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Nuclear Energy: Threat or Opportunity?

Posted Jul 19 2010 5:37am
by Richard T. Stuebi

Several months ago, I was asked by the Chagrin Foundation for Arts & Culture , in my lovely home town of Chagrin Falls OH , to speak on the topic of nuclear energy at their Chautauqua-at-Chagrin lecture series this summer.

I agreed, and proposed the title of my talk "Nuclear Energy: Threat or Opportunity?" I thought that it would be kinda catchy, and that I could figure out something interesting to say under that heading.

Well, the talk is tomorrow (Tuesday July 20 at 6 pm ET), so this past weekend, I forced myself to organize my thoughts on what to say. It was more challenging than I had anticipated.

This is because the title of my talk actually turned out to be truly apt: nuclear energy is both a threat and opportunity. There are huge advantages and substantial risks associated with nuclear energy. It's easy to see one side of the coin or the other, but it's hard to see and accept both sides of the coin at the same time.

Among the points I intend to make in my lecture
There is no easy, cheap, one-size-fits-all answer for powering our economy in a way that provides the standards of living we’re accustomed to, at the costs we’re accustomed to paying, in avoiding the bad future to which continued status quo will drive us. Nuclear energy can be a major part of the total solution, but only if we’re willing to accept the costs and risks.

Many people tend to think that nuclear powerplants are inherently dangerous, thinking of Chernobyl . Chernobyl was truly an aberration – all safety systems were intentionally disabled and the plant was pushed to limits as an experiment. (Hey, that's a really good idea!) Three Mile Island was a more plausible worst-case scenario -- and its environmental impact of was/is small relative to the long-term impact of coal mining or burning, or petroleum extraction or refining. The BP Gulf oil spill is far worse of an ecological catastrophe than Three Mile Island, but no-one’s talking about banning oil. Instead of environmental risks, the real risks of nuclear energy are about fuel security and fuel disposal.

The U.S. taxpayer has long heavily subsidized, and continues to subsidize, nuclear energy . With maybe a hundred billion dollars of cumulative R&D funding over the decades, plus substantial tax credits and loan guarantees, the U.S. government has been and remains the biggest benefactor of the nuclear industry. Private industry sure isn’t: there hasn’t been an order for a new nuclear reactor in over 30 years. When opponents discredit renewable energy due to subsidies (which they admittedly do receive), it’s pretty hypocritical: nuclear (and fossil) energy has gotten and still gets far more subsidy dollars than renewable energy has and does.

If we shut down all the nuclear powerplants in operation today, the risk associated with spent fuels would still exist, and emissions would likely go up – at least unless/until enormous amounts of new wind/solar installation were to backfill nuclear retirements. For the time being, the economics of new wind and solar energy (indeed, any new powerplants) are considerably higher than the costs of running existing nuclear plants, so electricity prices would go up if nuclear were to go away. So, shutting down operating nuclear plants doesn’t seem like a promising strategy from either an economic or environmental perspective.

The costs of new nuclear are completely unknown. There hasn’t been a new nuke completed in the U.S. since the 1980's, and no new orders since the late 1970's. New designs are on the drawing board, but none have been implemented. Including earning a fair return on investment in new plants, costs could be as low as 8 cents/kwh or as high as 15 cents/kwh. The range is so wide because it could take 5 years or 15 years to complete a new plant – based upon uncertainties about licensing, approval and permitting processes. The cost of new nuclear is generally more than new wind, and while less than new solar today, the costs of new solar should become competitive with technological advancements in the coming years. So, it would seem that this argues for massive wind and solar installation, rather than new nuclear (or new fossil powerplants).

But, it’s not so easy. Wind and solar are not “round-the-clock” – at least unless/until there’s cost-effective energy storage for the power grid (don’t hold your breath). And other options aren't so appealing either.

New gas-fired powerplants have fairly low emissions and can be approved/built quickly, but price/supply of natural gas is uncertain and highly volatile. New coal powerplants would be an even riskier bet.

Using conventional technology and ignoring greenhouse gas emissions, the cost of energy from new coal powerplants is probably on the order of 6-8 cents/kwh. However, if the U.S. ever becomes serious about dealing with climate change via a carbon policy, then the economics of coal power will deteriorate significantly -- either to capture carbon (largely untested and expensive technology) or to pay for the costs of emissions. In a carbon-constrained world, it’s easy to project the costs of new coal power at > 10 cents/kwh. So, if we don’t care about climate change, coal is likely to be the dominant answer, and few new nukes will be built in the U.S.

On the other hand, if climate change matters, then there’s a potential role for new nuclear in the U.S. This role is amplified if we want to deal seriously with the other energy imperative we face: eliminating our reliance on petroleum for transportation. Clearly, we won’t see nuclear powered vehicles. But, with improvements in battery technologies, we can (and likely will) see more electrification of transportation – through plug-in hybrids and even pure-electric vehicles. If/as that happens, we’ll need much more power generation capability -- especially if a lot of old coal plants are retired in response to climate legislation. But, where will that new power come from? If we want it to be from zero-carbon sources, and if we’ve already installed as much wind/solar as we plausibly can (assuming no effective grid storage technology), nuclear will be a very interesting option.

Summarizing, the more we try to deal with climate change and oil dependence, the more appealing nuclear becomes. Environmentalists are torn: many oppose nuclear on philosophical grounds based on their perceived risks, while other thought-leaders (e.g., James Lovelock ) are nuclear proponents based on the practical realities. Which risks are more pressing: climate change and energy insecurity, or radioactive wastes and weapons materials for terrorists? Those are the tradeoffs upon which tilts the balance for nuclear energy. Americans don’t seem to like that answer: they want no risk and low cost, and whine when they don't/can't get it.

On balance, I think the risks associated with climate and oil outweigh the nuclear waste and weapons risks. Accordingly, I tend to think that nuclear needs to be a bigger part of the energy toolkit of the future – at least until ocean-based power generation and/or grid-scale energy storage become economically viable. If nuclear is not to be part of the energy solution of the future, then there will be other costs/risks to bear -- some of which could be very dramatic.

If we get it badly wrong, either way, the future of life on this planet may be seriously jeopardized.

Richard T. Stuebi is a founding principal of NorTech Energy Enterprise , the advanced energy initiative at NorTech , where he is on loan from The Cleveland Foundation as its Fellow of Energy and Environmental Advancement. He is also a Managing Director in charge of cleantech investment activities at Early Stage Partners , a Cleveland-based venture capital firm.
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