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We've been having the wrong debate about nuclear energy

Posted on 3 August 2020 by Guest Author

This is a re-post from Yale Climate Connections by Karin Kirk

Many Americans these days seem unable to avoid controversy on practically any topic, so why not embrace the discord and wade into the especially volatile arena of nuclear energy? Advocates claim it’s the only way to meet global climate goals, while opponents dig in their heels over safety, national security, and radioactive waste concerns.

And then there’s money, and lots of it, involved: a frequent common thread even – or perhaps especially – on the issues most splitting opinions on all-things-nuclear.

But the debate on both sides often misses key points. A central tenet of much of the pro-nuclear rhetoric is a misleadingly gloomy portrayal of renewable energy options. Meanwhile, absolutist arguments against nuclear energy too often apply primarily to older plants no longer being built. And at times both sides tend to hang their hats on optimistic advances in technologies that may or may not become commercially available in time to make needed progress toward decarbonization.

Given a pressing need to re-think the world’s energy systems, it’s worthwhile talking about nuclear energy. But first, spurious and inflammatory claims have to be cast aside in favor of a fair appraisal of the best and quickest ways to move beyond fossil fuels.

Root of the problem: Need for non-intermittent energy

Progress in greening the U.S. electricity grid is well underway. Coal is declining while renewables grow. But that formula goes only so far. Energy analysts point out that to decarbonize fully, a low- or no-carbon energy source is needed to fill in the gaps around the edges of intermittent generation.

Consider the case of California, a leading state in the deployment of renewables. Although solar energy handles most of the demand during the daylight hours, it cannot keep pace with evening energy use. Presently, natural gas “peaker” plants are used to complement solar and wind, continuing the state’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Electricity gap graphic

In order to phase out emissions from natural gas, either carbon capture needs to be added to gas power plants, or a low-carbon option can be used, such as improved renewables storage or nuclear power.

It’s important to note that not all eggs need to go into one basket. The nation’s present energy infrastructure relies on a combination of technologies, and a diverse approach seems likely to continue.

Is conventional nuclear on the way out in the U.S.?

Nuclear power generates 20% of the U.S. electricity supply; it’s the single largest source of non-fossil energy generation in the U.S. and the second largest globally. But the Energy Information Administration expects nuclear’s share of electricity generation to trend down in the U.S., primarily because it’s considerably more expensive than other sources of energy.

Only two new nuclear power projects have been launched in the U.S. in the past 30 years, and both suffered major setbacks. At the V.C. Summer project in South Carolina, two new reactors were in their fifth year of construction when the power plant was abandoned – after $9 billion had been sunk into it. Construction delays, design problems, budget overruns, and bankruptcy of the company building the reactors all contributed to the demise.

The other new project is Georgia’s Vogtle Units 3 and 4 near Waynesboro. These are slated to go online in 2021, despite delays and a near doubling of the cost originally projected.

New nuclear designs are in the works

For the most part, advocates for the future of nuclear energy generally are not suggesting the building of more of the types of plants operating today. Instead, one hears about “new nuclear,” “advanced nuclear,” or “Gen IV” power plants. These terms encompass a host of emerging technologies potentially offering bold promises in improvements in safety, waste reduction, and flexibility.

Here are some concepts in the development of advanced nuclear power.

Better ways to cool reactors

Current nuclear reactors are cooled with pressurized water, which must be continuously circulated through the reactor core. If the flow of cooling water is slowed or interrupted, the reactor core can overheat, leading to a potentially calamitous meltdown. That’s what happened at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

The next generation of designs will use better ways of absorbing heat. Molten salt, for example, can absorb far more heat than water, and it can’t boil away. Other designs use liquid metal, such as sodium or molten lead, also heat absorbers.

Less waste

Radioactive waste and disposal options pose grave challenges for nuclear energy, and they raise problems without easy solutions, despite decades of engineering efforts.

Conventional reactors consume only 1% of the original uranium in the fuel, leaving behind waste products that remain dangerous for thousands of years. New reactor designs would hypothetically use fuel more efficiently, producing less waste and running longer between refueling.

One example is a breeder reactor, which uses a series of reactions to consume some of the materials that end up as waste in conventional reactors. The result is a double benefit of less waste and more energy generated per unit of fuel.

Smaller and more flexible … but when?

An acronym one hears in the debate is SMR, small modular reactor. A nuclear industry advocacy group heralds SMRs as “bright future of nuclear energy,” but follows with the stark reality that “high up-front costs and poorly designed regulations threaten to keep these technologies from reaching the market.”

The U.S. Department of Energy describes SMRs as smaller, cheaper, and safer than conventional nuclear plants. Output from each reactor would be tens to hundreds of megawatts, similar to the output of a utility-scale wind farm. And the M in SMR stands for modular: These power plants could be built incrementally, adding more modules as needed.

Although the concept of small modular reactors offers many advantages, DOE acknowledges that “Significant technology development and licensing risks remain in bringing advanced SMR designs to market, and government support is required to achieve domestic deployment of SMRs by the late 2020s or early 2030s.”

