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Lovins: Nuclear Makes Climate Crisis Worse by Blocking Faster Uptake of Cheaper Options

Contrary to industry propaganda, nuclear power plants are not an essential tool in the fight against climate change, but an increasingly dangerous drag on the deployment of more practical renewables and energy efficiency, Rocky Mountain Institute Chair and Chief Scientist Amory Lovins declares in a recent post for Forbes.

Though the recent World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2019 shows the global nuclear industry clearly “dying of an incurable attack of market forces,” writes Lovins, American support for the technology remains tenacious, with proponents across the political spectrum promoting nuclear as indispensable in the effort to lower carbon emissions.

And yet, “building new reactors, or operating most existing ones, makes climate change worse compared with spending the same money on more climate-effective ways to deliver the same energy services,” Lovins says.

The critical mistake among climate-focused supporters of nuclear generation is to look solely at the matter of carbon, he explains. The problem with that approach is that, with so much ground to catch up in so little time, “we must save the most carbon at the least cost and in the least time, counting all three variables—carbon and cost and time. Costly options save less carbon per dollar than cheaper options. Slow options save less carbon per year than faster options. Thus even a low- or no-carbon option that is too costly or too slow will reduce and retard achievable climate protection.”

Lovins makes clear that nuclear fails resoundingly on both cost and turnaround time: “Being carbon-free does not establish climate-effectiveness,” he declares.

Well-intentioned nuclear proponents aside, Lovins writes scathingly of industry magnates who “milk” the system, taking “multi-billion-dollar bailouts from malleable state legislatures for about a tenth of the nuclear fleet so far, postponing the economic reckoning by shooting the market messenger.” He warns that “such replacement of market choices with political logrolling distorts prices, crowds out competitors, slows innovation, reduces transparency, rewards undue influence, introduces bias, picks winners, invites corruption, and even threatens to destroy the competitive regional power markets where renewables and efficiency win.”

Lovins cautions against accepting the findings of a late May report by the International Energy Agency, which claimed that abandoning nuclear power would make climate action “drastically harder and more costly,” as well as the still widely-held assumption that the climate emergency “demands every option, including preserving nuclear power at any cost”. Invoking the “bedrock economic principle of ‘opportunity cost’,” he notes that “you can’t spend the same money on two different things at the same time. Each purchase foregoes others. Buying nuclear power displaces buying some mixture of fossil-fueled generation, renewable generation, and efficient use.”

At an estimated cost of US$118 to $192 per megawatt-hour in 2019, he adds, nuclear stands no competitive chance whatsoever against utility-scale solar power at $32 to 42/MWh, onshore wind power at $28 to 54/MWh, or energy efficiency at $0 to $50, but typically around $25/MWh. “Efficiency, being already delivered to your meter, also avoids roughly $42/MWh of average delivery cost that all remote generators incur,” he adds.

With new U.S. nuclear development off the table, Lovins adds, “today’s hot question” concerns the fate of “the 96 existing reactors, already averaging about a decade beyond their nominal original design life.” Operating costs exceed $40/MWh for the costlier half of the grouping, and $50/MWh for the “costliest quartile”, while wind farm maintenance costs come in “as low as $11/MWh” in 2018.

All the operating cost data swirling around the energy marketplace points to “an important climate opportunity”, Lovins observes. “Customer efficiency costs utilities only $20 to 30/MWh on average—less if they shop carefully. Therefore, closing a top-quartile-cost nuclear plant and buying efficiency instead, as utilities could volunteer or regulators require, would save considerably more carbon than continuing to run the nuclear plant.”

Those calculations show that “while we close coal plants to save carbon directly, we should also close distressed nuclear plants and reinvest their large saved operating cost in cheaper options to save carbon indirectly. These two climate-protecting steps are not alternatives; they are complements.”

And that doesn’t even address the glacially slow pace at which conventional nuclear plants are sited, approved, and built.

