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Nuclear Energy: At the Intersection of the Economy and the Environment

Two issues will be atop the minds of environmental leaders and energy managers as the nation chooses its next president: the economy and the environment, and how to successfully weave both together so that their companies are cleaner and more productive. One fuel has remained a constant: nuclear energy — an economic driver that emits no carbon emissions.

Globally, it would be nearly impossible without nuclear energy to meet both the interim and the long-term carbon goals that were set by United Nation’s last December: 50-80 percent cuts by 2050. Domestically, the fuel is needed to help the Obama administration achieve its carbon aims under the Clean Power Plan.

That final regulation released last August requires a 32 percent cut in carbon emissions by 2030, from a 2005 baseline. It gives full recognition to all new nuclear plants or those existing ones that make upgrades, although it does not give current nuclear plants any credit for carbon reductions.

“We can grow the economy and still have a healthy environment,” says Christine Todd Whitman, former administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in an interview with Environmental Leader. “But you can’t do it without nuclear energy. It is a huge booster to the economy.”

Whitman, who is also the former governor of New Jersey and the current co-chair of the pro-nuclear group CASEnergy Coalition, points out that the Chinese are installing four nuclear reactors with American technology that will account for 15,000 jobs in this country.

Nuclear energy, she adds, provides about 19 percent of this country’s generation mix but that it provides 63 percent of its carbon-free electricity. “Reducing carbon is economically beneficial,” says Whitman, noting that electricity generation accounts for nearly 40 percent of all carbon releases in the United States.

Adding more nuclear both domestically and globally is a win-win, she explains, given that the fuel now in favor — natural gas — emits carbon and won’t be indefinitely cheap. Moreover, this country needs a diversified energy mix, she says.

For three-plus decades, nuclear plants had become reliable and efficient, running at 90-plus percent capacity rates — more than any other form of electric generation. To top it off, no major accidents had occurred here, or elsewhere. Then Fukushima happened. And that caused the world community to pause and to re-examine its nuclear energy options.

The United States is soul-searching, again. Three relatively high-profile closures have taken place: Southern California Edison’s San Onofre Generation Station, Duke Energy’s Crystal River in Florida, Dominion Resources‘ Kewaunee plant in Wisconsin. The first two were caused by ongoing maintenance issues while the latter was caused by low natural gas prices.

In the case of Southern California Edison, the two mothballed reactors had provided 17 percent of the region’s electricity. That power will largely be replaced using fossil fuels, namely imported natural gas. As a result, the Breakthrough Institute is pointing out that the state’s carbon emissions will rise by at least 8 million metric tons a year.

Nationally, the country must decide what its energy priorities will be. It’s about measuring reliability with cost and cleanliness. There are trade-offs but the choices do not have to be mutually exclusive.

As the coal portfolio here wanes, the main options are hydro, wind and solar, as well as nuclear and natural gas fuels. By all accounts, natural gas is the path of least resistance because it is abundant and presently just as cheap as coal, while it is also relatively less problematic to get those plants permitted and built than it is a nuclear unit. Excluding hydro, wind and solar, by contrast, are gaining traction but remain in the single digits in terms of electricity generation market share.

Despite the setbacks, US-centered nuclear energy development is making some headway: Southern Company, Scana Corp. and the Tennessee Valley Authority are actively developing nuclear energy. With that, TVA’s Watts Bar 2 is expected to crank up later this year — long before 2020, which is when Southern Co. and Scana Corp. are to complete two units each.

“This will really help Tennessee manage its emissions under the rules of the Clean Power Plan,” regardless of how the various legal challenges should turn out, says Governor Whitman.

In their push to be greener and cleaner, companies are putting pressure on their utilities to do the same — to provide a mix of fuel options that produce less carbon but maintain reliability. While wind and solar may be grabbing the headlines, it is nuclear energy that is producing the best results.

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5 thoughts on “Nuclear Energy: At the Intersection of the Economy and the Environment

  1. What groups like CASEnergy Coalition fail to understand – as witnessed by a complete lack of acknowledgment in this article – is that (1) the American public still thinks nuclear power is inherently unsafe and (2) that there simply is no safe and sustainable way to get rid of nuclear waste.

    As far as the first point goes, you would think that with our need to drastically cut back on carbon emissions that building nuclear power plants would be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, there are still too many Americans said are terrified of science and don’t want to listen to scientific consensus namely that the latest nuclear reactor designs are not only safe but far more energy-efficient.

    As to the second point, even if we bury it deep in the ground, no one wants a truck were trained carrying nuclear wastes rolling through their town. Too bad the DOE doesn’t sponsor research into making nuclear waste recyclable or at least finding a safer way to dispose of it.

  2. This is just more BS from the nuclear sector. First of all noone mentions less consumption and energy efficiency as the number one most efficient power supply. If nuclear is so important and efficient, why have plants been mothballed? Oh wait its because when they are unsafe, the consequences are devastating. They say “hey look their have been no accidents” and its a darn good thing because when there are its completely annihilating and irreversible. Do we really want to risk that, do we really want to increase the odds of it happening by having more operating. Why not retro fit currently existing ones to use thorium and burn nuclear waste with it. No? Why? Because they don’t get the job benefits of building a brand new plant. Still hooked on the growth economy. Still business as usual.
    Putting more money into clean, ever present, natural earth resources like wind, solar, and wave (whwhere we don’t have to dig up a fuel source) is a no brainer. Turning to extremely dangerous waste producing nuclear because its cheaper than coal or gas means you have no brain.

  3. Hi, lot’s here to respond to. And I’ll just raise the points as opposed to flesh them out. The nuclear waste issue is not one discussed in this piece and I will need come to back to it. But from my previous talks with industry, it is happy — for now — to keep the waste on site. Yucca Mountain, as a permanently burial site is dead. WIPP may or may not be considered; it has some nuclear waste already there. I think cost is the major impediments, above any other issue. The safety issue: new technologies are making Fukushima-like accidents nearly impossible.

  4. So much to respond to! Lets focus on Money. The new nukes at North Anna (Virginia) and at Hinckley Point (UK) are scheduled to produce electricity for a cost in excess of 16c/kwh and take 10+ years to complete. New solar is being built at 3 c/kwh in less than a year. “Wait longer/pay more” seems to the the unspoken theme of this story.

    “The chairman of Chine State Grid (China’s largest) Liu Zhenya reportedly said the “fundamental solution was to accelerate clean energy, with the aim of replacing coal and oil.”

    “The only hurdle to overcome is ‘mindset’,” Liu said. “There’s no technical challenge at all.”

    “But according to Tim Buckley, from the Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, the idea of “base load” generation as an essential part of the energy mix is becoming redundant, and turning into a myth … ”


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