By Eric Wesoff
Greentech Media, as the name suggests, focuses on renewable energy and a green sustainable future. There is contention in the green culture at large and in the Greentech Media offices as to whether nuclear can be categorized as truly “green.” (See the comment thread in this blog piece to witness contention amongst our readers.) Nuclear plants do not produce greenhouse gases but they definitely present a radioactive material and security risk. And uranium is certainly not a renewable resource.
But the bottom line is - nuclear power is part of the energy mix in the US and around the world and the nuclear waste produced is not going anywhere. 438 nuclear plants are operating today, more are being built, and the issue has to be dealt with.
Ariel Levite, the former Principal Deputy Director General for Policy at the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, spoke today at a talk sponsored by Stanford’s CISAC, the Center for International Security and Cooperation.
His talk addressed nuclear power and avoided nuclear weaponry and non-proliferation (another facet of CISAC’s studies).
Once at the forefront of the nuclear industry but now haunted by the legacy of Three Mile Island, the United States has fallen behind in nuclear science, engineering, and industry. Hamstrung by tight financing , a dismal record on meeting budget and schedule, a NIMBY mindset, and a timid political class - the US has been ambivalent about nuclear power’s comeback.
Despite having 108 nuclear plants in operation. 108.
But the rest of the world is hardly ambivalent about nuclear. And the US is no longer the role model.
Europe, specifically France, now sets the pace for nuclear power with 80% of their power produced from nukes in a closed fuel cycle process. China, Russia, Korea, India, and Japan have all entered what Mr. Levite referred to as, “a nuclear power reactor race,” and more than 50 countries are considering launching nuclear power programs. According to Levite, “There is real hype but real action might soon follow.” The installed base of nuclear power “might increase by a factor of 3-5 by 2050.” According to Levite - China has 11 plants under construction, and Russia, 8. He noted the recent Swedish decision to re-embark on an ambitious nuclear program after two decades of phasing out nukes, as well as nuclear power activity in Poland and the Baltic countries.
Some bullet points from his talk:
Factors driving this new nuclear zeal…
- Growing global energy demand
- Energy security concerns - in the aftermath of the most recent crisis, Europeans feel that they cannot rely on rationed gas from Russia
- Potentially substituting nuclear domestically to allow oil and gas exports
- Is there any way to meet carbon emission requirements without nuclear power?
Enhancing nuclear’s appeal…
- Western nuclear power and, to a lesser exent, Russian nuclear power has been proven reliable
- Better and bigger reactor designs
- There are only 7 major utilities operating nuclear power in the US - in this case consolidation is good
- Government incentives for low carbon emissions
- Potential for standardization
- Industrial bottlenecks are serious. This is an industry that has built only 4 reactors a year for the last few years.
- There is a shortage of nuclear engineers
- Reliable construction cost calculations are less than reliable
- Utilities lack efficient and affordable mechanisms for funding new nuclear construction
- Carbon emission subsidies are not clearly defined
- A sophisticated waste disposal challenge lingers on
- A NIMBY attitude affects selection of new sites
- Prospects for trouble abroad are significant
- If one nuclear reactor goes wrong, if one entity uses nukes irresponsibly - the entire industry will suffer
If the US is to re-enter this market, time is of the essence because it takes 3-4 years to license and 7-10 years to build a reactor. And all of the US’s reactors are 25+ years old and exceeding their expected lifetime.
Regarding the US response to the nuclear waste issue, Levite said, “The US has the least intelligent solution - spending billions on interim storage.” The question of storing nuclear waste is still in front of the US, “The US has to deal with the issue of nuclear waste regardless of whether they build any more reactors,” and saying that, “Yucca Mountain ain’t going to work,” because of politics and sheer capacity.
I am a knee-jerk environmentalist and have a visceral response to the word “nuclear.” But the more I learn and read, the more experts I speak with, the more my mind is changed - nuclear is a necessary part of the energy mix albeit with enormous risk.
These risks need to be confronted head-on by sound technology, policy, diplomacy, and science.
But as for floating Russian nuclear plants: Not a good idea.