Even as the World Nuclear Association touts its product as “the fast track to decarbonization”, real-life experience shows that “nuclear plants take many years to build, typically around a decade, while renewable projects can take a year or less—even months or weeks,” he writes. “Further, national nuclear power programs need three times as much lead time for institutional preparations as modern renewables need. For both reasons, renewables can start saving carbon many years sooner.”

None of which has stopped the U.S. nuclear industry from pushing a new federal tax subsidy on nuclear fuel and maintenance costs, in a bid to “help level the playing field with other clean energy sources”. The legislation would cost $22 to $26 billion in the first decade, or $33 billion “counting the crowding-out of cheaper competitors,” Lovins notes. And “every billion dollars thus bilked from taxpayers is unavailable to provide more electrical services and save more carbon by cheaper means.”

Meanwhile, “unlike renewable credits that have helped to mature important new technologies, the nuclear credit would elicit no new production, capacity, or innovation,” but rather “simply transfer tens of billions of dollars to the owners of uncompetitive nuclear assets bought decades ago.”

This kind of “anti-market monkey business cannot indefinitely forestall the victory of cheaper competitors,” Lovins concludes. “But it can delay and diminish climate protection, while transferring tens of billions of unearned dollars from taxpayers and customers to nuclear owners.”

Which means the climate emergency and market health both demands vigilant attention, “not only to carbon but also to cost and time,” in tandem with a vigorous defence of “markets’ ability to choose climate solutions that can save the most carbon per dollar and per year.” Ultimately, Lovins says, “our best climate strategy would be to start taking economics seriously.”

The post Lovins: Nuclear Makes Climate Crisis Worse by Blocking Faster Uptake of Cheaper Options appeared first on The Energy Mix.

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Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Dec 6, 2019 3:40 pm GMT

I could not have said that better, though I´ve tried.  I still support research for better, cleaner, cheaper, safer nuclear, even the elusive fusion solution.  However, it is increasingly clear that even with the best possible technological outcome, it won´t happen soon enough.

I do hope the taps can be turned off for bailouts for the "industry magnates" who contribute nothing to progress.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 6, 2019 4:06 pm GMT

Mark, U.S. Gen-2 reactors have a perfect safety record.   Seems you're waiting for something that's already happened.

Worse, you want to turn off the taps for America's largest source of carbon-free energy.

Still worse, you're accepting advice from a fossil-fuel consultant as what's best for the environment.

Jeffery Green's picture
Jeffery Green on Dec 6, 2019 11:48 pm GMT

How many nuclear power plant accidents have there been?

As of 2014, there have been more than 100 serious nuclear accidents and incidents from the use of nuclear power. Fifty-seven accidents have occurred since the Chernobyl disaster, and about 60% of all nuclear-related accidents have occurred in the USA.

Nuclear and radiation accidents and incidents - Wikipedia

 

Perfect?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 7, 2019 12:35 am GMT

Define "serious". Was anyone killed or injured, or has your imagination been getting the better of you?

Jeffery Green's picture
Jeffery Green on Dec 10, 2019 10:28 pm GMT

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_nuclear_and_radiation_accidents_by_death_toll

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 12, 2019 12:37 am GMT

Jeffery, somehow we've gone from

"U.S. Gen-2 reactors have a perfect safety record."

to "anyone who has been injured, or killed, anywhere in the world, in both nuclear energy and weapons programs, since the dawn of the Manhattan Project."

The criteria have drifted off course, haven't they. Want to try again?

Jeffery Green's picture
Jeffery Green on Dec 12, 2019 9:26 pm GMT

You didn't notice the different nuclear power accients in there? Why even deal with radiation if you don't have too. Just don't even build it and no more deadly radiation.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 13, 2019 4:16 pm GMT

I didn't notice one accident at a U.S. Gen-2 reactor facility, Jeffery. If you could point one out to me, you would. But you can't.

"Why even deal with radiation if you don't have too. Just don't even build it and no more deadly radiation."

