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Is Nuclear Power the Answer to Climate Change?

March 20, 2011

After a series of discussion on the past, present and future of nuclear energy, this posting looks at the relationship between nuclear power and climate change. Regardless of whether mankind is or is not responsible for climate change, or whether global warming actually exists, what is certain is the mutual desire of the U.S. and all nations for energy independence and security. Secondly, further benefits of economic viability and a cleaner environment can be gained by reduced independence on fossil fuels and, in particular, foreign oil.

Greenhouse Gases (“GHG”) are purported to be the primary cause of the current global warming and climate change. Since this discussion looks at the relationship between nuclear energy and climate change, let’s take a precursory look at GHG.  GHG includes water vapor (H20), carbon dioxide (CO2), methane / natural gas CH4, nitrous oxide (N2O), ozone (O3) and chlorofluorocarbon. When ranked by their contribution to the greenhouse effect, the most important are: H2O 36 – 72 %; CO2 9 – 26 %; CH4 4 – 9 %; and O3 3 – 7 %.  The two primary sources of CO2 emissions are from burning coal for electricity generation and from petroleum used in the transportation sector.

The Pew Center on Global Climate Change conducted a study on the mechanisms of the greenhouse effect, the role of anthropogenic (human produced) greenhouse gas emissions in generating the enhanced greenhouse effect, and the basic characteristics of the main anthropogenic greenhouse gases. (http://www.pewclimate.org/global-warming-basics/facts_and_figures/temp_ghg_trends)

The report shows that “the global average surface temperature fluctuates over time, but recently it has increased dramatically. From 1920 to the present, the earth’s average surface temperature has increased by 1.4 °F. According to the National Academy of Sciences, this change is the largest global temperature rise in at least the last 2,000 years and, possibly, the last 5,000 years. The sharpest rise occurred between 1975 and 2005, when temperature rose steadily by about 1 °F.” Furthermore, data suggests that “the recent increase in concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the result of human activities, mainly the burning of fossil fuels. As the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased, so has the average surface temperature of the earth. The relationship between atmospheric CO2 concentration and surface temperature is shown below for the past 150 years.

In summary, the data shows that replacing fossil fuels with renewable and nuclear energy will both reduce GHG emissions and have a noticeable impact on controlling climate change.

To present an unbiased overview, this discussion presents three viewpoints on the impact of nuclear power on climate change, which includes reports showing a positive, questionable and negative impact.

The first report citing a direct correlation between nuclear energy and climate change was issued in the late 1990’s, “Nuclear Power and Climate Change” by the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA). This report covers the economic, financial, industrial and potential environmental effects of three alternative nuclear power development paths (“nuclear variants”). (http://www.oecd-nea.org/ndd/climate/climate.html)
• Variant I, “continued nuclear growth”, assumes that nuclear power capacity would grow steadily, reaching 1 120 GWe* in 2050.
• Variant II, “phase-out”, assumes that nuclear power would be phased out completely by 2045.
• Variant III, “stagnation followed by revival”, assumes early retirements of nuclear units in the short term (to 2015) followed by a revival of the nuclear option by 2020 leading to the same nuclear capacity in 2050 as in variant I.

The report concludes:

“The nuclear variants discussed in this paper, as well as results from a number of other studies, show that technically and economically feasible nuclear development paths could contribute significantly to alleviating the risks associated with global climate change. Recognizing that up to now it has proven to be difficult to meet the GHG emission reduction targets proposed at international or national levels, it is important to keep open all the options that could help in achieving those objectives.”

“Nuclear power is one of the options available for alleviating the risk of global climate change and its potential contribution to GHG emissions reduction could be significant. However, the future role of nuclear power will depend on maintaining the high-level of safety achieved by nuclear units operated in OECD countries and implementing high level radioactive waste repositories in order to ensure the sustainability of nuclear power. Keeping the nuclear option open in order to realize its potential will require a number of actions by industries in the nuclear sector and by governments.”

“In a longer-term perspective, non-electrical applications of nuclear energy, such as heat, potable water and hydrogen production, could be developed, and these applications could enlarge significantly nuclear power’s contribution to GHG emission reduction. Research and development would be necessary in order to assess fully the technical feasibility of those applications at the industrial level and the economic competitiveness of nuclear versus fossil fuels and renewable sources. Governments could play an important role by supporting such research and development, and international organizations could assist in this process by promoting and facilitating exchange of information.”

