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Climate Hustle

Should a Green New Deal include nuclear power?

Posted on 15 April 2019 by greenman3610

This is a re-post from Yale Climate Connections

It’s a perennial question. Perhaps, to quote “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau, one raising “some of the foremost rhetorical questions of our day.”

The issue here, in this month’s “This is Not Cool” video feature, is of course the potential that “clean” nuclear energy can help combat global warming by reducing future reliance on still more combustion of fossil fuels, in particular coal.

A little background here: Many fear that the projected threats posed by a rapidly warming climate are so serious that “even” nuclear power may shine by comparison, reducing need for more combustion of coal and other fossil fuels, including natural gas. This theory holds that renewable and other “clean energy” sources can’t do enough, soon enough.

Prospects for ‘green new nukes’ raise some of the day’s ‘foremost rhetorical questions …’

So, are what independent videographer Peter Sinclair refers to as “green new nukes” the way to go? Or at least one of the ways to go?

Maybe yes, but maybe no, two university energy experts say. They point not only to high construction costs but also to long lead times before on-the-drawing-board “new nukes” could really go commercial. They point to the pros and cons of keeping aging nuclear power plants on the job: “If we shut them down and replace them with natural gas,” says climate change expert (and Yale Climate Connections contributor) Zeke Hausfather, “that’s a disaster from a climate perspective.”

A nuclear power representative at one point in the video recalls often being asked by eager would-be customers, “Can we have it ready in six months?” Her reply: Think a decade or more, more like at least 15 years.

Given that a new nuclear power plant getting underway today is unlikely to come online, on average, until around 2033, those seeing nukes as a silver bullet are engaging in “a complete boondoggle and a waste of money,” Stanford’s Mark Jacobson says.
In the real world, concludes Hausfather of Berkeley, “new nuclear power is pretty much off the table” at least in the U.S. and in Western Europe, and “no new large build-out” is foreseeable.

Like it or not, find it promising or find it inadequate, Hausfather says, renewables appear to present the most promising prospect, “sort of ideal” compared with other foreseeable and practical options.

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Comments 1 to 17:

  1. I'm a bit concerned about a plan does not ALSO include an aggressive NP component, but only subsidizes for a 100% RE direction. If people were to study what it would take to achieve 100% RE (both in coverage of land, how much MASS of material will need to be mined out of the ground and how much MASS of material is needed to keep replenishing all of that as it depreciates), then environmentally minded people would start scratching their heads and say, whoa, I didn't realize how much we have to eat up the earth (read: that much harder to get off fossil fuels) to achieve 100% RE (no gas peaking in the mix).

    This video HERE is a little nerdy and these two guys throw out the #'s WAY too fast. But it is a real head scratcher. The chart at the very end makes NO sense to me and they don't explain it well. But, the chart near the beginning that shows the necessary land coverage is troubling. Then, the real WHOOPER is that 1.2mm solar panels would have to be replaced EVERY DAY and FOREVER just to replenish the ones that wear out (on a 40 year rotation cycle). ... I've checked their numbers; they are not lying about this.

    For any environmental person who also is very anti-NP and is willing to put due diligence in what we ultimately have to do to achieve 100% RE, then this should deeply make them think twice. If they are REALLY about zero emissions, then they've GOT to reconcile with this.

    Shellenberger videos are also very good on this subject, such as THIS one.

    I know NP takes time, but if we go the 100% RE route (like Germany, vs France), and don't succeed to get below 50% reductions 30-40 years from now (due to the not having a stable baseload source and use a lot of gas peaking power to 100% avoid brown outs), and then realize we need some other form of stable baseload NP, then we will be that much more be behind. So, I think we need to look at what it really takes to go 100% RE and then be honestly realistic. If that path doesn't seem really plausible, then we should ALSO include NP (R/D and commercialization) in the accelerated GND program. ... HERE is a good site to use to compare France w/ Germany.

    Ultimately we ALSO need a rev-neu CT so to comprehensively address the underpinnings of our economy away from carbon consumption as well. The current EICDA bill (#763) is ideal for this (now up to 30 house co-sponsors).

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  2. These kinds of discussions seem to always imply that our current energy demand primarily satisified with fossil fuels must be replaced with low carbon electric production.  The low hanging fruit is reducing the energy demand through conservation.  Pricing carbon emissions using a carbon tax would create a demand for the conservation sector of the economy.  We could retrofit all our existing buildings to be super energy efficient.  This becomes more economical as carbon emissions become expensive.  Yes, it would be inflationary.  I do not think we should commit to our current level of abundance as a given.  That is leading us to disaster.  