Among those who oppose nuclear power I note a common thread - an irrational fear of ionizing radiation, without basis in science or logic. Some facts which might put your mind at ease:

• At this moment you're being bathed in the same high-energy gamma and x-rays which killed workers at Chernobyl (a lot fewer of them).
• They come from radioactive materials in the environment around you, and from space.
• Though some of them end up destroying DNA in cells in your body, biological responses forged by evolution destroy most of the cells before they can become tumors.
• Because mined coal contains uranium, ash emitted by U.S. coal plants is responsible for thousands of times more environmental radiation than nuclear plants.

Whether you know it or not, you're already dealing with radiation. Not that high doses aren't dangerous - they are. But you're never exposed to them.
 

Jeffery Green's picture
Jeffery Green on Dec 13, 2019 6:11 pm GMT

Accidents happen. A gen 2 just may have an accident in the future. Just because it hasn't happened, doesn't mean it will never happen. And when they do, its very bad. Bad management decisions take place and we have a higher risk of a disaster.

 

 

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_power_phase-out

 

A lot of countries are booting out nuclear power, and I vote for the United States to be on this list.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 14, 2019 10:24 pm GMT

"Just because it hasn't happened, doesn't mean it will never happen."

The same could be said about a) being struck by a bus, b)  being struck by a meteorite, or c) being abducted by aliens - the first with far greater likelihood. Again:

"Among those who oppose nuclear power I note a common thread - an irrational fear of ionizing radiation, without basis in science or logic."

I try to educate where I can, but there are some who don't want to be educated. Maybe they enjoy the fear, like those who participate in x-treme sports, but that's not my concern.

My concern is when they try to spread it to others. The guy on the plane who mumbles, "We're going to crash!" has no right to share his misinformed phobia with those around him (it could even be dangerous). Neither do you.

 

The Energy  Mix's picture
The Energy Mix on Dec 7, 2019 6:27 pm GMT

Bob, I'm not clear on who you're describing as a fossil-fuel consultant.

Without a round of online research, I don't know whether Lovins has ever consulted for the fossil industry. I'd be surprised if he hasn't at some point, or at many points along the way.

But surely you don't think the vast body of work by Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute could possibly support your implication that he's trying to bolster fossil production by undercutting nuclear??

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 10, 2019 8:44 pm GMT

That's exactly what I'm supporting. Rod Adams has chased down Lovins' sources of significant support from the oil industry on a 2012 tax form (Lovins stopped identifying his contributors after that year).

"Lovins has also been virulently opposed to the use of nuclear energy since he became a campaigner for Friends of the Earth in the UK, instead of working on his energy studies that might have helped him realize that the rest of us were not stupid or short sighted.

One of the qualifications that Lovins rarely lists on his brag sheet on RMI’s web site is a statement that he let slip during an interview on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now on July 16, 2008 in a segment titled 'Amory Lovins: Expanding Nuclear Power Makes Climate Change Worse.'

'You know, I’ve worked for major oil companies for about thirty-five years, and they understand how expensive it is to drill for oil.'

http://www.democracynow.org/2008/7/16/amory_lovins_expanding_nuclear_power_makes

It might be impolite of me, but I believe that phrase explains why Lovins has been fighting nuclear energy, a major energy competitors to oil and gas, for more than 40 years."

----

"Lovins did not explain WHY oil and gas companies have hired him or helped his non-profit organization achieve the capability to pay him $750,000 per year (see RMI’s 2012 IRS form 990 at http://www.rmi.org/Content/Files/FY%202013%20990%20ending%20063013%20PDC.pdf).

I don’t think Lovins’s employment or high level of compensation have anything to do with his ability to perform useful modeling or to provide realistic energy system design suggestions. I believe it has a lot more to do with the service he provides in discouraging the use of the most formidable long term competition that his employers face."

And I agree. I think RMI is nothing more than a marketing wing of the American Petroleum Institute, nestled in the Rocky Mountains; that they do a wonderful job of promoting worthless substitutes to his sponsors' products, and denigrating those which could put them out of business.

