Sunday, June 26, 2016

Amid a Graying Fleet of Nuclear Plants, a Hunt for Solutions

Amid a Graying Fleet of Nuclear Plants, a Hunt for Solutions
New York Times, 21 March 2016, by Henry Fountain

Nuclear plants in the U.S. are getting old: between 2029 and 2035, three dozen of our 99 reactors are due to close.  It is possible that some plants could get their licenses extended, and four new plants are currently under construction; but with present energy policy it seems clear that we will see a major drop in nuclear power capacity overall in the coming years.  Nuclear plants provide 19 percent of our electricity now, and they emit no CO2 or other greenhouse gases.  When they close, they are generally replaced by coal or natural gas plants; it is difficult to replace them with solar or wind because those power sources are intermittent, whereas nuclear plants provide “baseline load” that can be relied upon at all times and in all weather.  The impending closure of these plants therefore threatens the ability of the U.S. to meet the pledges it made in the recent Paris climate talks.  Constructing new nuclear plants is difficult due to public opposition, pricing issues relative to other options, and the very long development and testing cycle required.

My take: This is one of the more interesting articles I’ve read in a while.  The problem it outlines is real and serious.  The rapid growth of solar and wind is clearly a positive development, but most analysts agree that that buildout is limited to perhaps about 50% of a typical country’s total energy mix because of issues of intermittency – where you get power from when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining.  Technological advances in batteries and in large-scale grid distribution may ease that constraint – but that technology is not here yet, and we don’t know for sure whether it ever will be.  Until then, we have to worry about where our baseline load is going to come from, and in general there are only three big options: nuclear, coal, and gas.  Decreasing nuclear thus means increasing fossil fuels, almost inevitably, as countries that have moved away from nuclear in recent years, such as Germany and Japan, have discovered.  This issue therefore poses a very real risk of missing climate targets, even amid the recent boom of solar and wind.  I personally am a strong advocate of nuclear power, for this reason, but I accept that other people see that question differently.  However, if you are anti-nuclear, you need to have a realistic alternative plan; a large buildout of underground storage of CO2, known as “carbon capture and sequestration”, is perhaps the only clear alternative, and has serious issues of its own, from cost to feasibility.  This article poses the problem quite starkly, and thus provides welcome coverage of a topic that gets far too little airtime in the media.  And I would note that putting a substantial price on carbon would help tremendously with this, by making nuclear more cost-competitive relative to coal and gas; it would then probably be the most cost-effective option for baseline load, which would allow the market to address this problem without further government intervention into energy policy.

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