Capable of high-heat applications

Conventional nuclear reactors have one role: to make electricity. But new reactor designs can operate at sufficiently high temperatures needed for some industrial purposes. For example, steelmaking currently uses metallurgical coal, which accounts for 17% of coal usage worldwide. As coal-burning for electricity generation is being replaced by cleaner sources, there’s no obvious replacement for making steel. Nuclear energy could potentially fill this need and help further lower carbon emissions.

Similarly, advanced nuclear reactors can be used to make hydrogen, which has multiple uses in a low-carbon energy future.

Long lead time misses the key window for action.

The next generation of nuclear reactors is still in the R&D phase. New designs will need to be prototyped, tested, and tweaked before commercial availability and operation become viable. The Generation IV International Forum – a collaboration of 14 countries involved in R&D on new nuclear reactor designs – has evaluated 130 conceptual ideas and selected six with the most promise. The timetable for bringing these ideas to fruition is long: “Some of these reactor designs could be demonstrated within the next decade, with commercial deployment beginning in 2030.”

There are no working prototypes of advanced nuclear reactors in the U.S., but six demonstration projects have been approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Department of Energy recently launched a new demonstration program that aims to build two new reactors.

So at a minimum, this technology is 10 years down the road, and likely more than that with the added complexities of financing, permitting, and politicking. Given demands for rapid decarbonizing, the world may be unwilling to wait another decade until widespread solutions can begin to be implemented.

High and uncertain price tag

It’s hard to pin down the price of advanced nuclear technology when the end goal is years away. Nonetheless, the Energy Information Administration estimates the price of advanced nuclear to be among the most expensive options for construction of new energy sources, at $82 per Mwh, which includes capital costs, operation, and transmission. That price tag does not take into account managing nuclear waste. For comparison, natural gas “peaking” electricity is $67/Mwh, onshore wind is $40, and utility-scale solar is $36. Currently, production tax credits for solar and nuclear are available, but those discounts are not included in the price estimates above.

But given the snowballing costs of the two recent nuclear plants built in the U.S., it’s difficult to know the real price of advanced nuclear.

But what about nuclear waste?

American politicians have yet to solve the nuclear waste problem, and many expect political hurdles may well outlast technological ones. A long-term, underground disposal site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, for instance, has been in the works since 1987, but was never completed, largely for political reasons (including the reality that then-U.S. Senator Harry Reid (D-Nevada) was the Senate Majority Leader and a powerful opponent from 2007 to 2015). Instead, spent fuel rods are stored at power plants as they await a longer-term fate.

Even the much-heralded breeder reactors still produce radioactive waste, albeit less than their predecessors. Nuclear waste presents both an engineering problem and a social problem, because most people want nuclear waste to go somewhere far away from them. For the industry to find a credible path forward, unresolved waste, economic, national security, and sociopolitical concerns need to be resolved.

Funding and political will … uphill battles ahead

Given the long lead-time for developing new nuclear reactors and the sky-high costs relative to other energy options, the nuclear option remains a tough sell for many private investors. Projects of any meaningful scale require government investment – and here’s the rub: Nuclear energy remains unpopular with much of the American public, a perception that persists whether energy wonks like it or not. According to Pew Research polling, just 43% of Americans favor building more nuclear plants. By contrast, 90% of Americans support expanding solar energy and 83% favor increasing wind energy.

The massive investments, long lead-time, and lack of public enthusiasm make for a continued tough road ahead for nuclear energy in the U.S.

Some advocates overlook weak links in preferred solutions

Proponents of nuclear energy often dismiss a vast scale-up of wind and solar as “magical thinking.” But moving to advanced forms of nuclear energy also requires a substantial dose of optimism in the face of potentially stark challenges.

Prevailing public opinion on renewable energy – fueled by lower costs – gives it a big head start over advanced nuclear energy: It’s popular and, in comparison, cheap. But that alone is insufficient. Considerable progress in energy storage is needed to bring renewable energy into the hard-to-fix areas of the energy system, like multi-day cloudy or cold spells, steelmaking, and burgeoning energy demand globally. The necessary gains in renewable energy will be possible only if there is public will and substantial investment.

Turning to nuclear energy, several of the same things are true. There is no existing technology that can get the job done. Serious improvements are needed, the price tag is unknown, and the timeline is worryingly long.

Unlike some current political debates, energy is not a simple up-or-down vote. It may be a false dichotomy that the nation’s energy future has to be either renewables or nuclear. It’s neither necessary nor helpful to build a case for one by simply squelching all consideration of another. There may be no “perfect” solution, and all the individual pieces of the puzzle will have to be hashed out in the context of science, technology, engineering, economics, and, of course, politics.

Big challenges require big solutions

In the end, transforming the world’s energy grid in just a decade or two is no easy task. Fossil fuel interests, politicization, and business-as-usual inertia have tied the world’s hands for decades, leaving a tight timeline for scaling up solutions. Perhaps the worst kind of magical thinking is that the climate crisis is solvable without creative and large-scale action.

But taking one step farther back, a few things are glaringly obvious: Smart planning, big investments, science-based strong leadership, and a motivated populace are precisely what’s needed. While we can argue about the details ad infinitum, perhaps we can also agree to stay focused on the end goal, dream big, and move forward boldly.

