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Climate Change and Why Nuclear Power Can't Fix it

 Heat Could Shut Nuclear Plants When Needed Most. The false claims that nuclear power can address the climate crisis were dealt another blow last week as France faced the possibility of having to shut down its nuclear plants due to extreme heat. Nuclear plants cannot operate safely when their intake water is too hot -- or at all if water supplies drop too low and are not sufficiently available to cool the plant. Both of these conditions will occur with greater frequency in our rapidly warming world. In addition, water resources are becoming scarcer under the climate emergency, meaning that large thermo-electric plants, such as nuclear power plants, are devouring -- or are in competition for -- water resources needed for drinking and irrigating essential crops. As the World Resources Institute pointed out last year, "47 percent of the world's thermal power plant capacity -- mostly coal, natural gas and nuclear -- . . . are located in highly water-stressed areas." Clearly, nuclear power is a serious liability, detrimental to addressing global warming, and far from "reliable."

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on July 9, 2019

The president of France disagrees with you, Mark.

“What did the Germans do when they shut all their nuclear in one go?,” Macron said. 

“They developed a lot of renewables but they also massively reopened thermal and coal. They worsened their CO2 footprint, it wasn’t good for the planet. So I won’t do that.”

Re: this talking point on the Greenpeace handout someone apparently gave you in a Trader Joe's parking lot:

"...large thermo-electric plants, such as nuclear power plants, are devouring -- or are in competition for -- water resources needed for drinking and irrigating essential crops."

You might contact Arizona Public Services Co. with this valuable information. APS is the owner/operator of Palo Verde Nuclear Plant, the largest nuke plant in the U.S., which generates 4 billion watts of clean electricity, day or night, windy or calm, in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. It's cooled by Phoenix wastewater.

"Clearly, nuclear power is a serious liability, detrimental to addressing global warming, and far from 'reliable.'"

Clearly, accelerated efforts of renewables evangelists to convince us white is black, and up is down, presage the day solar panels and wind turbines might be relegated to the Museum of Failed Technologies. It can't happen soon enough.

Donald Osborn's picture
Donald Osborn on July 11, 2019

Bob,

re: the day solar panels and wind turbines might be relegated to the Museum of Failed Technologies. It can't happen soon enough.

It always amazes me how you and others trying to pooh pooh renewables pointly avoid the real world and today's real markets. All one has to do is look at the solar market today and its continued growth across the world to see it is FAR from a "Failed Technology". Your failure to accept reality undercuts any arguments you may make with regard to nuclear's place in the energy mix.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on July 12, 2019

Donald, after 50 years of development and tens of $billions in development, solar produces less than 2% of U.S. electricity; wind less than 7%.

Markets and hype notwithstanding, solar and wind failed decades ago. No more time to waste.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on July 12, 2019

Go back 20 years and there was nothing on the utility-sector for wind or solar, with the previous 30 years being technology development rather than actual attempts to get grid-scale, but then you're left with notable growth. Yes, the percentages are not nearly where they need to be and there's a ways to go, but anyone would tell you that-- advocate or critic. That's not a death knell, that's a sign of the work that's left to be done, but those upward trajectories are a sign of wins, not failure. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on July 12, 2019

Cool chart, Matt. Let's add some perspective.

We can cheerlead, we can coax. We can wheedle, beg, or whimper all we want - but relying on the pathetic contribution of wind and solar, to put the brakes on climate change, is a disaster in the making.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on July 12, 2019

Cool chart as well. You have to crawl before you can walk, and any new technology is of course going to have to start from zero and build up from there and investing in R&D, building up infrastructure, and making progress takes time. Renewables are one of the many pieces critical to addressing the situation at hand. Not saying it's the only solution, but that's because the silver bullet doesn't exist-- nuclear is a part of the equation, wind and solar are part of the equation, efficiency measures are part of the equation, public policy that pulls the proper levers to make fossil fuels less attractive is part of the equation. But dismissing them outright is dismissing one of the many puzzle pieces that will be necessary in the coming decades

