US Should Markedly Expand Nuclear Power to Reduce Global Warming

by Ginosar  

Many different technologies and approaches should be used to reduce global warming. Here I am talking almost exclusively on nuclear power. (For opposing views see at end)

We have to plan our electrical power needs realistically and devoid of emotionalism. We oppose nuclear power stations mostly because of our misplaced fear. Public misperception is the biggest hindrance to generating electricity by nuclear power, and misunderstanding impacts also many energy professionals. Environmental groups contribute to the problem.

I have been on both sides of this issue for decades. As an electrical engineer for 20 years I supported nuclear power. But I started to oppose it during my doctoral studies of Environmental Science at UCLA. Afterwards, when I was the manager of the Solar and Wind Energy programs at the California Energy Commission I continued to oppose nuclear power and worked very hard to advanced alternative energies. I continued to oppose nuclear power until the last few years because of all the concerns surrounding it. I was mistaken; I did not see the total story.

It took me a long struggle to realize that I was mistaken to oppose nuclear power. I saw only its potential negatives, I did not study the full global energy picture. I was also overoptimistic about the speed of adoption of energy efficiency and alternative energies. And most important, I mistakenly believed that Global Warming was a future event that would not impact global climate for several generations. Like many environmentalists I thought we had time to do things according to our dreams without pain: develop alternative energies, incorporate conservation and energy efficiency, take time to minimize our fossil fuels use, eliminate nuclear power. I also did not anticipate the explosion of energy demand in the developing world. I, like many, read about these problems but did not want to accept the full global reality.

GW is the overwhelming primary issue of our time, and it is time critical. It is now very clear that GW is already here, is causing unstable weather globally with much damage, and will increase its ravage of many areas of our globe. The final report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was quite specific about the coming increased damage to our global climate and the pending severe impacts on most nations, including the US. But that IPCC report was subdued to satisfy political demand of several large emitting countries. In the last two years after the IPCC report evidence is abound that the most extreme predictions of their report were already exceeded. We have a very limited time frame to make very drastic reductions in the emissions of the total GHG. We must look at the global energy picture to grasp the increased need for nuclear power, despite its limitations.

The most significant advantage of nuclear power is the potential to reduce carbon emissions: "A threefold expansion of [global] nuclear power could contribute significantly to staving off climate change by avoiding one billion to two billion tons of carbon emissions annually" (MIT panel). Twenty percent of the US electricity is produced by nuclear power. The accumulated saving of global warming gases over the last quarter century by this nuclear power is 20 billions tons!

No other technology that is viable currently has the potential to reduce GW gases so significantly in the same time frame. We do not have the time to wait in order to avoid some of the most damaging aspects of advancing GW!

The most serious limitation to nuclear power expansion is negative public perception. The public fear of nuclear power is misplaced. Safety record of the 104 nuclear power stations in the US is very high. In addition, improved design of nuclear power stations and strict government supervision can reduce markedly all limitations:

 

The main limitations and mitigations are listed below:

1. Danger of nuclear radiation from plant accident:

The only significant nuclear accidents have been the Three Miles Island in the US, which did not emit any nuclear material, and the Chernobyl in the previous USSR. The damage from Chernobyl was on a large scale, it was due mainly to lack of a containment building above the nuclear plant which is mandatory on all nuclear power stations in the West.

New fail-safe system to power down runaway reactor is superior to existing safety measures and does not require external machinery.

Also control technology has advanced markedly in the last thirty years with the advance in electronics, and will increase the safety margin of new plants. We can easily have redundancy of necessary controls which were not practical in the past. In addition new nuclear plants can be placed far from population centers and use high voltage DC lines to transfer the power with low losses.

2. Concerns about inadequate nuclear waste disposal:

Although we still do not have a final solution to nuclear waste storage, all the commercial nuclear waste is stored safely at each nuclear station site. It occupies extremely small space and operated safely for the last fifty years. In addition, a new technology has been proposed that extract many times the energy from the nuclear material thus reducing the quantity of waste by a major factor.

3. Fear of nuclear weapon proliferation:

Nuclear weapon proliferation is not effected by increased use of nuclear power in the US. Three quarter of the nuclear plants are operating outside of the US. Other nations have been developing nuclear power for many years, if we want it or not. If we work with them on global safety rules we will reduce the total danger more than if we stay on the side.