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Comments

Comments 1 to 25:

  1. An important point to keep in mind is that Nuclear Energy Production is also a non-renewable system that creates harmful 'externalized costs'. Like climate change impacts from fossil fuel use, the waste is hazardous for very long time periods meaning it is inappropriate to use any discounting to determine the acceptability of the risk of harm. Believing a nuclear waste storage system is almost certain for almost 100,000 years does not make the cost of the increased chance of harm after 100,000 years almost zero (a fatal flaw of only evaluating costs and discounting the future when doing that).

    Another item to keep in mind is that the nuclear power generation would be the intermittent filler in the energy production system. That means building nuclear power plants that are not the 'base-load slow to change capacity' type of generator.

    New Nuclear needs to be thought of as a temporary helpful activity. It cannot be part of the required rapid transition to sustainable solutions for the benefit of the future of humanity.

    All that considered, New Nuclear should be limited to safely generating power with the already created waste from existing nuclear operations and the material in existing nuclear weapons (nuclear weapons are harmful waste).

    It would be a shame to claim to solve the problem of harmful consequences of the unsustainable use of fossil fuels by developing a different unsustainable harmful way of doing things.

    Unsustainable and harmful activity needs to be understood to have no future, no matter how much cheaper and easier and more enjoyable it is than the alternative of lower energy consumption with that energy being sustainable and obtained with minimum harm done (accumulating harm is unsustainable).

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  2. This article does not respond to most of the items in Abbott 2012.  It is simply an amalgam of various nuclear industry fantasies with little to support the claims.

    I note that the author describes generating part of electricity.  Jacobson 2018Connelly et al 2016 and many other peer reviewed articles searching for future energy systems describe using renewable energy for 100% of ALL POWER used in the economy.  Electricity is only about 20% of all power.  Even if nuclear was able to generate 50% of current electricity it would only be 10% of the necessary power needed.  Renewable energy would be required for the other 90% of All Power.

    Abbott 2012 shows that even for 10% of All Power nuclear cannot meet the need.  There is not enough uranium.  If fantasy breeder reactors are attempted to be used (using "unobtainium" for critical parts) it will be even more expensive and the designs cannot be commercially available for even longer.

    Re-reading the headings in the OP gives a better look at nuclear power:

    • Smaller and more flexible … but when?
    • Long lead time misses the key window for action
    • High and uncertain price tag
    • But what about nuclear waste?
    • Funding and political will … uphill battles ahead

    This article is just nuclear industry propaganda uncritically presented.  I note there are no citations of peer reviewed material in the OP.  The OP shoud be deleted.  If the writer actually read scientific research like Jacobson 2018 and Connelly 2016 they would not write such drivel.  

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  3. I'm a realist, and right now renewables are winning the debate in places like America because they are quicker , cheaper and simpler to build than Nuclear power and in a market economy thats how things should properly work. And we have to be able to build stuff quickly to even come close to meeting the Paris goals.

    But in terms of which is the best source of power in a technical sense, maybe there just isn't much difference between renewables and nuclear power. For example, Nuclear power is expensive compared to wind and solar and gas, but probably cost competitive with wind and solar and mass storage, at current costs of mass storage. Nuclear power relies on a non renewable fuel, but several of the metals used to make wind and solar power plants will obviously not last for all eternity either, or could eventually become expensive. Nuclear waste is toxic, windfarms kill birds. There is no perfectly sustainable energy nirvana, just choosing the best options at some point in time.

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  4. Oddly missing in this discussion is the role of energy efficiency as the most cost-effective way to "generate" energy by reducing its waste. For instance, the California graph charts how energy production is provided by the mix of renewables, nuclear and fossil fuels, but it does not include the greatly reduced energy needed to be produced because California has led the nation in energy efficiency measures, maintaining the same per-capita energy use while the rest of the country has gone up 33% per capita since the 1970s. All roads to a 100% carbon free energy future is impossible with continued gains in energy efficiency investments, which continues to be a less expensive investment in terms of saved kilowats when compared to the cost of any form of energy production per kilowat hour, whether that is nuclear, wind, solar, natural gas or wood, for that matter. 

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  5. Norway has also made huge progress with energy efficiency documented here. 

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  6. Author says "we've been having the wrong debate about nuclear energy", then writes an article that doesn't say what the right debate is, and makes the exact same points as some of those who have been engaging in the "wrong" debate.

    In short, this article is a complete waste of time.

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  7. I see most comments so far are significantly critical of the opening post; and there's some justification for that. For example, they simply pass by the issue that nuclear power cannot, without energy storage, meet changing demand - it is uneconomical to run a nuclear power plant at anything but full load, and the output is therefore flat. Meanwhile they critique renewables in California for not time matching demands either.

    However, the article does point out nuclear disadvantages, such as very long lead times, yet to be developed technology, costs, waste storage, and the certainty that the price of advanced nuclear power will be 2-3x that of renewables. And that renewables are much faster to build.

    I think a central point of the argument is really the take-home: that claiming the way forward is either renewables or nuclear is a false dichotomy, that just as current energy supplies are a mix, we can continue to consider mixed supplies going forward. That's important, folks. Every bit forward helps.