The second argument is somewhat natural in terms of nuclear energy’s ability to combat climate change.  Sponsored by Council on Foreign Relations, this references a 2007 online debate between Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, and Steven Kerekes, senior director of media relations at the Nuclear Energy Institute.  (http://www.cfr.org/energy/nuclear-power-response-climate-change/p14718)

Excerpts from the debate:

Steven Kerekes:  Morgan Stanley Vice Chairman Jeffrey Holzschuh has a presentation in which he notes that the U.S. utility industry investment needs for the next thirteen years total about $1 trillion. Of that total infrastructure need, $350 billion, or $23 billion per year, is needed for electric-generating facilities. Of that sum, the capital required to build an additional 15,000-20,000 megawatts of nuclear capacity over the next fifteen years is about $3.5 billion per year. Meanwhile, over the past five years, the investment capital raised by the U.S. power industry has ranged between $50 billion and $79 billion annually. We need all these emission-free energy technologies. The fact that nuclear energy has proven its value as a reliable, affordable source of clean energy is cause for hope.

Michael Mariotte: The climate crisis is the overriding environmental issue of our time. Addressing it effectively is a necessity, and requires wise direction of our limited resources to support those technologies that offer both a speedy transition to a carbon-free future and a permanent, sustainable energy future. That taxpayers are being asked to shoulder the burden of new reactors—in the United States and across the globe—is an indication that nuclear power’s economics simply aren’t viable.

We can achieve an energy policy that is both carbon-free and nuclear-free. I want to refer our readers to two recent books. Carbon-Free and Nuclear Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy, by Dr. Arjun Makhijani of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, is a remarkable work that lays out a detailed plan for the United States to become completely carbon-free and nuclear-free by 2050—without increasing the amount of Gross Domestic Product now being spent on energy.

Spending hundreds of billions of dollars—potentially trillions worldwide—on nuclear power would tie up the capital necessary to implement the safe, sustainable energy future the climate crisis calls for, while providing minimal carbon emissions reductions. That’s the fundamental issue. Our choice is stark: we can effectively address the climate crisis, or we can choose nuclear power. We can’t do both. Fortunately, the choice is an easy one.

Steven Kerekes: Nuclear energy is a proven technology. It is by far the largest U.S. source of electricity that doesn’t emit greenhouse gases, and it provides more than 45 percent of emission-free electricity worldwide, second only to hydroelectric plants.

No matter how many billions of dollars we throw at your preferred sources of emission-free electricity, they won’t begin to approach in the next ten years the amount of electricity already generated by nuclear power plants—at which point we’ll start to bring additional emission-free, 1,000-megawatt-plus reactors on line.
• Nuclear power plants are operating safely.
• Radioactive waste is being managed safely.
• Proliferation is important, but the reality is that nations do not need commercial nuclear energy to manufacture nuclear weapons.

Michael Mariotte: The industry cannot build the number of reactors needed to make a meaningful reduction in carbon emissions. So, given nuclear power’s well-known and unsolved safety, radioactive waste, nuclear proliferation and economic problems, why bother building any?

One reason not to bother is cost. The world has limited resources; we need to apply them effectively. If nuclear reactors could be built for $1500 kilowatts, as the Nuclear Energy Institute claimed a couple years ago, nuclear could potentially make an economic case for itself. But a funny thing happened when utilities started looking at actual cost projections rather than engaging in wishful thinking. Even before the first shovelful of construction dirt has been turned, costs for new reactors have skyrocketed. NRG and Constellation Energy, the two earliest license applicants, project costs on the order of $2,500-$3,000/kw and they are certainly low-balling.

Moody’s Investors Service is even less optimistic. Their October 2007 projection is that new U.S. reactors will cost on the order of $5,000-6,000/kw. At those prices, even solar begins to look competitive—and its costs are trending down worldwide, not up.

Steven Kerekes: Nuclear energy annually has provided 20 percent of U.S. electricity supplies since the early 1990s, and even with a marked increase in overall electricity demand, it constitutes more than 70 percent of the electricity that comes from sources that do not emit greenhouse gases or controlled pollutants into the atmosphere. Renewable energy technologies over that same time period—even with subsidies like production tax credits in place—have increased their share of U.S. electricity production to 3.1 percent from 2.9 percent. At that rate of growth, it will take renewable technologies another twelve hundred years just to equal the share of electricity production that nuclear energy has provided since 1992.