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  3. Nuclear power is relatively safe as long as we have our present economy and infrastructure but we seem to be in the final phase of an exponential growth curve.  In the real world of biology, these end in a vertical graph — straight down.  Under these conditions, the finance and infrastructure no longer remains to manage these devices and they are likely to all go critical and  melt down.  This will result in areas around the plants which are no go areas of high level radioactivity.  Anyway, on a practical level, even now, wind and solar are financially feasible to replace fossil fuel and energy storage systems are improving by leaps and bounds.  We probably do not need nuclear.

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  4. Metals are a finite resource and some are quite rare. It's very troubling but would effect nuclear power as well as renewables.

    But the answers are difficult. I suspect people wont voluntarily go without electricity, heating, computers, and transport etcetera.

    The most realistic answer is probably a fairly urgent drive to waste less, more energy efficient appliances and getting population growth to stop. Does the world need more people? I can't see a good reason why.

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  5. ELIofVA - I did an analysis of how my countrymen (NZers) spent energy and results were a little depressing on the conservation front. Every country would be different but it is worth looking at. Home energy costs were about 10% of energy used. Even a 100% reduction doesnt reduce emissions much. Worse, here at least where we have 85% renewable electricity, home energy wasnt a big part of emissions. Transport, especially flying and cars (retail petrol), were the big factors. With cars at least, a move to electric is a big saving. And the elephant in the room was the embodied energy in all the stuff we consume. Reduce, reuse, recycle (in that order) is probably the biggest conservation measure we can make outside transport.

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  6. Nigelj and Sauerj:

    Jacobson 2011 (cited over 1100 times) has done the analysis for renewable energy and all the materials, including land for the panels, are readily available for renewable energy.  Jacobson discusses the amounts of materials used for the panels and wind turbines.  Recycling solar panels and wind turbines is covered.  Your 1.2 mm (? what does mm mean) per day seems off.  Perhaps a comparison to Jacobson, which is peer reviewed, is warrented.

    Jacobson found that all materials exist in adequate quantaties except for rare earth metals used in the turbines.  Since then the designers of wind turbines have reduced the use of rare earth metals so that is not an issue.

    By contrast, Abbott 2012, published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (and other places and here), shows that sufficient materials for significant nuclear plants (more than 5% of world power) do not exist.  (Nuclear plants also use a lot of rare earth elements.) No nuclear supporter has attempted to show that enough materials exist for nuclear plants.  On Tamino's site a nuclear supporter told me to contact an economic geolgist on my own for answers when I asked if materials existed.  No citations exist. 

    It currently costs more to run a nuclear plant with no mortgage than to build and run a new renewable plant including mortgage costs.  Nuclear is not economic.

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  7. Michael Sweet, interesting and I accept all that you say. I will try to explain better what I mean. Its well known from numerous reports that humanity is using resources too fast, including metals, which puts future generations under strain. However I think  there are some viable solutions to this if our generation acts proactively rather than dumping the problem on future generations.

    The starting point is metals are finite and some are in limited supply as you would obviously realise. Of course this has implications for all forms of electricity generation. As you would know we are using the resource up fairly fast and increasing population and economic growth can only amplify this. Some report, the UN I think, stated we are using materials up at twice the rate that is sustainable longer term.

    It's projected that we will run out of some metals by 2100, on the basis of known land based reserves at current prices. If we include for some more discoveries, higher priced reserves, and minerals in sea water there are several centuries left at current rates of use. 

    Clearly I think that means there is enough for a mass conversion to renewable energy. As you point out substitutes are found for the rare earths. Nuclear power is more troubling because it uses such a wide range of exotic metals that are harder to substitute for.

    However we are still using metals at a fairly rapid rate, and this risks leaving future generations in short supply of some of them. This risks shortagages, price increases and other problems that could be severe.

    So what are the solutions? Metals can be recycled almost forever, including lithium. But this doesn't resolve the problem of a fundamentally depleted resource, and intense population and economic pressure. It would therefore make some sense for our generation to conserve what materials the earth has left.

    Of course we have to be realistic. People want technology and aren't going to drastically cut their use of technology, metals, and electricity unless forced. But we can prolong a renewable energy and technology based culture as long as possible on this planet by our generation starting by wasting less, recycling more, being more efficient, and also proactively getting population growth to stop. If we don't do this in the near future, in a planned way, I fear shortages will create an extremely painful situation for future generations and some sort of relatively abrupt increase in mortality and hardship, to add to the climate problem if we don't fix that as well. Sorry if I have digressed a bit, but the issues interrelate.

