Climate Change and Nuclear Power

April 2014

Marilyn Elie

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 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. It has got to be left in the ground if we are to reduce our impact on global weather patterns. So called “clean coal” is an oxymoron. Like the nuclear power in Pandora’s Promise it simply does not exist on a commercial scale. Both are but a gleam in the eye of a naive laboratory technician who has failed to calculate the time scale from idea to implementation. Equally naïve are those folks who promote nuclear generation without considering all of the baggage the construction of nuclear reactors entails.

The number of nuclear reactors required to influence climate change cannot be built in the amount of time we have left. Others like Amory Lovins have done the math and calculated the cost. I will merely point out that 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. 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 a new reactor is 17 BILLION dollars and rising. So, in addition to huge construction problems, building multiple reactors is also impossibly expensive.

While the nuclear industry has been limping along for the last 40 years the nature of our infrastructure has changed. The Independent System Operators who run 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, it seems is over and done.

The ISO really does not care where the electricity comes from 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. This has actually happened with Indian Point. 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 replace the exact same number when a generating 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 use by paying industrial users to cut their usage at certain critical times counts. This demand response program is already in effect and, according to the ISO, will be expanded. Efficiency and conservation count, 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. Upstate New York has a surplus of wind power and bringing it down to NYC provides additional power. Governor Cuomo has encouraged this in his Energy Highway program and plans are in place.

When it comes to nuclear power there are other factors that must be figured into the cost of the electricity produced. In four words they are waste, water, Wall Street and weapons.

Waste: no other means of generation leaves such a troubled and toxic legacy or generates material that must be sequestered from any contact with the environment for 240,000 million years – the half-life of plutonium. And who pays for storage? Not the corporation, that’s for sure.

Water: a public resource that a multibillion dollar corporation like Entergy uses for free and in the process leaves a damaged river for the rest of us. Indian Point is the largest user of water in NY.

Wall Street: that is, private capital, will not invest in nuclear construction because it is deemed too risky with little chance for profit. When a new nuclear plant is built, it is through government subsidies and increased bills for rate payers, something that could not happen in New York. In our deregulated market companies that generate electricity are required to pay for construction since they are the ones who will reap the profit.

Weapons: the world is awash in plutonium and no one knows what to do with it. What comes out of civilian reactors is essentially weapons grade material and we have enough in storage to blow up the world several times over. Is this a technology we really want to export to countries all around the world or continue to use domestically?

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 truly green and can carry the world – wind and solar.