Nuclear energy is our country’s only large-scale energy source capable of producing electricity around the clock while emitting no air pollutants or greenhouse gases during production. Nuclear energy is also the lowest-cost large-scale producer of electricity in this country. And nuclear’s production costs are stable and not subject to fluctuations in the natural gas or oil market. As a domestic energy technology with fuel from the United States and reliable trading partners, nuclear energy is essential to our nation’s energy security.

Michael Mariotte: Environmental advocates considering “reconsidering” nuclear power in light of climate change are too late. Even if the nuclear industry had solved the safety, radioactive waste, proliferation, cost, and other issues that ended its first generation—and it hasn’t solved any of those problems—it wouldn’t matter. What nuclear power can offer for climate is simply too little, too late.

A third piece reflects similar sentiments stated above by Michael Mariotte. The article “Nuclear Power Cannot Solve Climate Change” by Katherine Ling was published by “Scientific American,” March 27, 2009. (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=nuclear-cannot-solve-climate-change) The report “finds that nuclear power plants cannot be built quickly enough and in a safe and secure manner to be a major global solution for climate change.” The report suggests:

“The International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2008 projects that without policy changes, nuclear power’s share of worldwide electricity generation will drop from 15 percent in 2006 to 10 percent in 2030.”

“….. policymakers should be aware of the timeline, costs and risks nuclear power brings as compared to the possible benefits, before expending a tremendous amount of resources on it”

“….. it takes about 10 years to put a new plant in service, from licensing to connection to the grid.”

“….. report argues that nuclear energy is not likely to have a significant effect on energy security”

“It will take at least two decades to convert the world’s car fleet from oil to electricity. Transportation is the only sector where nuclear energy can significantly replace oil.”

Finally, the “Nuclear Information and Resource Service” (“NIRS”), founded to expose the myth that nuclear power is an appropriate solution for the climate crisis,” states (http://www.nirs.org/climate/climate.htm:

“….. nuclear power is not only ineffective at addressing climate change, when the entire fuel chain is examined, nuclear power is found to be a producer of greenhouse gases. Adding enough nuclear power to make a meaningful reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would cost trillions of dollars, create tens of thousands of tons of lethal high-level radioactive waste, contribute to further proliferation of nuclear weapons materials, result in a Chernobyl-scale accident once every decade or so, and, perhaps most significantly, squander the resources necessary to implement meaningful climate change mitigation policies.”

Well there you go, depending on who and what you read, nuclear can or cannot impact GHG and climate change.  Nevertheless, there was little dispute that global warming was a consequence of CO2 emissions.

In closing, to reduce dependence on foreign oil now and eliminate dependence on foreign oil over the long-term, my recommendations include:
• Mandate that the retail price of petroleum reflect its true cost.
• Remove subsidies to the petroleum industry.
• Raise yearly RPS standards for new renewable power.
• Enhance usage of compressed natural gas (“CNG”) in the transportation sector.
• Reduce cost and streamline the regulatory pathway for solar, wind, and biomass power generation facilities,
• Limit EPA’s level of responsibility.
• From an independent commission of state, business, utility and academic leaders to recommend substantive changes to U.S.’s energy policy.
• Privatize the DoE.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 21, 2011 3:34 AM

    Barry, thank you for posting this interview.
    For an even better understanding of the whole process of making electricty out of nucelar power, all readers of your blog are kindly invited to just have a look here:
    http://www.hydrogenambassadors.com/background/facts.php#electricityfromnuclear

  2. March 21, 2011 8:40 AM

    Issues that are not addressed:
    1. While the dollar cost for building a reactor is estimated, what is the total energy cost and CO2 footprint for building a reactor especially when compared to other forms of renewable energy sources?
    2. Production of nuclear fuel is a dirty industry resulting in environmental pollution (just like coal). Also, like coal, nuclear waste cannot simply be disposed and has an environmental and energy cost. How do we ensure that nuclear waste can be safe from geologic disturbances for hundreds of thousands of years? Burying it has the risk of global contamination of the ground water. What is meant by acceptible risk here?
    3. Finally the earthquake and tsunami in Japan amplifies the environmental and health risks faced by nuclear power. The reactors in California are near the coast in earthquake zones and are at risk of being impacted by tsunamis. The reactor 40 miles or so north of NYC poses a risk to 20 million people in the NYC metropolitan area. In the event of a problem with that reactor, how will 2o million people be evacuated?
    4. The title of this report suggests that climate change is a question. Climate change is not a question and therefore what is the question that nuclear power is the answer to? Note: this is a serious point in that the question has to be formulated very carefully. We cannot go around solving problems without a clear definition of the problem is being addressed. There are at least two separate but related issues: climate change and energy. There are a number of ways to address these issues. Many of those involve changes in life-style and global cooperation. It seems however, that technological solutions are offered to address human problems.

