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The nuclear option

Editor’s note: we’re attending the Ceres conference on sustainable governance and blogging some tidbits from this gathering of leaders in sustainability.

Nuclear power plant We’ve blogged on nuclear energy before, so we were interested to see how the experts responded to a Ceres question: Does a low-carbon future depend on nuclear power?

Our take from the panel discussion: while the economics of subsidized nuclear energy make it attractive relative to “clean coal,” nuclear power is likely at most to maintain its current share of world energy production. The energy future is not nuclear.

Chris Paine from NRDC’s nuclear team convincingly showed that much of the world’s nuclear capacity is going to be decommissioned in the near future when existing plants reach their end of life. Safety issues slow the construction of new plants, leading to what Chris called “nuclear’s valley of death.”

We like Chris’ alternative solution: wind energy combined with natural gas (NGCC) to create low-carbon reliable power at 5-6 cents a kilowatt.

Swaminathan Venkataraman from S&P presented an alternative view, with a detailed analysis showing that in a carbon-constrained world, if carbon reaches $30/ton (3 times current TerraPass prices), nuclear was by far the cheapest non-renewable option at 6-7 cents a kilowatt.

Perhaps that’s the biggest takeaway. With energy demand soaring, it’s clear we need new generation capacity. A carbon market is desperately needed so that utility companies can make these 40-100 year investment decisions without playing guessing games on what the price of carbon will be.

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