Climate Science, Nuclear Power, and a Renewable Energy Future

, director of energy research, Clean Energy | November 8, 2013, 7:54 pm EDT
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Contrary to the public assertions made this week by some of our climate scientist friends, nuclear power is likely to have a limited near-term role in avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. Renewable energy technologies are cheaper, less risky, and ready for deployment today. A look at where things stand with both nuclear and renewables bears all that out.

Earlier this week, climate scientists James Hansen, Ken Caldeira, Kerry Emanuel, and Tom Wigley, sent a letter “to those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power,” calling for the expansion of nuclear power to fight global warming. They also claim that renewable energy sources cannot be scaled up fast enough to address the problem. While we have tremendous respect for these scientists and their research on climate change, we will have to agree to disagree on this issue.

Nuclear power is not a near-term climate solution

UCS does not take a position for or against nuclear power, but has worked for more than 40 years as a nuclear power safety watchdog. Because the need to reduce global warming emissions is so large and urgent, we don’t want to take nuclear power off the table as a potential long-term climate solution. However, our position is that for an expansion of nuclear power to be considered an option, it must be safer and more secure than it is now and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission must become a more effective regulator. (For more details, see this 2007 report).

In the letter, the scientists point toward new technologies and designs to solve some of the current problems with nuclear power. However, as UCS nuclear power safety experts have described elsewhere, new technologies such as Small Modular Reactors and Integral Fast Reactors, have not been proven and are therefore not available for near-term expansion.

It typically takes 10 or more years to get a new nuclear plant permitted and built in the U.S.  In contrast, more modular technologies like wind and solar can be permitted and built in 2 years or less.

Nuclear power is too expensive

Building new nuclear plants is a much more expensive way to reduce emissions than many renewable energy technologies and other low carbon alternatives, as shown in two recent UCS reports:

  • Our Water-Smart Power report shows that increasing nuclear power and coal with carbon capture and storage to meet U.S. carbon emission reduction targets would significantly increase consumer electricity bills, while a high efficiency and renewable energy scenario would save consumers money and dramatically lower water use (see Figure).

EW3 Electricity Prices and Bills

  • In a 2012 report, we showed that the Vogtle nuclear plant, which is currently under construction in Georgia, and the proposed Levy nuclear plant in Florida, would be more expensive than energy efficiency, natural gas, and many renewable energy technologies (see Figure). This was the case even when $6 billion in federal loan guarantees were included for Vogtle. Since we released the report, the cost of Vogtle has escalated by over $1.6 billion, and the total cost of Levy escalated to $24 billion and was ultimately cancelled.

Alternatives to Vogtle and Levy

The cost of renewable energy is falling

While the cost of new nuclear plants has been escalating, the costs of wind and solar have been falling. As discussed in my recent blog, project data from the U.S. Department of Energy shows that average U.S. prices for wind power dropped 43 percent between 2009 and 2012. The average installed cost of solar photovoltaic (PV) systems has also fallen about 60 percent since 2009, according to a Solar Energy Industries Association report.

Average Solar PV System Prices


Renewables are being deployed at record levels

U.S. wind power capacity more than tripled in the U.S. between 2007 and 2012, while U.S. solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity expanded by a factor of five over the past three years, as we showed in our Ramping up Renewables report. Both technologies broke records in 2012, with over 13 GW of wind and 3.2 GW of solar PV representing more than half of all new generating capacity installed in the U.S. In contrast, the 5.5 GW of new nuclear capacity that is currently planned or under construction in the U.S. will be mostly offset by the 4 GW of existing nuclear capacity that was announced for closure this year at four U.S. plants.

Many states and countries are already achieving higher levels of renewable electricity than many thought possible just a few years ago. For example:

  • Nine states generated more than 10 percent of their electricity from wind power in 2012, with Iowa and South Dakota leading the pack at 24 percent.
  • Xcel Energy recently broke a U.S. record in Colorado for generating 60 percent of its electricity from wind during an hour when the winds were strong and electricity demand was low.