    Nuclear power is clearly just not currently competitive. There are too many problems with it. However I don't think the GND should rule it out completely, because there is no sound basis to do that.

    I think we should let generating companies decide what to build, as long as its low carbon emissions, but with a condition that they must be able to build any nuclear power in a timely manner so that reliance on fossil fuels is minimised. This shifts the burden back to the nuclear industry to smarten up. It also avoids the government getting too hands on in deciding the proportional mix of generation and leaves it a little bit to the market. The government are there to give direction if the market starts to wander off course.

    It certainly doesn't make much sense to me to close existing nuclear plant.

    I'm a bit scperical of nuclear power, having grown up with watching Chernobyl etc, but I try to keep an open mind.

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  8. I'm a bit "sceptical" of nuclear power, having grown up with watching Chernobyl etc, but I try to keep an open mind.

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  9. Michael Sweet, Thanks for your feedback. The 1.2mm (million) figure for replacement panels per day comes from the 1st video that I linked above (I think the link I gave above does not directly launch the video, so I'm linking again here). [In case this link too is bad, the title of the YT video is: "Mark Z. Jacobson's 100% Renewables (100% WWS) Roadmap to Nowhere by Conley & Maloney @ TEAC8"]

    The guys that did this presentation (video published 1-6-2018) are using the total panel numbers directly from Jacobson's report (18bn panels), and doing their own daily replacement math based on assuming the most ideal panel service life of 40 yrs. This seems like a earnestly fair use of Jacobson's own work. Doing the math, this does work out to be replacing 1.2 million panels everyday. (That's a staggering continuous maintenance consideration).

    On the relative difference in tonnes of materials per TWh, the Shellenberger videos give the tonnes/TWh values for SP, WP, NP of 16,447, 14,067 and 920 respectively. Doing the math, thus a SP/NP ratio of 17.9, and a WP/NP ratio of 15.3. Thus, there is more tonnage of materials "impact" associated with SP & WP than nuclear.

    I don't have peer reviewed critiques of Jacobson's work at my ready. I am a novice, and only just beginning to investigate & learn (in the last 9 months) on this specific branch of CC mitigation: the involved & complicated comparisons of RE vs NP (especially the complications of next gen NP). So, I can't offer any further serious, peer-reviewed critique of Jacobson's work. But, certainly, there have been serious researchers that have done that (as cited on Wikipedia).

    All I can personnally say is give my opinion from people I feel trustworthy and they are saying things that seem very concerning about a non-NP plan (as given in my 1st comment above). In the least, it seems that we should tred down the national macro-energy management path with eyes open wide on all options (being honest w/ ourselves & giving due diligence to all the facts). And, to that, I'm hearing reasonably concerning things about Jacobson's plan (who was the main citation for the above greenman video).

    I have no skin in this comparitive game; I could care less. My only goal is zero emissions as fast & smartly as possible. [And when I call people "trustworthy" above, I earnestly believe they have the same goals of urgency toward zero emissions and associated due diligence, in earnest good faith, to get there as fast & smartly as possible.] But, for giving serious peer-reviewed rebuttal of Jacobson, I transparently admit that I am an amateur here, and only passing on misc internet information that seems trustworthy to me.

    FYI: I am a 35-year career chemical engineer with lots of project experience under my belt who takes CC mitigation as priority #1, #2 #3 thru #10. I am also an fervently active Citizens' Climate Lobby member.]

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  10. Those numbers sound big but on global scale, is it? 1.2m a day is what sized workforce in making and replacing them? IEA is saying 1.6m panels being installed per day at moment. The panels are recyclable so I dont see waste materials are as complex as coal or nuclear. And as for workforce, well WSJ isnt my pick of reliable source but it claims coal (mining, transport, plant operation) needs twice as many workers per MW as solar and 5x as many as wind power. I would welcome a more authorative source - ah, how about DOE.

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  11. Saurej:

    Googling automobile production I wee that last yeat world production of autos was about 70 million cars.  That would be about 1.2 million cars every 6 days.  Since solar panels are so much smaller than cars it would be a lot less than current automobile production.   I do not have figures on how many power plants are currently under construction.  In my experience when you do a global calculation it is a big number.  1.2 million panels per day seems like a reasonable number to me. As Scaddenp describes it is less than current production!  Since the panels can be recycled most of the materials would come from the scrapped panels.

    Schellenberger is a nuclear shill paid by industry.  His job is to mislead.  It may be correct that more tons of materials are required for wind and solar, although it has not been determined how much materials are needed to dispose of the nuclear waste since there are no operating waste disposal sites. 