  3. Mark Shipman permalink
    March 23, 2011 10:33 PM

    A provocative query ;-)

    Based on the [at present] unproven premise that climate change is “Anthropogenic” and that nuclear power can in some magical manner alleviate Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW).

    The world also faces a “crisis” (AGW) with the United Nations going so far as to label carbon-dioxide “a toxin”.

    This is where AGW, in my opinion, starts to falter and stumble.

    The world population is such that we cannot feed it at present levels. It is also growing at a previously unheard of rate: more births and people [in general] living longer.

    Given that our advances in medicine and science will continue to extend human longevity, the world population will continue to grow.

    As a direct result of this, the demand for food will also increase and the food shortfall will only get bigger.

    My limited college-level “biology” still tells me that plants take in carbon-dioxide from the atmosphere and water and nutrients from the soil to grow the plant and then release oxygen back into the atmosphere.

    We also know that increased levels of atmospheric carbon-dioxide increase plant growth rates.

    Ask any horticulturist with glasshouses full of tomato plants how they use carbon-dioxide to “manage” their crop. Look also at the carbon-dioxide experimentation being done on maize crops to accelerate growth and increase crop yield.

    Surely then we should be ACTIVELY SEEKING increases in atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels? Even if only to feed the growing world population?

    So, is nuclear power the answer to climate change?

    No, because it increases climate change.

    Just ask the ex-residents of Chernobyl. Nuclear power certainly changed their climate and not for the better. Ask the people of Japan where the Fukushima region was a large food producer, but now there are radioactive traces in milk and other foods from the area.

    There may be places where the “bang-for-your-buck” makes nuclear power a valid option AND where the geology is stable enough to not risk the people because of a natural disaster.

    But we seem to miscalculate the “real” cost of nuclear power (and hybrid cars for that matter) by carefully ignoring the fabrication of the power station (or hybrid) itself and all of its components.

    For example, even if there is a small amount of aluminium in a nuclear power plant, it was produced in a smelter where electrolysis produces [hot] diatomic oxygen at the anode, which then combines with carbon from the anode to give [you guessed it] CARBON DIOXIDE!

    Anyone for a can of beer? Thought not :-))

    This “real cost” includes disposal of the “hazardous waste” – in the case of the nuclear power station, this is the fissile waste and, for a hybrid car, the batteries with all of their heavy metals.

    All up, nuclear power plants have a much bigger “climate change” effect than other forms of power production.

    That said, a century and a half ago, we did not “need” electricity like we seem to today and, just maybe, that wasn’t all bad…

  4. Westie Boy permalink
    March 23, 2011 10:50 PM

    Hey, before you go too far you may want to check out some actual science from Christopher Monckton (3rd Viscount Monckton of Brenchley):

    How much carbon dioxide does it take to raise the average temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere by one degree Celcius?

    So far, not a single tree-hugger has been able to answer this question. Surely they would know?

    Answer: one trillion [metric] tonnes – yes that’s 1,000,000,000,000 tonnes

    It’s a pretty big number in anyones language.

    So, the obvious next question: how much does mankind produce from all of our endeavours including breathing?

    No tree-hugger knows the answer to this one either :-))

    Answer: thirty billion [metric] tonnes per year – that’s 30,000,000,000

    Yup, that’s pretty big too. But not as big as the “change it by one degree” number.

    Grab your calculators folks!

    How long would it take for mankind at the present output level to change the average temperature of the atmosphere by one degree Celcius?

    Answer: 1,000 / 30 = 33 1/3 years

    Well that’s not too long!

    So, to stop the temperature increasing by one degree Celcius, we only need to halt carbon-dioxide emissions for 34 years.

    Cool!

    Easy even!

    No fires, no cars, no CO2 fire extinguishers, no electricity where CO2 is produced, no industry where CO2 is produced, no commerce where CO2 is produced and, finally, no breathing.

    That should about do it…

  5. April 1, 2011 8:31 PM

    Over 70 of the increased energy demand is from developing countries led by China and India – China overtook the USA as top CO2 emitter in 2007. ..Nuclear power generation is an established part of the worlds electricity mix providing in 2007 some cf. It is especially suitable for large-scale continuous electricity demand which requires reliability ie base-load … ..The World Energy Outlook highlights the increasing importance of nuclear power in meeting energy needs while achieving security of supply and minimising carbon dioxide emissions.

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