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  8. Nigelj:

    At post 3 you say: "For example, Nuclear power is expensive compared to wind and solar and gas, but probably cost competitive with wind and solar and mass storage, at current costs of mass storage."

    Connelly et al 2016 (reviewed at SkS here) and the references in it show that the bigger the system the lower the storage cost.  This means that an electricity only system requires relatively much more storage than a system that provides all electricity, heating, transportation and industry.  That means a system that provides ALL POWER requires much less storage than an electricity only system.  They show that a well designed All Power system might require zero storage.   Obviously if we want to get to zero carbon dioxide emissions we require an All Power system.  Electricity only systems, as nuclear supporters describe, are not helpful in reaching zero carbon emissions.

    I wrote that summary specifically to address your complaints that storage for renewable energy would be too expensive.  Nuclear supporters, like those on the RealClimate thread you frequent, do not discuss All Power systems because electricity only systems make renewable energy look more expensive.  The OP has the same problem since it is written from a nuclear point of view.

    I have shown your claims of expensive storage are false as described in the peer reviewed literature.  If you want to claim expensive storage you need to find peer reviewed sources to support your repeated, false claims.

    Your claims at post 3 " Nuclear power relies on a non renewable fuel, but several of the metals used to make wind and solar power plants will obviously not last for all eternity either" are also false.  I have referred you repeatedly to Jacobson 2009 which shows that all the materials to build out renewable energy exist is adequate amounts, except for rare earth elements in the turbines.  Since then the turbines have been redesigned so that they do not use excess rare earth elements.  By contrast, Abbott 2012 shows that many rare elements in nuclear plants, including uranium, do not exist is sufficient amunts to build out more than 5% of All Power.  The nuclear industry has not replied to Abbott which shows they agree with his assessment.   In general, renewable plants use common materials which are not in short supply.  By contrast, many exotic materials are used in nuclear plants to attempt to counter the extreme conditions of heat, corrosivity and radiation field found in nuclear plants.

    If you want to contradict the accepted, consensus science you need to provide references to support your wild claims.  Constantly repeating false claims does not make them true.

    Nuclear supporters constantly repeat false claims about renewable energy.  It does not make nuclear look better to falsely claim renewables have problems.

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  9. Recognizing that I am broadening the discussion beyond the narrow focus of the article. The issue is not whether renewable generation is better than nuclear, but remains whether nuclear should be considered to be part of the future energy mix. What is lacking in the article is a discussion of values.

    In one sense I agree with the title of the article: “We've been having the wrong debate about nuclear energy”, since the article overlooks the intergenerational responsibility and consequence of the use of nuclear power. This issue of kicking down the raod the responsibility for waste, proliferation, environmental damage, and threats of nuclear terrorism has plagued the nuclear power debate since the beginning of the nuclear age.

    For the moment, setting aside the obvious problems with the article that implicitly accepts that energy narcissism/inequality is acceptable, the promotion of technical fixes to first “Climate Change”, and now the “Climate Emergency” has always been self-serving for the nuclear power industry. This industry needs to be rescued from the failed experiment that it is.

    The Canadian nuclear industry, like the USA industry, has recently been pushing for small nuclear reactors … as well as newer large reactor designs, in an effort to retain some relevance … and especially to mask the legacy of the proliferation of the failed experiments of the old boiling water technology of the 1960s and 1970s designed reactors. …

    Nuclear Waste (low and high level), … The plans basically amount to requiring future generations to clean up the mess from our and previous generations that benefited from the energy, but refused to take responsibility for the long-term radioactive wastes … This legacy continues.

    Nuclear proliferation (extraction for bombs or creation of dirty bombs), … Curiously, perhaps this generation is just numb to the existential threats of nuclear weapons, and the potential for extraction of radioactive materials to produce weapons. Perhaps this generation has bought into the myths of limited nuclear war, and that they will be among the survivors. Perhaps there is a belief that there will be good procedures that will maintain control over the nuclear waste stream as reactors are deployed around the world … Perhaps the central White House figure should be a cautionary tale for those who believe that good leadership will always control the management of nuclear power, nuclear materials, and nuclear weapons.

    Nuclear environmental damage … Throughout the nuclear life-cycle, especially the fabrication processes, through the history of nuclear power … a great deal of radioactive material has been generated: from old dump sites (land and sea) to old reactors sites and components to accident sites. Given the storied history of misadventure and mismanagement, I would have thought that some humility with respect the pollution that has been generated would have been reflected in the article.

    Nuclear threats of nuclear terrorism … i.e., non-governmental actors as well as rouge governments. Given the decent in to autocratic malevolence that we are seeing throughout the world, it seems oddly irresponsible to promote a wider distribution of such lethal technologies at this time, and sadly ironic as we collectively try to fend off the environmental damage caused by the irresponsible use of fossil fuels. In many respects the irresponsible responses of governments to the Climate Emergency and pushing responsibility to future generations look similar to the issues of nuclear proliferation and terrorism …

    Yes, we will need technical fixes to the Climate Emergency that has been caused by fossil fuel use. However, these technical fixes must be combined with deep social changes that are more substantive than the suggested ‘politics’ in this article. This generation in its responses to irresponsible fossil use, should not be adding to the burden of future generations by promoting additional nuclear power use. If the nuclear power industry was to be responsible, I would expect that if would put all its resources into cleaning up the messes of the past and current of nuclear power use and developing responsible nuclear power policies …

    “But taking one step farther back, a few things are glaringly obvious: Smart planning, big investments, science-based strong leadership, and a motivated populace are precisely what’s needed. While we can argue about the details ad infinitum, perhaps we can also agree to stay focused on the end goal, dream big, and move forward boldly.”