    On the other hand, as Abbott 2012  describes, there are many many more tons of rare metals in a nuclear plant.  Wind and solar are almost entirely steel, aluminum, copper and sand.  Nuclear plants depend on a host of rare elements like uranium, hafnium, beryllium, zirconium and many others.  These rare metals simply do not exist in enough quantity to build out a nuclear utopia like Schallemberger describes.

    In addition, nuclear is too expensive and too slow to construct.  If we waste billions of dollars on expensive nuclear plants like the Hinkley plant in England,  Olkiluoto in Finland and the Vogtle and Summer plants in the USA, all of which are either years (decades) behind schedule or cancelled and billions over budget, we will never be able to deal with the carbon problem.

    Read Abbott 2012 and the other papers from Abbott I linked above to get an idea of some of the problems nuclear has to deal with.  Currently nuclear proponents are backing modular reactors that have not yet been designed or thorium plants that are also in the design stage.  The reactors being built by Korea and Russa are "unsafe" (as described by nuclear supporters) designs.  The "safe" designs are turning out to be unbuildable.

    We do not have the time and money to waste on a technology that has failed.  Nuclear has failed and cannot scale to the size required to help the carbon problem.  Wind and solar are proven technologies that can be scaled to any required scale.

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  12. "If people were to study what it would take to achieve 100% RE (both in coverage of land, how much MASS of material will need to be mined out of the ground and how much MASS of material is needed to keep replenishing all of that as it depreciates),"

    In fact if America was powered entirely with solar panels, it would use less than 1% of the land area here and of course much of that could be on rooftops anyway. Wind farms only use land to the extent of the supporting towers, and animals often graze around these towers. Wind farms are also located offshore, and costs for this are dropping fast.

    Regarding the quantities and types of materials needed to build solar and wind power, this article discusses problems and some very realistic and workable solutions. Use of materials is a valid concern and  a challenge that needs highlighting, but there are answers. Its obviously important to remember other forms of electricty generation also use a range of materials and would eventually need replacement and rebuilding.

    "Then, the real WHOOPER is that 1.2mm solar panels would have to be replaced EVERY DAY and FOREVER just to replenish the ones that wear out (on a 40 year rotation cycle)."

    Surely this is of little significance? A red herring? Millions of cars have parts replaced each year. Solar power is very financially competitive with fossil fuels and nuclear power, and cheaper in many places, based on levelised costs that include replacement and maintainance here. To me this is all that really counts. 

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  13. All, 1) You guys mistook the 1.2mm panels per day figure being for global replacement; that figure is for the US alone (you all must not have watched the video very closely). The 15x mass differences (RE vs NP) is still a lot of "impact", a lot more energy; even if able to recycle all these materials. 2) Other reliable people question Jacobson's plan (see wiki article under his name). 3) Shellenberger: I see nothing on the internet that makes me believe he is a "nuclear shill paid by industry". He seems trustworthy to me; admitting his own past bias misunderstandings, and his genuine passion for zero emissions gives him (at least for me) a good spirit of credibility. This is bolstered by the fact that many other very trustworthy people are in the same camp with him; people like James Hansen, whom I greatly trust & admire. 4) Study Lazard's free cash flow methodology on page 13 of their energy PDF report (linked HERE). It DOES include capacity factor differences, but it does NOT account for service-life differences and it does NOT account for levelized on-demand reliability. So, I'm a bit skeptical that its costs are 100% levelized. Besides, even if putting these differences temporarily aside, Larard still reports NP as cheaper than solar & NP equal to wind (see nigelj's link above, 2nd slide). 5) France vs Germany comparison gives me pause (see this site). 6) So, I remain very skeptical that a anti-NP (no NP) policy is prudent. I fully admit I could well be wrong, but I'm seeing & reading signs (above refs & others, see below) that gives the prudent, due-diligence eng in me great pause. 7) I have no skin in this debate. Without a very steep $100-200+/MT CO2e CT (rev-neu so to allow it to be so steep), I am positive that we are going to be screwed anyway, no matter what we think we are going to do (RE or NP). But, my concern here is that even w/ a good CT policy (like EICDA), it won't be nearly as effective if all safe energies are not equally "on the table".

    Here are three more articles that just hit my desk today, which only continue to add to my concern about a 0% NP plan. I have read the first two (they are relatively short), but not yet the 3rd one (very long) which is referenced in the 2nd article.

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  14. Sauerj @13, 

    You are not reading what people say. It doesn't matter about replacing panels because solar energy is still cost competitive.