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on July 9, 2019

Mark, I'd be curious to hear your take on the development of small modular nuclear reactors that are said to be placed deliberately and more flexible in the right areas, with less cooling needs. I wonder if those alleviate at least some of the concerns? I bring them up because times of needing to shut down nuclear for these occurences are a concern, but most energy sources need to undergo some sort of maintenance, downtime, or intermittency. I think those downsides of the individual sources are good reason to pursue a diverse energy mix that can cover for the other weakness while highlighting the benefits (with baseload carbon-free generation being the top benfit of such nuclear, which are kept in SMRs)

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on July 9, 2019

Matt, FYI - a Nuscale plant with 12 reactors will never stop producing clean electricity:

"...because only one SMR module is refueled at a time, 92% of the power from a 12-module plant can remain on-line during refueling, providing continuous power throughout the plant lifetime. We estimate that the plant’s capacity factor will exceed 95% – making it one of the most reliable electric generation systems available."

and it won't be "just baseload":

"NuScale’s SMR technology includes unique capabilities, allowing it to vary its output as necessary to support system demand as capacity varies from intermittent generation. This feature is known as “load following”, and there are three means to change power output from a NuScale facility:
• Dispatchable SMR modules: taking one or more reactors offline over a period of less than a day.
•SMR Power Maneuverability: adjusting reactor power over a period of minutes/hours.
•Turbine Bypass: bypassing turbine steam to the condenser over a period of seconds/minutes/hours."

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on July 10, 2019

Hi Matt - The nuclear industry has a major problem with the difference between fantasy and reality.  It is important to note that small nuclear reactors are in the fantasy stage.  The nuclear industry has answers for the problems, but, to be kinder, the answers are in the planning stages.  However, given the nuclear industry´s track record on reliability, safety, costs, etc. and the level of government funding, we need to be cognizant that not all of the plans come to any conclusion that taxpayers and ratepayers would call acceptable.

Still,  I am all for research and I admit to a certain excitement regarding SMRs.  But, so far, taxpayers have thrown piles of cash at the problem.  The results are largely fantasy. Time will tell.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on July 10, 2019

Mark, 70% of fossil electricity generation in three countries - Belgium, France, and Sweden - has been replaced by carbon-free nuclear energy in a time span of approximately 15 years. Renewables? After 29 years and €billions of investment, Germany will achieve a 33% reduction in emissions, missing its very first Energiewende target (40%) by a wide margin.

That you're challenging nuclear's track record on reliability, with solar's capacity factor at a global average of 11% and wind somewhere in the mid-twenties, reveals you're not in a position to lecture anyone about distinguishing fantasy from reality. Time will tell? No, time has already told, but some aren't listening.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on July 10, 2019

I respect that you can see both sides and support the research even though you keep a skeptical eye towards the nuclear industry-- makes for a healthy conversation! While of course the resources available to invest in energy widely are by nature finite, I too am excited to see what the research shows and hopeful they can prove beyond the planning stages-- I suppose time will tell

Thorkil Soee's picture
Thorkil Soee on July 12, 2019

To the best of my knowledge most thermoelectric plants are placed near the ocean.

Gerry Runte's picture
Gerry Runte on July 12, 2019

Bob, pretty disengenuous to cite the one outlier of Palo Verde.  But as you well know, every other nuclear unit is very sensitive to thermal conditions, and you needn't go to France to learn this.  Millstone in Connecticut shut down - completely - for two weeks last summer because of water temperature in Long Island Sound.  30 other US nuclear plants in 2018 had some level of derate because of cooling water temperature exceeding temperature limits.  In 2012 alone there were 60 incidents of derating.  Perhaps the Infowars handouts you've been reading are  telling you that black is white and up is down. Fortunately the market sees through the sham.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on July 12, 2019

Gerry, derating is the operation of a device at less than its rated maximum capability in order to prolong its life.

You're confusing derating with capacity factor. By your definition, solar plants predictably derate every night for 12 hours; windfarms derate an average of 17 hours of every day.

I've never read Alex Jones's "Infowars" tripe...what's it good for? I thought it had been shut down. Anyway, here you're confusing right-wing demagoguery with informed environmentalism. Look it up.