    The bold step back … would be to accept that nuclear power should not be part of the mix of future energy sources. A bold step would be to address the social changes and technology changes that are needed to address the energy narcissism/inequality that will only be made worse if we focus only on technology … and worse the technologies that benefit only this generation.

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  10. Michael Sweet @8, I never said in my post that storage for renewables would be expensive. I suggested its unlikely that there would ultimately be much difference between the costs of nuclear power generation and renewables generation. Renewables have to be able to deal with about two weeks of low wind and cloudy days and big diurnal and seasonal variations in demand, which means either a big overbuild, or masses of some form of storage or carbon capture .Yes it can be done eventually and economically with mass production, but I think you would have to be crazy to believe it will end up lower cost than nuclear power. The research paper you quoted saying "They show that a well designed All Power system might require zero storage" is little more than speculation based on various assumptions, the word 'might' gives it away.

    The nuclear power advocates dont all suggest the entire energy system of the world rely on just nuclear power. Many accept we need biofuels and pumped hydro and so on. So your comments are a bit of a strawman.

    Yes nuclear power faces big resource constraints with supplies of uranium, but that is not a compelling reason not to build any nuclear power at all. Even if Abbot is right and theres only enough uranium to power 20% of the world ( and this has been heavily contested) thats still 20%.

    And my point was that renewables also face resource constraints. I actually never said there were not enough resources to build renewables at scale, simply that this probaly wont "last forever". From my recollection, Jacobson only found that there are enough resorces to build the first generation or two of renewables at scale. We have to be able to keep this going for thousands of years, and even with recycling that will be challenging. Let me remind you the earths mineral resources are finite, and rich seams of even common minerals are actually quite rare. Therefore it might make sense to mix both renewables and nuclear power.

    Of course reserves of fossil fuels are even more limited, with credible estimates suggesting light crude oil has already peaked in terms of supply, and America may only have 50 years of economically recoverable coal left, and obviously oil and coal cannot be recycled. Once they are burned they are basically gone for good, so the use of fossil fuels is fast nearing the limits. At least the sun and wind are essentially unlimited and most metals can be recycled. All the more reason to adopt renewables, but maybe nuclear is ok as well.

    A few of us think more in terms of a combination of systems or a hybrid system,  while most people seem to take firm sides on the nuclear versus renewables thing, but to me this doesnt look terribly science based and more like its based on emotion and hype.

    You said "This article is just nuclear industry propaganda uncritically presented. " Yet the article fully ackowledged the considerable challenges facing the nuclear industry. I think the article bent over backwards to be accurate and balanced, and covered as much as it could within a one page format.

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  11. Nigelj:

    I note that you have provided no references, even to industry propaganda, to support your wild claims.  I have directly cited at least 3 peer reviewed papers in this thread and in the past I have given you many more peer reviewed papers to read.   I recognize that you claim you do not have enough time to read peer reviewed papers and prefer to read the unmoderated forum at RealClimate to get information.

    Your claim that nuclear power will be comparable in price to renewables plus storage is completely false.  You rely on unsupported industry propaganda for your nuclear estimates.  Connelly et al and Jacobson et al 2018 show that renewables are at least a factor of three cheaper than nuclear power.  I note the largest pumped hydro storage plants in the USA were all built to store excess nuclear power.  You have not added in the necessity of storage for nuclear power in your wild claims.

    Abbott showed that no more than 5% of All Power can be generated by nuclear.  You have just made up your 20% claim.  Abbott showed that a 100% nuclear system would use up all known uranium reserves in 5 years.  That means for a 20% system the uranium would run out in 25 years, way before fossil fuels.  

    It is possible that in 5,000 years steel will run out and we will have to all go back to using stone.  I doubt it.  You are simply speculating without any support.  Jacobson 2009 showed all materials exist for a renewable system.  Since then renewable systems are built with less materials so even less materials would be used.

    Moderators: it is very tiresonme to have to respond to Nigelj's false posts every time nuclear is mentioned.  I understand that you want to promote a nuclear discussion but allowing repeated postings of completely unsupported falsehoods is sloganeering.  Nigelj should be required to support his claims like everyone else.

    Nuclear supporters commonly make the false claim that renewable energy cannot generate enough energy (or is too expensive, etc) and then claim that we have to use nuclear instead.  This is a false argument.  Even if renewables could not supply enough future energy that does not mean that nuclear would work. 

    Nuclear plants are being shut down worldwide because nuclear is not economic.  Nuclear proponents have been saying that in 10 years they will have solved all nuclear's problems ever since I was born and I am an old man now.  Jacobson 2009 shows that any money spent on nuclear increases carbon emissions since that means less money will be spent on cheaper wind and solar power that can be built much faster.

