Nuclear Groundhog Day

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We’ve been here before haven’t we?  More than thirty years after Three Mile Island just when the nuclear power industry was gaining traction with real prospects for new plant construction in the US, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan have cast a pall over the nuclear industry once again.

Never mind that the GE Mark 1 plants have performed well for more than forty years.  Or that the performance effectiveness of nuclear power has been spectacular as measured by capacity factor, cost of operations, reliability, and—yes, safety.  Never mind that fewer people have died from nuclear power than from coal or oil or wind or solar or any other energy source—or for that matter that fewer total people have died in nuclear power plant accidents in the entire history of the industry than in a single day of auto accidents or other risks we face each day in our normal lives.

It does not matter!

The events in Japan have caused a time out for reflection, for review of safety standards and to test the public mood.  Opponents of nuclear power see this as a fresh start opportunity to make their case for wind or solar or efficiency or anything else other than fossil fuels. Proponents of nuclear energy must recite the facts, refute the myths and be patient while Japan stabilizes its situation and reason balances emotion in the debate.

Except it DOES matter a lot for our energy and economic future!

Reason will lead us to a balanced, prudent outcome, we hope, that considers the following:

  • The World’s Economy Needs Reliable Baseload Power Generation.  Without it the industrial engines of nations cannot function.  There are only two generally available sources of baseload power: coal or nuclear power.  Today about 20% of its total US electricity consumption comes from nuclear power and replacing it means a greater reliance on coal.
  • Energy substitution, security, and sufficiency.  Often the energy debate gets muddled in a discussion of oil imports, but oil long ceased being a practical fuel for power generation.  But the policy goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation as well as power generation forces the issue of substitution to the table.  Studies of the potential for plug-in electric vehicles (PHEV) tell us we will need cheap baseload power to make the power grid adaptable for the demand increase from serious market share growth in PHEV.
  • Nuclear Power is a Condition Precedent to Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction.  So says the International Energy Agency warning EU countries not to rush to judgment about closing their nuclear power plants in reaction to the Japan crisis.  The IEA says reducing nuclear power production will inevitably lead to increasing use of coal and natural gas and rising emissions.
  • Renewable Energy Backup Required.  Opponents of nuclear power says it can be replaced by wind, solar and other forms of renewable energy, but despite the frenzied efforts and substantial subsidies and renewable portfolio standards mandates the market share of all renewables together is still less than the total for nuclear power and a fraction of the market share of coal.  The other issue is that grid stability requires that wind and solar be backed up with dispatchable energy and unless it is teamed with a natural gas combined cycle plant that can ramp up and down with demand backup is going to come from baseload power from baseload coal or nuclear generation for the foreseeable future.
  • Counting on Energy Efficiency?  There is one more thing to consider.  The rapid market share growth of flat screen HD TVs in the past five years has consumed the sum of all the energy efficiency savings from more efficient refrigerators and other appliances over the past 20 years!  That is why California adopted new energy efficiency code requirements on flat screen TVs going into effect this year.  The rest of the country has not yet adopted California’s 1970’s energy efficiency standards ignoring that they have reduced California’s energy intensity to 50% of the national average for power use.

We are not going to save our way out of this decision with negawatts or renewable energy.

It was good to see the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approve the license extension for Vermont Yankee, but it reminds us that our current fleet of nuclear power plants is living on borrowed time.  We have learned a lot about nuclear power plant design, operations and safety in the last 40 years but to take advantage of the advanced in science and technology we must allow the construction of new nuclear power plants, train new operators to replace those retiring, and build the power generation capacity and reliability needed to live into our economic future.

It’s time we quit replaying nuclear Groundhog Day.