Scientists Say Climate Change Should Propel Nuclear Energy to Prominence
Nuclear energyâs resilience was never more apparent than during the COP21 climate talks in Paris. It was there that a famed environmentalist and the one who has cautioned against the effects of global warming said that the carbon-free energy form should figure a lot more prominently into utility power generation.
That may be happening much more in the developing world as China and India move to clean their air, while also continuing to build their economies. But it is not such a sure thing in the United States, which has access to cheaper natural gas that makes such capital intensive investments as nuclear look economically unfavorable.
Still, thereâs breaking news: The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has given its Okay this week for NRG to build two new nuclear reactors designed by Toshiba Corp. The plants would be built near Houston, which is at an existing nuclear site. But it is unlikely that the facilities would get constructed anytime soon, given that the price could run well into the billions, or north of $14 billion.
Itâs not just the cost of construction, itâs also the fact that natural gas is so cheap, at around $2 per million Btus. Then thereâs the whole safety issue thing, stemming back to Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, all before Fukushima. Even with all that, some of the globeâs leading scientist say that nuclear power cannot be avoided.
“Nuclear, especially next-generation nuclear, has tremendous potential to be part of the solution to climate change,” said James Hansen, the NASA scientist who first raised dire warnings over global warming, at the COP21 conference in December. “The dangers of fossil fuels are staring us in the face. So for us to say we won’t use all the tools [such as nuclear energy] to solve the problem is crazy.”
And he was joined by Tom Wigley, Ken Caldeira and Kerry Emanuel with the University of Adelaide, Carnegie Institution for Science and MIT, respectively, as reported by Scientific American. Those scientists have been on crusade to push nuclear energy even before the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded with 95 percent certainty that humans are mostly responsible for global warming.
Will nuclear make a comeback? China, Korea, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and the UK are advancing nuclear production to address air pollution and climate concerns. China has 20 nuclear plants today and 28 more under construction â 40 percent of all projected new nuclear units, says the World Nuclear Association.
In this country, thereâs a strong case for building out more nuclear plants, the sector says: nuclear power accounted for 63.3 percent of low-carbon sources of electricity. Hydropower, by comparison, accounted for 21.2 percent while wind, geothermal and solar were 13.4 percent, 1.3 percent and 0.7 percent, respectively.
Thatâs why the industry is now banking on Southern Co., Scana Corp. and the Tennessee Valley Authority, which are actively developing nuclear plants.
Southern Co. and its partners are building two new units where two other nuclear reactors now reside. The total price tag is estimated at $14 billion. Southern expects its first unit to be operational by 2020 and Scana is on a similar timetable.Â Meantime, TVAâs Watts Bar II is expected to become operational this year and to generate 1,500 megawatts.
âPeople need information about their energy sources to determine the trade-offs,â says Christine Todd Whitman, former New Jersey governor, in a previous phone interview with this reporter. Here in this country, itâs about complying with the Clean Power Plan and reducing carbon emissions â something that renewables canât do alone, âespecially if you close all the nuclear plants.â
Whitman, who is also the former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator and who is now a board member for CASEnergy Coalition, a pro-nuclear group, adds that nuclear is a win-win, given that the fuel now in favor â natural gas â emits carbon and wonât be indefinitely cheap. Moreover, the country needs a diversified energy mix.
Critics of the nuclear movement are arguing that the industry has a long history of cost overruns that are ultimately covered by taxpayers â a force that has made investors wary and one that has slowed the regulatory process. In recent years, nuclear units that sell their output at free market rates â merchant facilities â have run into trouble.
Entergy Corp. and Dominion Resources Inc., for example, have said they are closing such merchant plants in Vermont and Wisconsin, respectively. Natural gas is just too cheap, right now.
Globally, it would be nearly impossible without nuclear energy to meet both interim and long-term carbon goals established at the COP21 accords: keeping temperature rises to not more than 2 degrees Celsius by 2050. Domestically, the fuel is needed to help the Obama administration achieve its carbon goals of 32 percent cuts by 2030.
So, whatâs the future of nuclear energy? While the developing world will continue to roll out those plants, the developed countries will find the investments too expensive, at least for a while. In time, though, the power source may become more of an imperative as climate demands grow and natural gas prices rise.
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