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  12. michael sweet @11

    "I note that you have provided no references, even to industry propaganda, to support your wild claims. "

    There is detailed criticism of Jacobsons work easily googled. I didnt think I needed to quote that which is easly googled, but here is some material. I do not accept all the criticisms, but some look credible.

    I do not know of an actual peer reviewed published study attempting to refute Jacobsons or Abbots work. My undertanding is that most published studies including ones that turn out to be wrong, are not specifically refuted by other published studies. That doesn't make the original published study correct as M Sweet seems to believe.

    If I'm not allowed to criticise someones work, or at least express doubts, because there is no relevant published study I can quote that is refuting the work, then that is clearly and indisputably absurd nonsense, and it is scientific censorship. If people cant express opinions or thoughts without a bibliography of references, that is also quite absurd. 

    "You have just made up your 20% claim. "

    Apologies. That was a typo. I confused  the 5% with a 20% number you quoted.

    "It is possible that in 5,000 years steel will run out and we will have to all go back to using stone. I doubt it. You are simply speculating without any support. "

    Where did I quote just steel? You are putting words in my mouth again. Renewables use copper, aluminium, and dozens of other relatively scare materials. Its well known that some of these materials are scarce. There is no need to provide references for common knowledge.

    Renewables like solar panels use many more materials than nuclear power plants. This is kinda obvious when you look at the size of solar and wind farms, but I have a reference here to satisfy the nit pickers. I'm just suggesting this is something that needs consideration in a world where we are using resources very fast. It doesnt make renewables a bad thing, but it does suggest we combine a wide range of options.

    "Nuclear plants are being shut down worldwide because nuclear is not economic."

    Unsupported assertion made with no references. Talk about hypocrisy. And more importantly its an unbalanced comment. At least some nuclear plants are shut down due to panic about safety, eg in Germany and plenty of nuclear plants are also being built here.

    "Nuclear proponents have been saying that in 10 years they will have solved all nuclear's problems ever since I was born and I am an old man now. "

    I agree and Im older now and I've certainly observed this. However not all the renewables problems have been solved either, and most of the plans that they can be solved are speculative or have not been scaled up,  just like the nuclear industries speculation and promises and experimental plant.

    All I'm saying is I think theres room for many clean zero carbon energy sources. Some countries could elect to use renewables and clearly are doing this. Others might use nuclear power. Countries could mix both perhaps in different parts of the country. Countries already mix various energy sources like geothermal and hydro. Its not clear to me why everyone would have to just use solar and wind and why nuclear must be excluded. Purists and dogmatic people get on my nerves.

    I will not be commenting futher on all this.

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  13. Addendum. "Renewables like solar panels and wind farms use a much larger volume of materials in total than nuclear power plants.

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  14. Nigelj,

    Skeptical Science is a scientific site.  Apparently you do not understand the method of scientific discussion.  This is common with nuclear supporters.  On the other nuclear thread at post 14 I described the scientific method of discussion to Barry:

    "You are not familiar with scientific discussion. In a scientific discussion I say "this paper supports my position". Then you say "this paper supports my position". Then I provide more papers to support my position and show why it is more accurate. You provide papers to support your position. Others read the papers and decide who they think has the best argument.

    "In this discussion I have provided a paper that supports my position, Abbott 2012. You say you do not like that paper and we should all agree with you. You have provided no reason why we should all agree with you."

    You should read the entire post linked above.

    You must support your claims with at least white papers from industry.  Your unsupported opinion as a person who claims no training or professional experience in the field does not contribute much to the discussion.  Bringing in information that you pick up in unmoderated forums on the web also does not advance the discussion.

    You linked the Clack et al paper which actually is a peer reviewed criticism of Jacobson 2015.  It is common in science for papers to be rebutted in this way.  Clack disagreed with Jacobson on the use of hydro power, the most flexible renewable power.  Jacobson responded with his 2018 paper (linked above) and answered all the questions that Clack raised.  I have not seen any references to any criticism of Jacobson 2018 so I conclude that Clack felt that Jacobson et al 2018 answered his questions.  Clack 2016 does not rebut Jacobson 2018.

    If you cannot find published critism of someones work then you must look harder for support for your wild claims.  Since you have no training or experience in any power systems, and you refuse to read the published literature on the topic, why should I care what you think?  If you want to speculate on these topics many non-scientific boards, like the unmoderated thread at RealClimate, exist.

    The moderators want to encourage discussion of nuclear power so they have allowed nuclear proponents to make many wild, unsupported claims.  I respond to these claims.  Since you make many unsupported, uninformed claims I respond so that casual readers do not think that your arguments have merit.

    I linked the incorrect Jacobson paper on materials for renewable energy.  It is actually Jacobson 2011.  He shows that all materials for a renewable energy system exist.  I believe this paper has never been challenged. Please provide data to support your deliberately false claim that not enough materials exist for a renewable system.  If you cannot find data to support your wild claims stop posting here.

