Nuclear and Renewables

Nuclear provided America with about 180 times more energy than solar last year, and is one of our cheapest, safest baseload sources of zero-carbon energy, and yet New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman insists that solar and other renewables are better positioned than nuclear to replace coal. This post debunks Bittman's column. 

New nuclear plants are being built around the world including in the United States. Bittman incorrectly suggests that nuclear energy is going away. In fact, there are 69 nuclear power plants under construction around the world right now, dozens of which will come online in the next year. China has 28 plants under construction, Russia has 11, and there's even a small handful in Europe. Japan is not only restarting some of their idled reactors, but also approving construction of new nuclear plants.

In the wake of Fukushima, no countries announced plans to cancel new nuclear reactors, and several countries (UAE, Turkey, Jordan) announced plans to begin construction on their very first nuclear power plants. The United States is indeed closing a few old plants — Vermont Yankee operated for four decades — but we also have four new larger nuclear reactors under construction.

Renewables require a massive expansion of the grid, not its demise. Bittman imagines that renewables are like personal computers displacing mainframes, essentially freeing us from the grid, but this is the opposite of what the NREL study he cites actually claims. NREL's study relies on a huge expansion and upgrade of the electrical grid, not its dismantling. Renewable energy like wind and solar, by their intermittent nature, require more grid infrastructure not less.

In Germany, for instance, the government is currently spending $25 billion on 2300 miles of new high-voltage transmission lines, and when the sun doesn't shine (which is often the case in Germany) the country relies on the interconnected European grid to import electricity from other countries (like nuclear-powered France).

Renewables, on the other hand, are far from ready to replace fossil fuels in any country. Germany, in fact, is building new coal plants.

Nuclear receives far less subsidies than renewables. Bittman attacks nuclear subsidies, but they are far smaller than renewables subsidies. Since 1950, nuclear power has received $3.60 in federal subsidies for every megawatt-hour of electricity it has produced, compared to $1.50 for coal, $5.70 for gas, $6 for hydro, and over $100 for solar and wind. Germany has committed over $130 billion to solar subsidies since 2000, yet only receives 5 percent of its annual electricity from solar.

Renewables are far more dependent on subsidies than nuclear. Meanwhile, renewables are completely dependent on federal and state subsidies. When the federal PTC for wind expires, new wind projects plummet. And these are not loans; these are direct payments, tax credits and grants ($10 billion from 2009-2014). Wind and solar may be competitive with coal in some areas, but that's including these massive subsidies. Renewables also receive many implicit subsidies like renewable portfolio standards, priority access to the grid, net metering, etc.

Utilities pay billions to insure their nuclear plants. What about insurance? Utilities are required to buy the maximum amount of insurance available and pay into an additional fund of $12.6 billion in the event of an accident. And while federal loans for nuclear power plants are quite new (only one has been accepted), new nuclear power projects are under construction in South Carolina sans federal loans.

Nuclear scales seven times faster than renewables. Bittman claims renewables can scale quickly while nuclear is slow — the opposite is the case: nuclear can be scaled seven times faster than renewables. One recent analysis examined how quickly countries could add energy from various sources over an 11-year period in terms of how much additional energy was added per person (MWh/person/yr). Sweden, France, and Belgium's nuclear build-out were the fastest, adding 5-7 MWh/person/yr. What of Germany's push into renewables over the last decade? It added just 1 MWh/person/yr of wind and solar over the same amount of time.

The only country that has decarbonized at a fast enough rate to meet climate targets was France during its massive nuclear build-out. It went from zero percent nuclear to 80 percent in 30 years.

Sweden voted in 1980 to phase-out nuclear power by 2010, but this plan was cancelled over concerns of climate change and the realization that renewables were not a feasible option. And while coal use is shrinking in the United States, it is because of cheap natural gas, not a valuation of externalities. 

No energy technology is perfectly clean, and solar panel production creates toxic waste. Bittman imagines solar is clean but the mining of materials used in solar panels is extremely toxic, and the production of PV solar panels produces more SO2 than when coal is burned (per unit of energy created). About 80 percent of European solar panels are manufactured in China, whose environmental and occupational protections may not be up to Bittman's standards. In 2011, massive protests erupted in China after an accident at a solar panel factory resulted in a toxic waste spill.

Advanced nuclear reactors are being developed around the world. There have been a variety of designs built and tested over the decades, from salt-cooled to gas-cooled, pebble-bed to liquid fueled. In 1986, the US EBR-II plant performed a demonstration of its advanced passive safety features, where power was shut off, cooling ceased, and the reactor was able to shut-down and cool itself without any human or mechanical intervention. A similar test was performed with a gas-cooled reactor in China in 2004. The Superphénix plant in France - another sodium-cooled fast reactor that operated from 1986-97 - was 1200 MW, larger than most commercial nuclear power plants today. None of the examples above are "coulds.”

Since they use fuel much more efficiently, advanced reactors would lessen the need for uranium mining. Some new reactors can use nuclear waste as fuel or decommissioned weapons material, meaning there is much less need for new uranium to be mined. And while uranium mining can indeed be dangerous, it's not nearly as dangerous or environmentally harmful as coal mining.

Antinuclear activists are one of the greatest threats to action on the climate. Bittman likely has no sense of the scale that's required to deal with climate change. Consider that if a single 500 MW nuclear reactor is taken off the grid, over 100,000 solar home installations and 750 wind turbines would need to be installed in order to generate enough power to fill the void. Bittman fears the new nuclear craze, but what's crazy, and scary, is his insistence that we shut down the development of new, advanced nuclear plants that have proven to be able to displace coal. As former NASA climate scientist James Hansen said, "The danger is that the minority of vehement antinuclear ‘environmentalists’ could cause development of advanced safe nuclear power to be slowed."

Photo Credit: Renewables Delusions/shutterstock