Numerous studies by the government agencies, utilities, and regional grid operators show we can achieve much higher levels of renewable penetration, while maintaining a reliable and affordable electricity supply. For example:

  • A 2012 National Renewable Electricity Laboratory study shows that renewable energy can provide 80 percent of U.S. electricity generation by 2050, using technologies that are commercially available today, while meeting electricity demand in every hour of the year in every region of the country. It also reduced power plant carbon emissions by 80 percent.
  • A new study by PJM — the grid operator in the Mid-Atlantic states — found that wind and solar could supply 30 percent of the region’s electricity by 2026, as described in this UCS blog.

Before calling for a nuclear renaissance to address climate change, let’s take a closer look at the facts. While nuclear power should not be taken off the table as a long-term climate solution, it is still too expensive and risky to play a significant role in the near-term. In contrast, renewable energy is already delivering significant emission reductions and is poised to play a much greater role.

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  • Charles Gougeon

    What ever happened to Hydrogen fuel cells? It seems that Hydrogen would really be an excellent alternative to fossil and maybe a few of these others, especially to run your automobile. The manufacturing of liquid hydrogen cannot be too complicated.

  • Phil Morris

    The London Array is the largest offshore wind farm in the world, takes up 100 sq. km of ocean and with a nameplate capacity of 630 MW will likely have a maximum generating capacity of 315 MW. BY 2025 production of electricty by fossil fuels is estimated to be 18,300 trillion kWh i.e. the installed capacity will be about 2 million MW. This would require the equivalent of about 6500 ‘london arrays’ at a cost of 23 trillion dollars and occupy a ‘mere’ 650,000 sq km. If these wind farms were installed around the coast of the USA they’d occupy a depth of 30 km. And that’s just replacing fossil fuel for electricty production, which is about 30% of all CO2 emissions. What do we do with the other 70% – we cannot stop making steel, or cement, or stop industry from functioning, stop land use etc. etc. We’ll likely have to sequester CO2, which current research, limited though it is, indiates a sequestration energy requirement of about 2000 kWh per tonne of CO2. To start removing excess CO2 from the atmosphere at a rate that prevents us exceeding 450 ppm (an artifical and likely too high value anyway!) we need to sequester CO2 at a rate of about 3 Gigatonnes/year starting in 2025, and increasing that amount by a further 3 GT/year therafter. Thus each year we’d have to build another 2200 ‘london arrays’ each and every year thereafter. Not likely is it? The economic cost problems re nuclear is because there’s no standardized approach – every one is more or less custom built. And the current design of pressurized light water reactors is expensive anyway. Add to that the cost of processing uranium into fuel rods, plus cost of disposal its hardly suprising nuclear is pricing itself out of business. Of course, against that is the cost of NOT doing anything meaningful re climate change. What is needed is a Manhatten style project to accelerate the development of thorium molten salt reactors, a technology that is walk away safe; produces far less radioactive byproduct that uranium 235 based reactors; has significant proliferaation resistance because of the production of Uranium 232 byproduct; and can be run at normal atmospheres. Yes therfe are engineering issues to be solved, and yes there are still issues regarding radioactivity, but these must be considered in the light of what will happen if we don;t prevent a runaway greenhouse effect – an effect that is more and more likely with every passing year where tokenism rulles the day!

    • Steve Clemmer

      Nobody is suggesting that we replace all fossil fuels for electricity or other uses with offshore wind or any one single technology. That is not a practical or economically viable solution. Many renewable energy technologies are available that could be deployed on a much larger scale to replace fossil fuels and nuclear power, including onshore wind, solar photovoltaics, concentrating solar thermal plants, biopower (stand-alone, CHP, and CCS), geothermal (hydrothermal, and enhanced geothermal systems or EGS), ocean (thermal and tidal), and hydro (run of river, adding power at existing dams, and increasing capacity at existing hydropower projects) to name a few. NREL’s Renewable Electricity Futures study shows that many of these technologies would be deployed to achieve 80% of U.S. electricity from renewables by 2050. In addition, many cost-effective technologies are currently available to improve energy efficiency in buildings and industry that can and should be deployed at the same time. Many studies by UCS and others show that together efficiency and renewables can go a long way in replacing both fossil fuels and nuclear power and achieving U.S. emission reduction targets, while maintaining a reliable and affordable electricity system.