    Your point that renewable energy projects use more tons of concrete and steel than nuclear power plants was popular with nuclear supporters in 2005 (I remember when they first used this argument).  Since Jacobson 2011 was published, all informed people know that it is a false argument.  You show your lack of preparation when you cite an argument that is 10 years out of date.

    By contrast, Abbott 2012 described the lack of rare materials used in the constructions of nuclear plants (especially uranium and "unobtainium").  Renewable systems use little of the rare elements, unlike nuclear plants which depend on these rare materials.  100 million tons of concrete is a small amount compared to world production of 10 billion tons.  All known uranium reserves will only produce 5 years of power for the world.

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  15. Michael sweet @14

    "You are not familiar with scientific discussion. In a scientific discussion I say "this paper supports my position". Then you say "this paper supports my position".

    Please don't be ridiculous. Yes its good to quote papers  when appropriate, but  It's possible to have a scientific discussion without having to mention papers. It happens all the time all over the place and by highly qualified people. Realclimate.org a highly reputable leading edge climate website and they dont demand that people posting comments have to quote scientific papers. It would just shut down discussion. People dont always have the time and relevant papers might not exist.

    That said, I post references to peer reviewed papers quite often, with respect to this websites rules, and because it is good to back up claims with a source, but its absurd to have to constantly quote scientific papers all the time. I notice you never demand it when people make claims about the benefits of renewables or expound on the dangers of climate change. You appear to apply double standards.

    You have also utterly ignored what I said. Sometimes there are valid criticisms of a scientific issue and no relevant published research to quote in support.

    "In this discussion I have provided a paper that supports my position, Abbott 2012. You say you do not like that paper and we should all agree with you. You have provided no reason why we should all agree with you."

    I did not say that.

    "You must support your claims with at least white papers from industry. "

    I provided a white paper above at comment 12 being a lengthy criticism of Jacobsons work. I provided a published study on renewable energy. I provided entirely credible material on why nuclear projects are being built. So why do you go on misrepresenting me?

    Regarding Abbot, there is no need to provide studies on the known scale of earths mineral resources, this is common knowledge easily googled. Do I need to provide studies that the moon goes around the earth?

    "Your unsupported opinion as a person who claims no training or professional experience in the field"

    Where do you get that from? I have never claimed that. I have said several times on this website I did physical geography at university, which covers the introductory basics of weather and climate. I also have a design degree in architecture and I may have mentioned that here, cant remember. I also did psychology and some basic maths and chemistry at university. Not that any of this makes me right or wrong about anything, but since you raised the issue I have to correct your error.

    "Bringing in information that you pick up in unmoderated forums on the web also does not advance the discussion."

    This is not a valid argument. Its illogical, and pretty much an ad hominem. Whether a forum is moderated or not clearly does not make information either right or wrong.

    And you are wrong to claim Realclimate.org is not a moderated forum. It has a moderation policy, and comments get deleted, or sometimes thrown into the junk file.

    "Clack 2016 does not rebut Jacobson 2018."

    Whatever. Who cares. Maybe its because hes tired of arguing with Jacobson. Maybe he's got better things to do. 

    "If you cannot find published critism of someones work then you must look harder for support for your wild claims. "

    Ridiculous statement.

    "Since you have no training or experience in any power systems, and you refuse to read the published literature on the topic, why should I care what you think?"

    I have read some of this material. I have told you that already. I'm trying to find the time to read more.

    "If you want to speculate on these topics many non-scientific boards, like the unmoderated thread at RealClimate, exist."

    All threads at RC are moderated as per previous comments. More lightly than here but they are still moderated.

    "The moderators want to encourage discussion of nuclear power so they have allowed nuclear proponents to make many wild, unsupported claims. I respond to these claims. Since you make many unsupported, uninformed claims I respond so that casual readers do not think that your arguments have merit."

    People make wild unsupported claims about renewables and other matters on this website. I never here you complain about that. You apply double standards.

    "I linked the incorrect Jacobson paper on materials for renewable energy. It is actually Jacobson 2011. He shows that all materials for a renewable energy system exist. Please provide data to support your deliberately false claim that not enough materials exist for a renewable system."

    I have never disputed this so why do you keep implying otherwise.? My point was whether they would last for a thousand years. As far as I can recall Jacobson never considered this. Its a discussion we should be having.

    "Your point that renewable energy projects use more tons of concrete and steel than nuclear power plants was popular with nuclear supporters in 2005 (I remember when they first used this argument). Since Jacobson 2011 was published, all informed people know that it is a false argument. You show your lack of preparation when you cite an argument that is 10 years out of date."

    I never said that. I said renewables look like they use a larger volume of all materials in total, so concrete, steel, copper, fibreglass etcetera combined.

    "By contrast, Abbott 2012 described the lack of rare materials used in the constructions of nuclear plants (especially uranium and "unobtainium"). ..... All known uranium reserves will only produce 5 years of power for the world. "

    I assume you mean land based reserves. Uranium is abundant in sea water, with billions of tons enough to power the world for many centuries assuming we can extract it. Table of quantities here. Uranium has been experimentally extracted from sea water here. Even if the costs are high they would inherently form a very small proportion of the costs of running a nuclear power plant. Abbot looks like it might be out of date in respect of this. 

