Although it may not always be an accurate appraisal, environmentalists prefer renewable energy over nuclear power. They commonly lump nuclear power in with dirty fossil fuels like coal. Every nuclear plant that closes is heralded as a great victory. However, closing nuclear power plants commonly results in increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Those who welcome such closures don’t seem to realize that the energy produced at this facility will need to be replaced. If that energy is created by coal or gas-powered energy generation it will increase emissions. When Southern California Edison’s San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station (SONGS), was taken offline in 2012 and 2013 the state began generating hundreds of megawatts of energy from natural gas-powered facilities.
Nuclear power is emissions-free and as such, it is a far better energy choice than fossil fuels (the leading cause of climate change). It is for this reason that climate concerned organizations including the Natural Resources Defense Council like carbon-free nuclear power. However, nuclear power is expensive and renewables are getting cheaper all the time.
At the beginning of this year, environmentalists applauded as New York State Governor Andrew M. Cuomo announced the closure of the Indian Point nuclear plant by April 2021. New York is hoping to get the energy its needs from HydroQuebec and from massive wind farms that are currently under construction in the state. New York state also intends to increase efficiency initiatives.
Last summer California announced that it would be phasing out all nuclear power by 2025. Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), said it would decommission the state’s last remaining nuclear power plant at Diablo Canyon which produces 8.6 percent of the state’s energy. The news was welcomed by organizations like Friends of the Earth, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Environment California, and the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility.
What makes the closure of the Diablo Canyon plant such a success story is the fact that it is being offset by carefully planned investments in energy efficiency, renewable energy (wind and solar), energy storage, and demand response.
Phasing out nuclear and increasing renewables alongside greater efficiency is laudable when and where it is feasible. Cleantechnica reports that on May 21, 2017, Swiss citizens voted to end nuclear power and promote renewable energy and efficiency. The referendum results are consistent with The Energy Strategy 2050 that has already been approved by Parliament in 2016. In Switzerland nuclear power provides 38 percent of the nation’s energy supply.
Perhaps the best example of transforming proverbial swords into plowshares is a proposal to make Chernobyl a solar energy hub. As reported by Environmental Leader, the proposed project could produce as much as 4,000 megawatts of solar power which is roughly equivalent to what the Chernobyl nuclear reactors were generating. There are also high voltage transmission lines in place that could be used to transport energy across Ukraine.
Environmentalists tend to prefer renewable energy over nuclear power. They rightly argue that nuclear fission wastes energy and they site the growth of renewables in the last decade and a half. As of 2012 renewables had already eclipsed nuclear and that trend continues. An inquisitr article cites a report from the World Nuclear Industry which states that half of the world gets most of its power from renewable energy, not nuclear.
“Renewable energy is outgrowing nuclear energy in power capacity too. Between 1997 and 2014, the world added an average of 879 terawatt-hours of solar and wind power every year. That is 732 terawatt-hours more than nuclear energy, which only grew by 147 terawatt-hours within the same time span.”
However, the report concedes that nuclear energy is far better at delivering predictable amounts of electricity since the fission reactions are constant.
Next-generation fission reactors
An Environmental Leader article by Ken Silverstein states that there are around 100-second generation nuclear reactors in the United States but with the exception of two reactors in Georgia (costing $18 billion) the rate of growth has slowed to a virtual standstill in America. However, nuclear energy is coming back in Asia and third-generation reactors are safer and better. China currently has 20 nuclear plants and they are building 28 more.
The fourth-generation (very high-temperature) reactors will follow in 2021. They are cheaper and have almost no risk of leaks. National labs are working with industry leaders like General Electric, Areva, and Westinghouse to build better and safer reactors. Marvin Fertel, chief executive of the Nuclear Energy Institute says this new generation of reactors will be safe he also makes the bold claim that these designs will be “the cheapest power we have for our nation.”
Silverstein predicts that developed nations will keep using nuclear power while developing nations are expected to see big increases in nuclear power energy generation facilities.
The fact remains that we will need to make some sober decisions if we are to have a shot at reducing global emissions within the remaining window of opportunity. A Guardian article by four climate scientists including James Hansen makes the point that nuclear energy is part of the required energy solutions that will help us to decarbonize in a timely fashion: “Nuclear power paves the only viable path forward on climate change. To solve the climate problem, policy must be based on facts and not prejudice. Alongside renewables, Nuclear will make the difference between the world missing crucial climate targets or achieving them.”
These authors point out that there are adverse environmental consequences associated with renewable forms of energy like cutting down forests for bioenergy and damming rivers for hydropower. These scientists state:
“Nuclear power, particularly next-generation nuclear power with a closed fuel cycle (where spent fuel is reprocessed), is uniquely scalable, and environmentally advantageous. Over the past 50 years, nuclear power stations – by offsetting fossil fuel combustion – have avoided the emission of an estimated 60bn tons of carbon dioxide. Nuclear energy can power whole civilizations, and produce waste streams that are trivial compared to the waste produced by fossil fuel combustion. There are technical means to dispose of this small amount of waste safely.”
These scientists tell us that to solve the climate problem we need policies that are, “based on facts and not on prejudice.” While renewable energy is important we need to take stock of the weaknesses associated with these technologies. We cannot afford to ignore the intermittency issue and they further argue that “nuclear power would make it much easier for solar and wind to close the energy gap.”
Once again these authors call us to responsibly assess the role that nuclear power will play in the energy mix.
“The climate issue is too important for us to delude ourselves with wishful thinking. Throwing tools such as nuclear out of the box constrains humanity’s options and makes climate mitigation more likely to fail. We urge an all-of-the-above approach that includes increased investment in renewables combined with an accelerated deployment of new nuclear reactors…Nuclear will make the difference between the world missing crucial climate targets or achieving them. We are hopeful in the knowledge that, together with renewables, nuclear can help bridge the ‘emissions gap’ that bedevils the Paris climate negotiations. The future of our planet and our descendants depends on basing decisions on facts, and letting go of long-held biases when it comes to nuclear power.”
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