      This UCS piece raises concerns about the safety, proliferation, waste disposal, and economic risks of thorium molten salt reactors that question the viability of this technology as a promising climate solution:

  • Sean

    Your on shore wind costs are WAY too high, please update them

  • Richard

    The NY Times has an article in today’s paper about the extent to which PV solar power has become a reasonable and efficient means of producing electricity in Europe. It notes that about 7% of Germany’s needs are being met this way now. I encourage people to read the article.

  • I am a retired geologist who has worked in both the oil and portland cement industries for many years and I find a compelling argument for extensive use of many forms of energy production for the coming decades, as Clemmer has pointed out. However, the continued use of carbon-based fuels for power generation is not environmentally advisable as it takes us further down the path of an increasing rate of climate change and irreparable damage to the Earth. All subsidies to the carbon-based fuel producers should be terminated. Why should we subsidize these industries, the causes of most of our atmospheric problems? I believe we must exert every effort possible to wean ourselves from a dependence on carbon-based fuels and make renewable energy sources the norm.

    A reasonable solution to our predicament is the revenue-neutral carbon-tax/dividend, the monies returned 100% to the citizens and not to the government. Based on the potential carbon dioxide measured at the oil/gas well site, coal mine, or port of entry, the fees are calculated per ton of potential carbon dioxide, according to the proposal advanced by the Citizens Climate Lobby. Fees increase yearly, stimulating the development of other forms of energy production, clearly a market job producing response. Carbon taxes are already accepted in many countries. As a result, renewable energies, particularly wind and solar, are becoming competitive with coal.

    Granted, the amount of energy we will need will not be totally supplied by renewable methods. For remaining coal-fired energy plants a program of geologic sequestering of emissions might be acceptable, but only temporarily as these storage mechanisms may have a limited effectiveness due to geochemical and geophysical reactions in the storage reservoirs. Even nuclear energy, perhaps the breeder reactor, or something similar, will probably be employed. Domination by the carbon-based fuel industry has squelched much research in fusion processes. Clemmer did not mention geothermal sources of energy producing steam to turn the electrical generators. Geothermal energy production is already a practical, environmentally safe fact in many parts of the world. We must buy some time (decades) for the rate of climate change to eventually lessen its impact, otherwise our future is even more seriously threatened.

    • Steve Clemmer

      UCS strongly agrees that we need to remove subsidies for fossil fuels as well as other mature and established industries like nuclear power that has already received hundreds of billions of dollars of direct and indirect government subsidies over the last 50 years. Subsidies can take many forms, including tax breaks, accident liability caps, direct payments, and loan guarantees. While the exact value of these subsidies can be difficult to pin down, this 2011 UCS report estimates that the subsidies for both existing and new reactors have been so large that they have exceeded the market value of the power in some cases:

      The subsidies for nuclear power have been much greater than other technologies. For example, a 2008 Congressional Research Service report shows that nuclear power captured 54 percent of all federal research dollars between 1948 and 2007. A 2009 International Energy Agency (IEA) report shows that nearly 40 percent of IEA member-country energy research and development (R&D) between 1974 and 2007 went to nuclear power. While some continued R&D for developing safer and more advanced reactors is warranted, this must be balanced with the need for increased R&D for renewables, efficiency, and other promising low carbon solutions.

      As mentioned above, UCS strong supports geothermal as a promising and affordable climate solution, and believes more R&D should be directed at advanced technologies such as enhanced geothermal systems.