    "Renewable systems use little of the rare elements,"

    That is just a huge understatement, and ignores other materials in relatively limited supply like copper and aluminium ( bauxite reserves could all be gone in a century or two) required for generators and a vast network of new trasmission lines to enable power to be shared regionally.

    I was not going to respond to you, but I dont like it when people missrepresent my position hence the response.

    Moderator. I have a history here  of quoting studies, more so than other people. Indisputably so.  I will make the effort to quote more papers bearing in mind there are only so many hours in the day.

    However I'm getting really tired of the way M Sweet repeatedly and blatantly 1) puts words in my mouth (hes done it to others as well) and 2) missrepresents my position and 3) misrepresents by background and 4) intellectually bullies people he doesnt agree with, and 5)falsely accuses me of making things up. And the way you let him get away with it.

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] I acknowledge your record in quoting papers. However, the discussions at Skpsci have a much stricter comments policy than realclimate.org. Of course you can have a discussion about interpretation of observations and logic without recourse to papers. However, you cannot make assertions of facts here without providing evidence to support them. That is sloganeering.

  16. Michael, Nigel.

    Both of you have a respected background of commenting here, and you're now both pleading to moderators. I am not a moderator, but perhaps you should both take a cool-down period and remember that you are not in a discussion with Preston Urka any more.

    I'd hate to see either of you disappear from this forum, either from moderator action or your own volition. Put the buns down.

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  17. Suggested supplemental reading:

    How to drive fossil fuels out of the US economy, quickly by David Roberts, Energy & Environment, Vox, Aug 6, 2020

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  18. @14

    "I linked the incorrect Jacobson paper on materials for renewable energy. It is actually Jacobson 2011. He shows that all materials for a renewable energy system exist. I believe this paper has never been challenged. Please provide data to support your deliberately false claim that not enough materials exist for a renewable system."

    Vidal et al (2013) has for more recent data on renewables' material requirements. Briefing here with original graphs and comparisons with WWF’s prediction for wind and solar energy production reaching 25 000 TWh by 2050 (I've read the original Nature paper and the brief appears to be correct).

    According the the Vidal et al. paper, renewable energy projects (by WWF in the example) would consume the entire annual copper, concrete and steel production by 2035 at the latest, hoard all currently produced aluminum by around 2030, and use up all the glass before 2020. And WWF plans still have a lot room for biomass, which is not renewable in the strictest sense.

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  19. "According the the Vidal et al. paper, renewable energy projects (by WWF in the example) would consume the entire annual copper, concrete and steel production by 2035 at the latest, hoard all currently produced aluminum by around 2030, and use up all the glass before 2020"

    Even upon a superficial review, since glass is still available, this claim is invalidated.

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  20. The Vidal paper is unfortunately behind a paywall. I'm not entirely sure about the characterization offered by Nechimide, because the short abstract linked at #18 gives a much less pessimistic view:

    "More mining is unavoidable, but increased recycling, substitution and careful design of new high-tech devices will help meet the growing demand."

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  21. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/258514690_Metals_for_a_low-carbon_society

    This page seems to contain all of the Vidal 2013 paper. It does not contain anything like the language in #18 above. It shows charts of the projected total output of some raw materials under the WWF energy production scenario; however, it does not differentiate what proportion of these materials will be exclusively devoted to renewable energy infrastructure vs the rest of raw material consumption. The paper does not seem to contain  projections of future demand under different scnenarios, even though it is to be expected that demand will rise under any scenario, even those including low use of renewables.

    It is therefore not possible from the data in the paper to draw the following conclusion: "According the the Vidal et al. paper, renewable energy projects (by WWF in the example) would consume the entire annual copper, concrete and steel production by 2035 at the latest, hoard all currently produced aluminum by around 2030, and use up all the glass before 2020."

    The paper does contain some interesting stuff and their figures certainly merit attention and further study. They make a compelling point for recycling metals and mining locally with modern methods.

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  22. Nechimide:

    The Vidal paper you cite is a commentary that cites previously published information.  As I read the paper, it states that the materials will be available but we need to carefully plan for such large amounts of materials use.

    The abstract of the Vidal et al commentary reads in full:

    "Renewable energy requires infrastructures built with metals whose extraction requires more and more energy. More mining is unavoidable, but increased recycling, substitution and careful design of new high-tech devices will help meet the growing demand."  My italics.

    This indicates to me that renewable supporters are trying to plan for possible future problems.  Vidal et al do not say that they think there will not be enough materials to build out.  They say we have to plan carefully.

    Scientists are concerned about a lot of non-renewable materials that might run short if everyone wants to live like Western culture.  Lithium for batteries and phosphate for fertilizer come to mind.  Careful planning will be needed for many materials.

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  23. Philippe Chantreau:

    I found a link to a free PDF of teh Vidal paper from Research gate.

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  24. Philippe,

    I am sorry, I linked the same page as you.  In the upper right corner is a link for a PDF of the paper (it took me a while to find the link).

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  25. Recommended supplemental reading:

    Nuclear Plants Face More Heat Risk Than They’re Prepared to Handle by Leslie Kaufman, Finance, Bloomberg News, Aug 19, 2020

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