Lately the nuclear industry has been touting its ability to reduce the carbon emissions that contribute to climate change. Usually a straw man like coal that can be easily knocked over, is set up as a comparison. Generally the comparison is accompanied by a counting of megawatts, a wringing of hands and an assertion that we must have “base load” generation that can produce electricity 24/7.
Let’s be clear – no one is promoting the burning of coal or gas. It has got to be left in the ground if we are to reduce our impact on global weather patterns. The sooner we can do that the better. So called “clean coal” is an oxymoron as is “natural gas.” Both are but a gleam in the eye of a naive laboratory technician who has failed to calculate the time scale from idea through the regulatory process to implementation. Equally naïve are those folks who promote nuclear generation of electricity without considering all of the factors the construction of reactors entail. Fuel for the reactors starts as an ore that must be mined and like any extractive industry it creates huge piles of tailings that contaminate local communities and those who mine it. The production and storage of high level radioactive waste that is left at the end of the cycle when fuel rods are removed from the reactor is another factor frequently overlooked.
The number of nuclear reactors required to influence climate change is enormous and they cannot be built in the amount of time we have left to effectively influence the climate. Every reactor ever built has come in behind schedule and over budget. What is happening with new construction in Georgia and South Carolina is no exception. Georgia Power is building Vogtle with the help of a zero rate loan from tax payers. Georgia Power rate payers have seen nine rate increases in the last six years. The highly touted French reactor which was being built in Finland has stalled for the same reasons and is now in court for “technical difficulties.” The approximate cost of building a new reactor and getting it connected to the grid is 17 BILLION dollars and rising. So, in addition to huge construction problems, building multiple reactors is an impossibly expensive proposition.
While the nuclear industry has been limping along for the last 40 years the nature of our infrastructure has changed. The Independent System Operator who runs our grid now define base load as “the lowest level of power production needs during a season or year.” This is a huge shift from the way the term has been used in the past, which was generation that was available 24/7. That definition is over and done since base load is no longer the key to a sustainable grid. The ISO really does not care where the electricity comes from, how it is generated or how long the generator operates. In fact, operating 24/7 can be a liability. If the electricity being produced is not needed, the generator can be required to pay a disposal fee to the ISO. That has actually happened with Indian Point and other reactors. Running 24/7 with no ability to quickly turn off and on to meet market demands is now a liability, not an asset.
You can get a more accurate picture of what is happening if you compare our grid to the internet. Everything is connected and the system is much stronger with many points of production, or distributive generation, rather than mammoth, outdated, expensive projects that require an enormous capital outlay, usually from public funds.
Counting megawatts and trying to generate the exact same number when a unit like Indian Point is taken off line is equally a fool’s errand. The most efficient megawatt we can have is the one that is never built or used. It has no construction costs, no waste product, and no transmission fees. Not only that, but lowering peak electricity usage by paying large industrial users to cut back their usage at certain critical times counts in reducing the need for new generation. This demand response program is already in effect and, according to the ISO, will be expanded. Efficiency and conservation count too, even if you don’t see them on the industry score card. Another way to get to base load, the amount of megawatts our grid requires to operate, is through transmission improvements. Upstate New York has a surplus of wind power and bringing it down to NYC provides additional power with no additional generation. Governor Cuomo has encouraged this in his Energy Highway program and plans are already in place to make this a reality.
Electricity is but the fleeting by product of nuclear power. So, the next time you hear someone counting megawatts and wringing their hands about how many tons of coal or gallons of oil it would take to replace splitting the atom just tell them to wake up and smell the coffee. The rest of the world has moved on and they need to get with the program – something that is available now, creates new jobs, is truly green and can carry the world – wind and solar. The jury is in and it is not even a question any more.
Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition