Nuclear power is necessary to combat climate change

The Breakthrough Institute and other major environmentalists say we need nuclear power to stop climate change because renewables will not be able to replace fossil fuels. Renewable energy can’t scale to meet the hundreds of gigawatts of 24/7 power needed to transition to clean energy. Plus it is expensive, once you factor in the humongous grid upgrades needed to handle large amounts of intermittent power. Nuclear power, by contrast, generates power 24/7 with no grid upgrade needed.



These charts are generated by CAISO, The California Independent System Operator, and show the problem. Yesterday at 4 pm, on a sunny day with lots of wind in the right areas, California generated 23% of its power from renewables. This is certainly impressive but at night at least half of that disappears. The electrical grid requires that supply always match demand perfectly. Fluctuating amounts of wind and solar can be problematic for grids to handle and difficult to plan for.

Our analysis was further biased toward solar over nuclear by not accounting for the high costs of backing up and integrating intermittent solar electricity. Leading anti-nuclear greens, including Bill McKibben and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., note that for a few hours during a sunny weekend day, solar provided 50 percent of Germany’s electricity; at the same time, as we pointed out, only five percent of the country’s total electricity came from solar in 2012. What that means is that if Germany doubled the amount of solar, as it intends to do, there might be a few hours or even days every year where the country gets 100 percent of its electricity from solar, even though solar only provides 10 percent of its annual electricity needs.

If a country like Germany can’t get all its power from renewables on a steady basis then it will use fossil fuels or nuclear. That’s the problem. The power has to come from somewhere. And unless nuclear is available they will use fossil fuels.

In reality, there’s little evidence that renewables have supplanted — rather than supplemented — fossil fuel production anywhere in the world. Whatever their merits as innovation policy, Germany’s enormous solar investments have had little discernible impact on carbon emissions. Germany’s move away from baseload zero-carbon nuclear has resulted in higher coal consumption since 2009. In 2012, Germany’s carbon emissions rose 2 percent.

Nuclear, by contrast, replaces fossil energy.

And to highlight this, the recent permanent shutdown of the San Onofre nuclear power plant in California will boost carbon emissions by at least 8 million metric tons a year…


  1. 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 fastrack to renewables [synopsis] and the full version is available here..

    • I hope you’re right, Dave.

      This 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.

      • We have been debating nuclear junkie, Geoff Russell — who the “Breathrough” 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 Austrlia’s switch to large scale renewables is tardy — energy consumption is falling here. However the primary shift underway is from coal to CSG. And therein rides the largest mass movement of opposition this country has seen in years.]

  2. 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.

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