Can nuclear power combat climate change? Readers respond


Readers DJ and Dave Riley think I’ve jumped the tracks with my recent post about how nuclear power can prevent climate change and explain why.

The report came from The Breakthrough Institute, who I know a bit and have followed for several years. They’re definitely mavericks but have no ideological axe to grind that I can see and are genuinely convinced renewables can not generate enough power to replace fossil fuels, that only nuclear power can do that. If we don’t use nuclear, then the gap will be filled by fossil fuels with all its carbon emissions. This just happened in California with the permanent shutdown of the San Onofre nuclear plant.

The problems with nuclear are obvious. If something goes wrong it can be catastrophic. Plus, storage of spent fuel rods is expensive and also dangerous. It costs billions and years to build a new nuclear plant, and that’s not counting opposition to a new plant which can block it in court.

DJ makes artisan cheese on a small ranch in Utah and has some renewable power,

Our business currently uses a great deal of renewable energy in the form of solar electric, solar hot water, wind, wood, and geothermal. We don’t have the technology to calculate how much fossil fuel energy we are saving, but I’d guess the ballpark is more than 1MW per year. That’s for a small, 2-person cheese-making business. Yes, we still buy power from the grid. There’s wind energy available at about 2 cents per KWH more than coal, but right now we are hand-to-mouth and every penny counts, so the amount of wind we can buy is limited. We would also like to add manure-to-methane capability, but we don’t have the money and can’t find reliable technology for a small scale plant. They use them all over Central America, but not here.

After the disaster in Japan and the spread of radiation across the Pacific, no one can say “it can’t happen here” or “it won’t affect us” any longer. Nuclear disaster can happen anywhere, and can affect the entire hemisphere.

Saying we need such a dangerous source of power is irresponsible before we have (1) put solar hot water systems on every roof (they have a very rapid payback compared to other renewable systems and are readily available and can even be built from scratch, as ours has been), (2) expanded our capacity for geothermal heating and cooling (ours is used entirely for cooling), (3) maximized our trash-to-power and sewage/manure-to-power capacity, (4) and explored how we can save the 75% of our nation’s energy that goes to waste. Why is it, for example, that we use twice as much energy per person as the major European industrial economies? Do we really need that much more, or do we have structural inefficiencies that maximize energy usage for the benefit of our corporate (government-subsidized) energy providers?

Lastly, it would serve us to look at the state of our economy and contemplate the very real possibility that we will soon be living in an economy in which cheap, government-subsidized energy (fossil fuel, nuclear, or otherwise) is no longer available. When price goes up (and availability falters), usage comes down.

Dave Riley is a long-time left organizer in Australia and has solar panels on his roof.

I don’t agree with the cabal of pro-nuclear greenies that this is the scenario. They misrepresent the advances in renewable technology — as you have done here before — esp in regard to energy storage — to fit their shibboleth.

But that aside the complication with going nuclear is that reactors take so long to build and the number of engineers that would be required don’t exist out there to build them. So ‘going nuclear’ on the seeming scale required is a bit of a fantasy.

How many reactors world wide built in what tine scale by whom?

This grid thing is also a red herring primarily because renewables like wind and solar lend themselves to localisation when nuclear power — which requires not only massive quantities of water but acceptance in the communities of their location — does not. Intermittent supply, given current storage technologies, is not as you suggest.

Nor for that matter is cost.

As an example of feasibility the workup has been done for the whole of Australia based on renewables: Beyond Zero Emissions: a 10 year fast track to renewables [synopsis] and the full version is available here.

Also from Dave

We have been debating nuclear junkie, Geoff Russell — who the “Breakthrough” bods reference among their sources — here.. The issue of going nuclear is potent because of Australia’s uranium mining industry and opposition to it has been major mass movement for over 30 years.

So Australia is the only continent not producing nuclear energy although our mines supply reactors worldwide.
As for grinding axes, the nucleartoids in my experience pass themselves off as imbued with absolute truth because the rest of us are supposedly ignorant and paranoid when they know so much better because their minds are embedded in ‘real’ ‘unbiased’ science.

But in effect they sign on with the nuclear industry and deploy the same arguments esp the ready scam of counterposing nuclear to fossil fuels while dismissing and denigrating any and all advances in renewables. They also repudiate the scale and depth of community opposition to nuclear reactors such as in places like India and Japan.

The other complication is that the pace of reactor construction is slowing world wide for very simple profit garnering reasons: cost vs return.

Their answer: renewables are a waste of time, money, reseach and effort. There is supposedly only one way into the energy g future and that is by going nuclear.

Thats’ what is called a shibboleth.

[Here over one million Australian homes are resourced by rooftop solar. In a total people population of 23 million, that's an extraordinary take up of renewables kin communities nationwide. At my home, over each financial year, we don't pay for the electricity we use as we end each year in credit. The complication is that if so many people rely on solar and are aware of its benefits, it is much harder to argue for fossil fuels or even to bang the nuclear drum. While there is a huge difference between domestic and commercial production of electricity, and Australia's switch to large scale renewables is tardy -- energy consumption is falling here. However the primary shift underway is from coal to CSG [Coal Seam Gas]. And therein rides the largest mass movement of opposition this country has seen in years.]

The Breakthrough Institute is all in favor of renewables. They just don’t think renewable energy will be able to do it all, hence their “no other option” support for nuclear power. Dave accurately mentions the difference between consumer and commercial use of electricity. I’m writing this and you’re reading it on the internet after it has passed through any number of ginormous servers farms that each use as much electricity as a small city. That’s just one example of the tremendous amounts of power that must be available 24/7, day or night, wind or no wind. Can renewable energy replace fossil fuels and deliver reliable amounts of grid-scale energy? Here in California alone, peak power usage on a hot summer day can reach 72 GW. Renewables are maybe 10% of that. “We got a long way to go and a short time to get there.”

  • DJ

    I must say it strikes me as odd that this conversation presumes consumption and looks at how to meet that consumption. Nowhere do we stop and ask, “If our level of consumption threatens our survival as a species, should we look at reducing that consumption?” It’s almost like a junkie asking not how he can use less, but what heinous acts he/she will have to commit to sustain the current level of need.

    Half of the energy we create gets wasted at the commercial level through dumping and loss. Another 25% gets wasted at the consumer level through waste and inefficient use. So we generate nearly four times as much energy as we actually use. That is a staggering figure, and one that bears examination. Seriously, how can we talk about increasing generation with that level of waste going on?

    Also, roughly 30% of home energy use is for heating water, second only to space heating/cooling. Roughly half of residential hot water heaters are electric, and the other half natural gas or propane. One solar energy statistic site reports that 1.5 million American homes have solar hot water heaters. That’s about 1.3%. There are over 12 million households in California alone, which is (on the whole) prime for solar energy. Solar hot water is relatively cheap – we figured our system would pay for itself in less than four years, compared with 25 years for our solar PV system and 30 years for our wind turbine. California apparently does have a program to promote solar hot water, but considering the low cost and great benefit, why isn’t there a solar hot water collector on every roof in the state (indeed, every roof in the country)? And how can we continue to talk about increasing non-renewable production when something so basic as that hasn’t yet been done?

    It’s impractical but something to think about: in round numbers, if we eliminated the entire amount of waste in our energy systems, we could meet our needs by doubling our current renewable capacity. That’s NOT out of reach.

    • Bob Morris

      Also, about 10-15% of power transmitted on long distance lines is wasted. Rooftop solar everywhere would help enormously on that.

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