  • James Makepeace

    The graphs with this article all appear to show system costs against efficiency over time. They would tell a very different story if they showed the percentage of power generated by renewables in relation to global demand.
    The fact is that, while renewables have their place and should most certainly be developed, they struggle to match the ability of other technologies to meet the ravenous demand for energy which we face today.
    Yes, we must stop producing CO2 and we must also recognise the limited nature of fission energy, as well as dealing with its safety and radioactive waste storage issues, but these actions alone will not solve the problem. Successive governments the world over have paid lip service to fusion energy research which is, by its very nature, a very expensive undertaking, but the reason we don’t have fusion energy today is that funding for fusion research is always cut back when the going gets tough. Remember there are two realistic approaches to fusion energy production… the so-called “magnetic confinement” approach (ITER now building in France)and the “inertial confinement” approach (the National Ignition Facility in USA using very powerful lasers). The laser approach is now moving rapidly ahead with a serious breakthrough in the fusion physics (see BBC Science “Future Fuels”). THIS is where we need to be putting the research effort … IF we really want to keep the lights on while also keeping our planet safe !

    • Steve Clemmer

      While the share of non-hydro renewables is still fairly modest at the national level (5.4% in 2012), a more important metric from a climate perspective is the recent and future growth of renewable energy compared to other low carbon technologies. Richard’s example above, and the others I provide in my blog and in our Ramping up Renewables report show the significant and growing contribution wind and solar power is making in many states, regional power grids, and other countries. Many states and countries have also made commitments to increase renewables to much higher levels. For example, 29 states have renewable electricity standards that require utilities to supply a growing share of their electricity from renewable energy sources; 17 states have targets ramping up to 20% or more by 2025. Germany has a binding target to produce at least 35% of its electricity from renewables by 2020 and 80% by 2050. Even China has a near-term target of producing 100 GW annually from wind and is considering doubling its solar target to 40 GW by 2015. This tremendous growth in renewables, and transition away from fossil fuels, is what will reduce carbon reductions. In contrast, nuclear power has been flat or declining nationally and globally.

  • Ben Haller

    This post does not seem entirely honest and unbiased. Why lump nuclear together with CCS, dragging down nuclear with the high cost and problematic implementation of CCS? Similarly, why lump renewables together with greater energy conservation/efficiency, thus magically making that option have lower electricity bills than “business as usual”? If you lumped nuclear with energy efficiency, and renewables with CCS, the graphs would look dramatically different. So it feels like the ostensible issue here, nuclear vs. renewables, is being deliberately clouded by the way that CCS and energy conservation is being incorporated into the analysis. This is not the sort of objectivity that I expect from UCS.

    • Steve Clemmer

      Thanks for your question. As described in more detail in our peer-reviewed article in Environmental Research Letters, we chose these scenarios to illustrate a range of potential outcomes that would likely produce significantly different modeling results with respect to water use while achieving a power sector carbon budget. Nuclear and coal with CCS are low carbon technologies that have high levels of water withdrawals and consumption, while energy efficiency and most renewable energy technologies use little or no water (natural gas is in the middle). You are correct that different combinations of technologies could be deployed to achieve the assumed carbon budget that would have different cost and water implications. But these scenarios would likely fall within the range of cost and water results we show in the analysis.

      But even without combining nuclear with coal with CCS, new nuclear plants were among the most expensive technologies for generating electricity in our analysis. For example, we also ran a carbon budget scenario without any targets prescribed for specific technologies. Under this carbon budget scenario (shown in the charts), renewable energy (primarily wind and solar) and natural gas were the technologies the model chose as the lowest cost to meet the carbon budget. Nuclear power was nearly phased out by 2050 under this scenario as existing plants were assumed to retire after reaching a 60-year lifetime, and no new nuclear plants were built to replace them because they were too expensive compared to other low carbon options. Nuclear was also nearly phased out under our business as usual case — in which natural gas was the dominant technology for meeting U.S. electricity demand — for the same reasons.