4. Impact of terrorism:

New underground design reduces the potential for terrorist attack on nuclear installation. Heavier steel reinforced concrete over all critical plant equipment will increase safety. Private security companies are inadequate, or worse. We should use National Guard to protect our national energy centers to decrease national vulnerability.

There are 440 nuclear power stations globally, 104 in the US. Nuclear power now supplies 16% of global electric energy thus reducing markedly CO2 emissions. Global nuclear power continues to expand, a fact beyond U.S. control; eighteen of the 27 nuclear power plants now under construction are in Asia. The US can not dictate how much nuclear power will spread around the world, but if we cooperate with global nuclear power development, and help create global safety standards, we will increase the global safety and most importantly, help reduce GW progress.

Here are some additional realities to consider:

1.  Steady - human controlled base power is mandatory. It should be over 50% of the power mix, and is currently supplied by coal, natural gas, nuclear and large hydro. We must drastically reduce GW gases from fossil fuels by nuclear power and other avenues. Our hydro power is in danger; GW is expected to increase weather extremities, therefore reduce the availability of our hydro power in some locations, may be increasing it some other places. We do not know, but we do know it will change with time as GW intensifies. We should concentrate first on reducing our energy demands. In addition alternative energies should be incorporated into the power mix according to their effectiveness and ability  to reduce GW. They are inherently limited by nature, for example: sun is only at daytime, wind is not steady. Alternative energies can not provide reliable base power. Corn Ethanol is not environmentally desirable. It will take time to develop and install practical technology for mass use of biomass.

2. R&D on CCS, Carbon Capture and Storage, especially from coal should accelerate but it may take decades to prove and incorporate. Also this technology may be unreliable, and take immense storage space. It will also be hard to control its leakage because the storage would be widely distributed in uncontrolled underground spaces of various natures. If  some CO2 later escape it can kills immediately a large number of people and if the escapes are large, could also cause critical acceleration of GW.

3. China is adding one to two Gigawatts size coal plants a week. We can not influence them to reduce their immense CO2 emission, now higher than the U.S., when we in the US are pushing rapid approval of coal power plants to bypass impending limitation on CO2 emissions and carbon tax.

4. The American public will continue to demand more electricity and would conserve only in face of extreme events or if it was dictated by strict conservation laws. Our population continues to increase too.

5. Nuclear power generates by far the least GW gases of all alternative energies except wind energy.

6. Large scale electrical power can not be supplied reliably and economically from small distributed sources, such as the "Solar photoelectric on every roof." fantasy of the California Governor and Legislature. Buyers of these small systems are amateurs and as such subjected to price manipulation and unprofessional installation and repairs. These systems produce very little electricity at the highest cost of all alternatives, and as much as thirty to one costlier than attic insulation, for example. Central solar-thermal plants show considerably more promise for daytime solar power. Centralized power sources are bought, installed and operated by professionals that have both financial and technical acumen and therefore can generate the most cost effective, reliable energy.

Note: Both the German public and government support solar photovoltaic systems and spent over a decade and $60 billon to spread it across the land. Despite this intense and long effort by the summer of 2009 just 0.3% of the country electricity came from this technology, less than a third of a percent. If it was spread across more sunny places in the US it might have produced around 0.5% (half a percent). At the same time some 50 new coal power plants were being added to the rest o the coal plants in  Germany.

Germany have very little nuclear power, historically it is in love with its vast coal resources, just like the US.

7. Capital Cost of nuclear power is very high. Price is estimated be around $10,000 per installed kW with essentially current technology. Improved, next generation design may be different, we just don't know yet. Nuclear would be one of the technologies used to reduce GHG and the market place will have its say on this technology. However, government legal support and streamlining of the approval process should be available - but not any reduction of vigilance of the quality, safety and security considerations. The nuclear manufacturing industry, not power companies, has very dismal past with these issues and should be carefully monitored.

My Conclusion: Global warming is a significant and time-critical danger to humanity. Therefore

nuclear power should be available to replace many coal power plants (and retiring nuclear plants) in the coming years because it could reduce significantly generation of GW gases. We need any practical tool available!

I recommend substantial government support of nuclear R&D but no financial support beyond that.

Matania

Written originally November 27, 2007,

Updated, October 2009

To read opposing views: 2008 world nuclear industry status report: Global nuclear power, presented by the respected Bulleting of the Atomic Scientists click: http://www.thebulletin.org/node/4364

 

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