    As Lazard says costs of new nuclear power and solar / wind are similar, but nuclear power is a mature technology and prices are static. Prices for solar and wind have been on a falling trajectory, and virtually all commentators think they will fall further, so by the time new nuclear plant is half way through the approval process, solar and wind will almost certainly be cheaper options than nuclear and much quicker to build. 

    However I have no objection to the GND including a nuclear component, provided the choice is left up to generators and not forced by governments. So therefore it would be driven by the economics and practicalities and these currently dont favour nuclear power. This may change: but its up to the nuclear industry.

    If you think differently how so?

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  15. Recommended supplemental reading:

    In 2011, after an earthquake and tsunami caused a meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima-Daiichi power plant, Gregory Jaczko, then the chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, had to worry about two things: whether radioactive fallout would harm the U.S. and whether a similar accident could befall an American plant. The answer to the first question turned out to be no. The second question preoccupies him still.

    The NRC directed the operators of the 60 or so working U.S. nuclear power plants to evaluate their current flood risk, using the latest weather modeling technology and accounting for the effects of climate change. Companies were told to compare those risks with what their plants, many almost a half-century old, were built to withstand, and, where there was a gap, to explain how they would close it.

    That process has revealed a lot of gaps. But Jaczko and others say that the commission’s new leadership, appointed by President Donald Trump, hasn’t done enough to require owners of nuclear power plants to take preventative measures—and that the risks are increasing as climate change worsens.

    U.S. Nuclear Power Plants Weren’t Built for Climate Change by Christopher Flavelle & Jeremy C.F. Lin, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Apr 18, 2019

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  16. Sauerj:

    I wasted 30 minutes listening to Shellenbergers lecture.  It was a load of mistruths designed to fool a non-techjnical audience.

    I have only a few observations to make, a full discourse would be far too long.

    1) Shellenberger did not address any of the 13 reasons Abbott presents why nuclear cannot generate a significant fraction (more than 5% of total power).  You have not addressed them either.  Since Abbott was peer reviewed and you have not addressed it we must accept his argument as correct.

    2) At one point Shellenberger argues that renewable energy is bad because electricity is more expensive in Germany.  Then he argues that renewable energy is bad because electricity prices decline when renewable energy is added to the mix.  This is a direct contradiction.  Since the lecture was prepared long before it is a deliberate contradiction.  Deliberate contradictions are lies and we can simply discard all of his talk since he has been demonstrated to lie.

    Why would anyone think that a decrease in electricity prices is bad???  Please justify that argument.

    2) Shellenberger denied that the nuclear industry is responsible for the people they killed at Fukushima.  The industry demonstrates their complete lack of concern for safety when they do not accept responsibility for the people they kill.

    3) I tried to source the graph you cite that claims more tonnage of materials is used in renewable energy.  Shellenberger cites a pro-nuclear book that I could not find on the internet.  I found the same graph at a site that supports nuclear power.  They referenced figure 10 from an EIA report from 2015.  The report did not have a figure 10.  From my position the graph is falsified since the reference I found for it was false.   We already know that Shellenberger is a lier.   Please provide a reference for the graph that shows how it was made.

    4) In any case, nuclear is not economic. In the Lazard report you cited in the first graph of the report (the most important) on page 2, the low levelized price of solar power is $36/Mwh and wind is $29/Mwh. The low value for nuclear power is $112/Mwh.  Nuclear is three times the price of solar and four times the price of wind. It costs more for operation and maintenance of a nuclear plant (with no mortgage) than the full costs of a renewable plant.

    There is no comparison graph on page 13 of the report you linked. Costs for disposal of the nuclear waste must be missing since nuclear has no plan for how they will dispose of their waste

    In general it is a waste of time to debate a nuclear proponent since they insist that black is white and up is down.  I have provided peer reviewed data that shows nuclear power is not capable of producing a significant amount of power.  You have not addressed those arguments.  You have not produced any peer reviewed data.

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  17. The cost of nuclear accidents should also be factored in. It's estimated clean up costs for Fukushima are $180 billion US here. Ouch!

    I was watching something on nuclear power last night on television, and disposing of the many thousands of tons of contaminated soil is proving to be another headache.

    The sarchophagus containment vessel to encase Chernobyl also cost billions of dollars. It was originally intended to be concrete, but this proved not to be viable, because it was too heavy to slide into place on rails, and so they used stainless steel, which will have to be replaced eventually and does not completely contain some forms of the radiation. 

    Nuclear power was promised to provide limitless cheap energy. I always thought that sounded too good to be true. There's no such thing as a free lunch.

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