Gerry Runte's picture
Gerry Runte on July 12, 2019

"Derating" is not done simply to prolong life.  It is done to limit output either permanently or temporarily, for design considerations or for regulatory considerations. What we are talking about here has nothing to do with solar or wind capacity factors - and until there is sufficient grid scale storage, making direct comparisons between nuclear and solar as if they were in head to head competition is also disengenuous. This discussion also has nothing to do with right-wing demagogaurery - Infowars is just an example where isolated data points are used to make bogus arguments or just serve as a distraction - a favorite ploy of climate deniers and some nuclear advocates.  This article simply states that as things heat up, nuclear plant operation will become more and more limited.  There's nothing confusing about that or controversial about that statement. This is an example of  "informed environmentalism": https://www.nature.com/articles/nenergy2016103 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on July 13, 2019

Gerry, what we're talking about here has everything to do with capacity factors. Millstone's output was lowered temporarily due to environmental factors - like the sun going behind the Earth, or the wind dying? Same thing, except it hardly ever happens.

Your own isolated data point, Millstone, uses saltwater for cooling - not once has the plant relied on "water resources needed for drinking and irrigating essential crops." Recently Connecticut legislators agreed any plant providing half the state's electricity, with no carbon emissions at all, deserves a little help. By state law, utilities will be required to sign PPAs with Millstone for at least the next ten years.

Plants on local rivers and lakes, as water availability becomes less dependable, will have to be adapted to do what Palo Verde did: use recycled wastewater. How could engineers of the 1980s have known we'd let global warming get so out of hand - that in 2019, we'd be trying to power an industrial economy with solar panels and windmills?

I agree comparing nuclear and solar doesn't make sense - comparing apples and coconuts. Nuclear is dispatchable, solar isn't. Nuclear is capable of meeting baseload demand, solar isn't. Solar uses vast amounts of land area, nuclear doesn't. That all solar needs is "sufficient storage" accepts the premise, forwarded by first-world renewables advocates who have never had want for enough electricity, that it's OK to run out of energy during an extended period of cloudy, windless weather - that there can possibly be sufficient storage.

Ask Jefferson Koljee, the mayor of Monrovia, Liberia how many solar panels and how much storage would be enough to satisfy a destitute citizenry relying on electric water pumps for survival. There can never be enough - so for now, Monrovians use dispatchable diesel generators. In coming years, a bank of 5 small modular reactors will provide the city with non-stop, dependable source of clean electricity and clean water, without using any freshwater from the local supply to generate it. The next steps will be 1) building reliable distribution, and 2) convincing rich Greenpeace ideologues to take their plastic solar panels and go home. #2 will present the greatest challenge of all.

Gerry Runte's picture
Gerry Runte on July 15, 2019

Bob- So yes, Millstone is getting a subsidy to keep running.  What is the premium being paid for those PPAs?  Or the cost of adapting those plants that could be in jeapardy to water supplies that are incompatible?  I have no problem keeping existing nuclear running until it becomes uneconomic, but let's not kid ourselves - we are paying a premium for that power.  As to  small modular reactors - they have been the dream of designers since the first serious project to build one started at EPRI in the early 80's, just after TMI.  I was there. The goal was $1,800/kW. Never happened. They remain a dream to this day and are decades away from viability.  The question comes down to this: do you spend R&D money to continue to develop SMRs and fast reactors, still not having resolved waste issues, with decades left of development and highly questionable economics, or do you spend that money on storage technologies that are near commercial (in terms of both performance and economics) that make intermittent sources completely viable alternatives (both operationally and economically) in large scale systems?  The investment choice is pretty clear, and frankly, that is where the smart money is going.

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on July 13, 2019

Here are some charts that show the "state of WW nuclear".

The First is WW generation from Nuclear.  Still down from its peak in 2006. Will Nuclear ever surpass it generation from 2006? Perhaps, but chances are better that it will stay flat or decline until at least 2030.

What about the future of Nuclear? How many new reactors will be coming online in mid/late 20s? The below chart shows the number of new reactor starts. Pathetic. Throw in the number of announced nucler closures aroud the word as well as an rapidly aging fleet and nuclear is barely running in place. 

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