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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  1. a chemist - April 12, 2006

    Nuclear power is NOT clean power because of the nuclear waste. We would be living well now but condemn future generations to environmental disasters. To answer Swaminathan Venkataraman, its cheap now but not later. But since when did business care about the future.Its all about money now.

  2. veektor - April 12, 2006

    Nuclear power is the ultimate source of the earth’s power, but the source of the power is a long way away and so are the waste products (for that matter we are ALL nuclear waste products, if you consider anything beyond iron to be supernova-manufactured elements).
    Some of the most stable parts of the earth are located in Greenland, which contains rocks that are almost as old as the earth itself. It’s also the most inaccessible place on earth as far as terrorists go, it could be made impermeable to leakage, and it may offer the best place anywhere to store spent nuclear waste. Perhaps we should investigate this area before we condemn nuclear power as any more dangerous than oil from unstable countries, or coal which is environmentally toxic. Wind power? As long as it’s not in Robert Kennedy’s backyard (or in anyone who has comparable influence — in other words, forget wind power).

  3. Rod Adams - June 10, 2006

    I apologize for adding this comment so long after the initial post, but the internet “dinner party” seems especially amenable to late guests. I also hope that it is not too long; I can get windy on important issues.

    I do not understand why people that are very concerned about global climate change – as I am – often dismiss the possible contributions that can be made by replacing coal, oil and gas burning power plants with uranium fission heated power plants.

    If a power source is clean enough to run inside a sealed submarine for months at a time, it is at least worth talking about when discussing climate change. If that same power source can push a 9,000 ton submarine for 14 years on a few hundred pounds of fuel, that should also be a positive point. When you learn that those waste products would easily fit in the space taken up by my office desk, there is really something to think about! (As a former nuclear submarine engineer officer, I know a little about these characteristics.)

    The waste is potentially dangerous, but calling it deadly is actually a bit misleading. I have been digging around for more than a dozen years on the Internet and in large university libraries and I have yet to find a single instance of a human that was hurt or injured by exposure to the left overs from nuclear power plant operation. On the other hand, there are dozens of people killed every year by exposure to the waste products from burning or exploding natural gas and thousands killed each year from coal waste exposure.

    Of course, radiation, in sufficient doses can kill people. There have even been a few instances of radiation sources from medical or industrial uses getting lost and ending up in a place where they hurt or killed some people. However, the people, procedures and equipment involved in handling and storing used nuclear fuel are pretty darned reliable.

    When it comes to economics, it is instructive to take a hard look at the profits and stock price performance of the companies most closely associated with nuclear power. One small example is Westinghouse, a company with essentially one line of work – designing, building and servicing nuclear power plants. (The consumer products portion is in a different company.) In July 2005, BNFL, the parent of Westinghouse, put the unit on the market, expecting to receive about $1.8 billion.

    After a lengthy bidding process with dozens of interested companies taking a hard look at the company’s prospects, BNFL selected a winning bid by Toshiba in January of 2006 for $5.4 billion, more than 3 times the initial estimate. Think what you want, but that tells me a bit about the evaluation by some very hard nosed number crunchers.