Tag Archives: Renewables

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What Kind of Environmentalist Endorses Nuclear? An Informed and Realistic One.

There’s an interesting article on Slate.com today called The Pro-Nukes Environmental Movement: After Fukushima, is nuclear energy still the best way to fight climate change?

The article says what we’ve been saying for a while: that while renewable energy sources such as wind and solar are part of a clean energy mix, they simply can’t meet the world’s growing energy demands in the next few decades without some unforeseen leap forward in grid-scale energy storage. When the wind isn’t blowing, when the sun isn’t shining, and when you don’t have a way to efficiently store huge amounts of power, where does the power come from? Unfortunately in many circumstances, that need is filled by burning fossil fuels like coal and gas.

Nuclear’s reliable base load power, combined with advances in electrifying our transportation systems, is the cleanest way to get off fossil fuels that are, as this article says, cooking the planet.

But the article does raise some concerns – the same concerns that are always raised when talking about nuclear power: capital cost and waste. It also mentions the nuclear renaissance, which, before Fukushima, was underway as the world was recognizing the opportunity for nuclear to help us quit coal and reduce emissions.

The article concludes by talking about “next generation” technology: reactors that are able to efficiently burn the used-fuel and include even more redundant safe guards (our backups have backups).

I asked our policy director, John Stewart, to touch on the cost issue and explain a bit about next generation technology: How far away is it and what’s the hold up?

Well, first, let’s point out that “current generation” nuclear power is already very good – especially when you’re looking at the carbon issue.  A technology with zero carbon emissions in today’s operation is still going to be at zero in its next generation.  If it’s carbon you’re concerned about, today’s nuclear technology is unbeatable. I’m abstracting, of course, from marginal improvements in the way we build or refuel the plants – we can use cleaner trucks to deliver the uranium fuel to the plant, or lower-carbon concrete technologies when we pour the foundation, but that’s about it.

The reactor “generations” you’re talking about is a classification system developed by the US Department of Energy and described in detail at www.energy.gov.  Reactor technology has been advancing just like technology in many other areas over the past three decades.  In cars or phones or computers, we’ve all been aware of those advances because everyone buys the results.  In nuclear, reactors are advancing but virtually nobody in North America has been buying the results.  The reactors we see are mostly older technology, dating back often to the seventies and eighties.  They work just fine, they’re safe, they’re clean, they’re very economical, but they do not reflect the state of the art, which is mostly being bought and built in places like China and India – or will be over the coming decade or two.

So the short answer about next generation technology is it’s not far away, and the hold up is just demand.  Regulatory processes aside, advanced reactor technology is available – it’s largely a matter of building it.

DOE_ReactorGenerations

Source: http://nuclear.energy.gov/genIV/documents/gen_iv_roadmap.pdf

Conversations about cost have to be clear – are we talking about up-front capital investment, that is the plant construction cost, or are we talking about the average cost of generating a unit of power?  Nuclear’s record is very clear – it is one of the most affordable ways to get a unit of power in the long run.   It’s now selling for about six cents a kilowatt hour in Ontario, a real bargain especially considering how clean it is.  One of the main reasons is that the plants are so durable, lasting for fifty to sixty years.  When a capital asset is amortized over a period that long, capital costs can be very large and they still shrink in importance.  The unit cost of power over that six decades is very low. 

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The Nuclear Debate – Monbiot and Others Discuss the Pros and Cons

Yesterday, the Royal Society of Chemistry hosted a debate on nuclear. The issue at hand was whether it was possible for the UK to reach its 2030 emission reduction targets without the use of nuclear power. Arguing in favour of nuclear power was freelance journalist George Monbiot, and Malcolm Grimston, Research Fellow at Imperial College London. Arguing against was Greenpeace’s Doug Parr, and Roger Levett, an energy consultant.

We at the CNA encourage healthy debate on energy issues, one that weighs both the risks and benefits of all types of energy generation. We believe that nuclear power’s pros outweigh the cons. It is an integral part of Canada’s clean energy portfolio and must be a part of a national energy strategy.

Click to watch The Nuclear Debate on TheReaction.net

Each speaker made seven-minute opening statements. Here are some highlight points on each:

George Monbiot (pro):

  • On onshore wind: turbine construction is enough of a challenge as it is, but the lines required to connect them are worse and have not been commented on by Greenpeace
  • Solar: unbelievably expensive, poorly matched to time of electricity demand
  • If the UK maximizes its penetration for green energy, we can hit 45% by 2030 which is fantastic, but what do we do about the rest?
  • Given the public backlash against every energy option, maybe we should suggest rolling blackouts instead as a less controversial option

Roger Levett (con):

  • To defeat this motion, we can simply stop producing and start importing energy, or if we travelled abroad more rather than locally (because then carbon is attributed to the receiving country)
  • The problem is in overindulgence – we’d be better off with cars that don’t do 0-60 quickly without the safety features required for those speeds and the entertainment features to keep your kids entertained during those trips.
  • Local economies means less energy is required for transportation, so we can eliminate huge portions of our current energy use
  • Use a behavior-based approach rather than new energy supply (people should use less energy)

Malcolm Grimston (pro):

  • Believes it’s impossible to meet our target with or without nuclear, but nuclear is going to get us close.
  • There’s a fallacy that puts nuclear and renewable against each other
  • If I could reinvent the world I would leave out the 2nd law of thermodynamics
  • If we end up in a position of playing a game with millions of participants acting for their own situation, we’re in trouble. See John Nash.

Doug Parr (con):

  • Opening comment: disappointing to be on the opposite side of George Monbiot
  • Nuclear waste: we still don’t know what to do with it
  • Proliferation: if nuclear is the answer in the UK, it needs to be the answer everywhere. If you’re comfortable with nuclear power, you need to be comfortable with nuclear power in Africa & the middle east and other politically unstable territories
  • Nuclear unduly competes with renewables for share of investment capital

Each speaker then had the opportunity to reply to the others’ opening statements.  (See Monbiot and Grimston rebuttals!) Finally there was a Q&A with the audience.

A winner was called at the end with a house vote. The result of the vote was 63-9. Watch the debate to find out which side won.