that timeframe is becoming doubtful. 

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 17, 2019 11:39 pm GMT

That's not what I asked. How are they going to replace natural gas? Natural gas and nuclear generate electricity all night long and when the wind isn't blowing.

Are we assuming Magic Multi-Gigawatt Batteries, which don't cost a fortune, and don't need to be replaced ever 5-7 years, and can magically store energy from solar panels while they're generating electricity to the grid, or from wind turbines that don't slice/dice any endangered bird that gets in their way, will spring into existence in the next ten years?

That would seem to be orders of magnitude less likely than a nuclear buildout, a feat already accomplished by France thirty years ago. N'est-ce pas?

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on Dec 19, 2019 7:18 pm GMT

That's not what I asked. How are they going to replace natural gas? 

Its already happening - NG is being replaced with Wind/Solar and Storage. The only question left is - will this work for last 10% of NG? Perhaps nuclear will play some role here.

and can magically store energy from solar panels while they're generating electricity to the grid,

huh? what the heck does this mean?  

That would seem to be orders of magnitude less likely than a nuclear buildout...

This implies that nuclear is actually being built. Show me the money.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 19, 2019 9:12 pm GMT

"Its already happening - NG is being replaced with Wind/Solar and Storage."

Show me one gas plant that has been shut down by "Wind/Solar and Storage". You can't, because customers need electricity at night and when the wind isn't blowing.

"huh? what the heck does this mean? "

These are fundamentals, Joe - it means renewables can either store to batteries or generate for the grid - they can't do both at the same time. So you will need to build twice the amount or solar to both power the grid during the day, and store it for night, and we're already well over $1 trillion to power California for one cloudy day from batteries. But no worries - it will never happen.

"This implies that nuclear is actually being built. Show me the money."

No, it implies it can be done. There's no evidence wind and solar can generate 50% of the electricity mix of any grid, anywhere in the world. Time's up.

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on Dec 20, 2019 6:05 pm GMT

Show me one gas plant that has been shut down by Wind/Solar and Storage

When I say NG is being replaced by renewables/storage I am talking about generation not capacity.  Generation is what creates CO2, not capacity.  

I agree that NG capacity will stick around for quite a while as renewables/storage ramps. That said - some NG plants have already or will shutdown. The Inland Empire Energy Center is one example.

The closure illustrates stiff competition in the deregulated energy market as cheap wind and solar supply more electricity, squeezing out fossil fuels. Some utilities say they have no plans to build more fossil plants.

There is your one sample.

You said:

These are fundamentals, Joe - it means renewables can either store to batteries or generate for the grid - they can't do both at the same time.

Of course they can - you build a 100MW solar project and "assign" 50MW of that to charge 400 MWh of storage.  The other 50MW is sent to grid. That's gonna become the standard.

Speaking of storage - just getting started.

By the way - Denmark will be over 50% from wind/solar in 2019.  On its way to 70%. Ireland and other grids not too far behind.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 27, 2019 6:28 pm GMT

"By the way - Denmark will be over 50% from wind/solar in 2019.  On its way to 70%. Ireland and other grids not too far behind."

Iceland gets almost all of its electricity from geothermal, too. So...everyone not living in an area without abundant natural resources is

  1. Forced to move to Denmark, Ireland, Iceland, or Brazil, or
  2. Forced to burn fossil fuel, or
  3. Out of luck / doesn't deserve access to electricity

What kind of a solution is that?

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Dec 17, 2019 4:35 pm GMT

I think you guys have missed the big-flick. 
Coal use is massive in Asia, especially in China. What happens in the U.S. and Europe is utterly irrelevant as far as global emissions are concerned. Simple mathematics demonstrates the utter folly of what the U.S. & Europe do. What Westen climate scientists think is also irrelevant, for the same reason.

Coal is being phased out in the U.S. because of economics, not climate change. Gas fired generation is vastly more profitable. That is the same reason nuclear power is dying on the vine in the U.S.

Nuclear Power needs to beat the competition based on economics instead of jumping on the fear monger "climate change" bandwagon.

Fundamentally, nuclear power needs to shift to absolutely fail-safe, very efficient designs that are competitive and easily licensed. That rules out water reactors as well as reactors employing steam generators. Basically, you end up with some form of gas reactor employing a gas turbine. Such designs will also dissipate the public's fear of nuclear power.

With the presence of highly competitive, efficient, fail-safe reactors, Asia will phase coal because of economics. Problem solved.

 

 

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 19, 2019 5:01 am GMT

"Coal use is massive in Asia, especially in China. What happens in the U.S. and Europe is utterly irrelevant as far as global emissions are concerned. Simple mathematics demonstrates the utter folly of what the U.S. & Europe do."

Michael, here are some simple mathematics: the U.S. is responsible for 18% of global CO2 emissions with 5% of global population - or put another way, Americans create 3.5 times their "share" of CO2. China and India have repeatedly assured us any reduction in CO2 emissions will not come at the expense of development. Reasonable, considering that was how the U.S. became an economic powerhouse. Wasn't it?

"What Westen climate scientists think is also irrelevant, for the same reason."

An interesting perspective, if one that ignores the prevailing (and near-unanimous) consensus, among climate scientists the world over, that climate change represents an existential threat to humanity.

"Fundamentally, nuclear power needs to shift to absolutely fail-safe, very efficient designs that are competitive and easily licensed."

Aside from the flawed assumption fail-safe designs exist, per unit of energy nuclear is already the safest form of electricity generation, by far.

"Such designs will also dissipate the public's fear of nuclear power."

What will disspate the public's fear of nuclear power is education and, in extreme cases, medication.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Dec 18, 2019 6:03 pm GMT

The population of Asia and the Indian subcontinent dwarfs that of the U.S. and Western Europe. Energy use in the Far East will rise dramaticallly as the billions of poor move into the middle class. The population of the U.S. and Western Europe is stagnant which means no particular growth in energy use will occur.

Asia has been bringing coal plants on-line by the dozen for years and will continue to do so.

Again, what the U.S. and Western Europe do is irrelevant to world CO2 emissions. Ditto for what the "green energy religion" pseudo-scientists think.

Fail-safe reactor designs do, in fact, exist. These tend to be small reactors that passively remove heat.

Given the catastrophes caused by water reactors, the public is justified in fearing nuclear power. As a nuclear engineer with over 50 years of experience, it is painfully obvious nuclear energy needs to go in a different direction.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 19, 2019 4:58 am GMT

"The population of Asia and the Indian subcontinent dwarfs that of the U.S. and Western Europe."

Seems that you believe the brown hordes of Asia shouldn't be afforded the same access to cheap energy we've enjoyed for 170 years, at their expense. Maybe it's time for affluent Americans to own up to the impacts of past American coal and oil consumption, instead of pointing fingers. That's what China (one half of our per-capita emissions) and India (one sixth) believe, and I'd have to agree with them.

"Again, what the U.S. and Western Europe do is irrelevant to world CO2 emissions."

Anyone who believes 31% of the world's CO2 emissions is "irrelevant" is either misinformed or in denial.

Get Published - Build a Following

The Energy Central Power Industry Network is based on one core idea - power industry professionals helping each other and advancing the industry by sharing and learning from each other.

If you have an experience or insight to share or have learned something from a conference or seminar, your peers and colleagues on Energy Central want to hear about it. It's also easy to share a link to an article you've liked or an industry resource that you think would be helpful.

                 Learn more about posting on Energy Central »