Editor’s note: Today, Choose Energy reporter Jenna Careri continues a series of articles on nuclear energy, where it stands in the U.S. and where it’s going. Click here to read from the beginning. Or jump to Part 2 and Part 3.
Subsidies, phase-outs, and decarbonization mandates inundate the U.S. energy industry, flying through legislation at an increasing pace. The question for most people is no longer whether we should decarbonize, but rather how. Are renewables the answer? Does natural gas count? What about energy storage, the long-awaited yet imperfect promised land?
Among this archipelago of energy quandaries, nuclear power sits on an island – to some spelling disaster and destruction and to others standing as the only chance for survival. Proponents ask, “Can we afford to lose it?” Dissenters, “Can we afford to keep it?”
“This depends on your definition of decarbonization,” said Bret Kugelmass, founder of the Energy Impact Center. “If you are referring to eliminating annual emissions, it’s likely impossible without nuclear, and would require incredible unforeseen leaps forward in a range of other technologies.”
As for capturing existing emissions, he says, that’s a reality that is only possible with nuclear. But with public fear of one of the world’s prominent power sources at an all-time high, nuclear is not everyone’s top choice to solve climate change.
Decarbonization, and how to get there
It’s no secret that nuclear power has its own set of issues. Among them, the fact that the plants of today were built to run nonstop. They aren’t designed to be flexible, adapting to demand when solar and wind options come in strong.
But it is a base-load power source, an asset that renewables lack, says national security consultant Steven Curtis, part of former legislator Jim Marchant’s NevadansCAN team that promotes safe uses of nuclear power.
“The efficiency and availability of solar and wind do not lend themselves to be a base-load (on all the time) power source,” he said. “People will simply not tolerate doing without electricity and transportation, even for a microsecond.”
Hydropower is another suitable base-load source, Curtis explains, but the country has already largely run out of places to build dams. This leaves coal and natural gas plants to fill the gap, to the dismay of climate scientists.
“A high level of renewables induces the necessity to have power sources that you can use whenever you need and at the level you need,” said French energy expert François Le Scornet of CarbonExit Consulting. “It is often provided by energy sources like gas-fired power plants.”
Countries are rapidly shifting the dialogue towards zero-carbon and low-carbon solutions. When solar and wind energy are supplemented by fossil fuels, that position is undermined. All of this could change, though, with the mass production of reliable energy storage options.
“A breakthrough in energy storage technologies could completely change the energy landscape in favor of intermittent [renewable] sources,” he said.
But new battery technologies capable of large-scale storage may still be a long way off. So for now, renewables need a base-load source able to cover their gaps, one that is, preferably, low or no-carbon.
“If solar and wind power were supplanted with nuclear power instead of coal and natural gas, the green power revolution would greatly benefit,” said Curtis. “Both have their place and should be used toward the best benefit for society to bring about a reduction in fossil-fuel use to produce energy.”
The bottom line? A decarbonized world without nuclear just isn’t realistic with the energy technology available now.
“The reality is that there is no real plan to decarbonize. There are only legislated goals that are like children’s Christmas wish lists.”
“I suppose it is possible, but anti-gravity is possible. The question is can our quality of life be sustained in a decarbonized world?” Curtis said. “The reality is that there is no real plan to decarbonize. There are only legislated goals that are like children’s Christmas wish lists.”
An opportunity within unrest
As cities race toward “100 percent renewable” goals and enact carbon-free legislation at a staggering rate, it is all the more important to think about today’s energy realities.
“Despite its drawbacks, nuclear is considered as one of the key solutions to fight climate change. The contribution of nuclear power increases significantly under all IPCC (United Nations) scenarios which aim to keep global warming under 1.5°C,” said Le Scornet.
Regardless, as economies and the energy industry currently stand, nuclear could face a decline as steep as 66 percent less power by 2040, with a price tag of $1.6 trillion to make up the energy supply lost. Without some changes, a post-nuclear world might turn into anything but a simple thought experiment.
“Less pollution will be absolutely demanded by this generation and that will drive markets for the next 50 years,” Curtis said. The key is to reduce pollution in a sensible manner that does not destroy our quality of life before it improves our quality of life.”
Kugelmass believes nuclear is a necessary piece to that puzzle. He proposes not just maintaining current nuclear contributions but ramping them up further.
“If we lost all nuclear generation, the effects would be detrimental surely, but a modest change from the rather terrible status quo we’ve become accustomed to,” he said. “The existing 20% generation is a model of what could be. We could restore thousands of local habitats to pristine condition and save over a hundred thousand US lives annually through avoided air pollution-induced deaths.”
A study from MIT researchers found that by and large the least risky – and least expensive – options for going carbon-free combine renewables like wind and solar with less volatile resources including geothermal, bioenergy, and nuclear.
If the U.S. is to assert its energy dominance, decarbonize, maintain a reliable grid, and make energy equally or more affordable than it is now, deleting viable power sources from the mix may be a debilitating mistake.
“When we start buying nuclear power plants from China, as we do solar panels today, we will not only have sacrificed an incredible economic opportunity but our sovereignty as well,” said Kugelmass. “We stand at a crossroads: assume leadership in ushering humanity into a new era of environmental and economic prosperity, or let our fears relegate us to at best, a shadow of our former greatness.”
Next in the series: A changing energy landscape, July 25.
Jenna is a writer covering the environment and energy industry. She is a Massachusetts native and graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and French.