The Energy  Mix's picture
The Energy Mix on Dec 10, 2019 10:24 pm GMT

Um. No. I'm going to have to be very carefully polite in my response, because if I just replied, it would be uncivil (which would not be nice to you) and inflammatory (which would not be fair to the group).
Thinking back a bit more carefully, I don't think Lovins has ever made any secret of working for big institutions, including fossil companies, that need to shift out of oil and gas production or use and are at varying stages in their understanding of that need. We live in a fossil economy. No organization will be able to make a difference on the large, influential scale that Rocky Mountain Institute has achieved without engaging with the biggest centres of investment, emissions, and policy-making in that economy.

But it's a vast stretch, and once again I'm avoiding more vivid adjectives (you're welcome), to utterly wrongly infer that because RMI uses its consulting to attempt to prompt positive action on the part of fossil companies, that explains its opposition to nuclear.

If you look at Lovins' earliest body of work and anything since, you see consistent, groundbreaking support for smart, cleaner, decentralized, inherently more democratic, and now uniquely affordable options that are a winning alternative to all the centralized technologies -- oil and gas, coal, and nuclear. Nuclear has been failing on its early promise of "safe, clean, and too cheap to meter" ever since the U.S. industry created its Reddy Kilowatt mascot. And after nearly a century, its most avid proponents still can't deliver a project on time or without lavish subsidies, still can't say how to deal with waste that remains toxic for up to 240,000 years. It isn't a good look when you blame Lovins for your own industry's shortcomings.
I will say that I don't much appreciate it when the comments section for an evidence-based post on comparative costs and turnaround times is taken over by what amounts to conspiracy-mongering. That isn't a good look for your industry, either. - MB

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 12, 2019 12:27 am GMT

MB, thank you for being very carefully polite in your response. Whatever it takes. :)

"I don't think Lovins has ever made any secret of working for big institutions, including fossil companies, that need to shift out of oil and gas production..."

What leads you to believe big oil companies need to shift out of gas production (in 2019 Shell freely admits it "aims to be world’s biggest electric producer using natural gas")?

"No organization will be able to make a difference on the large, influential scale that Rocky Mountain Institute has achieved without engaging with the biggest centres of investment, emissions, and policy-making in that economy."

Certainly if RMI supports "smart, cleaner, decentralized, inherently more democratic, and now uniquely affordable options" while being paid six figures by the largest oil companies in the world there exists, at the very least, a blatant conflict of interest. And by any standard of appearance, Lovins is being paid to attack the only cleaner source of energy capable of putting them out of business.

"But it's a vast stretch, and once again I'm avoiding more vivid adjectives (you're welcome), to utterly wrongly infer that because RMI uses its consulting to attempt to prompt positive action on the part of fossil companies, that explains its opposition to nuclear."

MB, feel free to use whatever vivid adjectives inspire you - I assure you, you can't hurt my feelings.

But your comment brings up the question: how do you know what use RMI has for its consulting, or that my inference is "utterly wrong"? We've already established there's a conflict of interest. Showing Lovins is immune to being influenced by big money, or what would motivate him to promote "winning alternatives" to products which form the very foundations of the companies paying him - that's on you. Best of luck.

"Nuclear has been failing on its early promise of 'safe, clean, and too cheap to meter'... can't deliver a project on time ... lavish subsidies...how to deal with waste that remains toxic for up to xxx years..."

Here you run down the standard lexicon of antinuclear lies (for at least as long as Lovins has worked for Chevron et al). "Too cheap to meter", for one, was a statement made by Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss in 1954 to describe fusion power, not fission. What the difference is, and why your other three talking points are consistently wrong, will have to be up to you to investigate.

"I will say that I don't much appreciate it when the comments section for an evidence-based post on comparative costs and turnaround times is taken over by what amounts to conspiracy-mongering."

Who said anything about conspiracy? Paying a company to promote your products is advertising, and perfectly legal - though in this case, most would agree its ethics are questionable.

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