With thousands of politicians and environmentalists meeting in Copenhagen to discuss ways to achieve major cuts in global carbon dioxide emissions, one might assume that the need for drastic increases in nuclear power capacity would be an obvious solution – a path forward upon which factions on both the Left and the Right could agree.
Alas, that is not happening. Instead, the Green/Left in the US continues its decades-long opposition to nuclear, all the while insisting that the only way forward is through greater use of alternative energy sources like solar and wind.
Los Angeles Times: Now and Way Back Then
Consider the unsigned editorial published by the Los Angeles Times on November 28. The piece, titled “No new nukes – plants, that is,” declares that nuclear energy “is not a reasonable solution because plants take too long to build and cost far too much.” California’s paper of record recommends, predictably, that the US invest more money in “renewable power sources such as solar, wind and geothermal,” as well as “solar thermal storage facilities and plants that generate electricity using biomass.” It concludes that “Nuclear power is a failed experiment of the past, not an answer for the future.”
That piece reminded me of another Los Angeles Times editorial that I found during some recent research at the Library of Congress. While looking for articles about federal price controls on oil and natural gas, I came across another unsigned editorial from the Los Angeles Times, published in May 1975 called “Natural Gas: What to Do.” At that time, the US was facing a shortage of natural gas, a problem that was largely caused by federal price controls on interstate gas sales. The Times declared that a windfall profits tax should be imposed on the gas producers who “failed to plow most of the profits back into the hunt for new supplies.” The paper went on to conclude that “The choice is not between cheap and expensive natural gas, because there is no such thing as a plentiful supply of cheap gas.”
Of course, there’s no way that the Times could have foreseen how the shale gas revolution would overhaul the US natural gas sector. But the paper’s stance on nuclear power is of a piece with the myopia of America’s most influential environmental activists.
Environmental Opposition, including Amory Lovins
Despite their ongoing insistence that the US must start using more low/no carbon forms of energy, the biggest environmental groups in the US remain adamantly opposed to nuclear. In 2005, some 300 environmental groups – including Greenpeace, Sierra Club, and Public Citizen – signed a manifesto which said “we flatly reject the argument that increased investment in nuclear capacity is an acceptable or necessary solution….nuclear power should not be a part of any solution to address global warming.”
And then there’s Amory Lovins, the Colorado-based media darling who has been opposing nuclear power for decades. In 1986, when asked about the future of nuclear power, Lovins declared flatly, “There isn’t one….No more will be built. The only question is whether the plants already operating will continue to operate during their lifetime or whether they will be shut down prematurely.” Since then, Lovins has repeated one of his favorite lines: “Nuclear is dying of an incurable attack of market forces.”
In 2007, when I interviewed Lovins, he declared that “a huge and capable propaganda campaign by the [nuclear] industry and its political allies is spinning an illusion of a renaissance that deceives credulous journalists but not hard-nosed investors.”
How did Lovins do on his prediction back in 1986? According to data from the International Atomic Energy Agency, about 130 new reactors with nearly 123,000 megawatts of generating capacity have been brought online over the past two decades or so. Those reactors represent nearly one-third of global nuclear capacity, which in late 2009 included 436 reactors with 370,000 megawatts of capacity.
As for his 2007 claim about the “illusion of a renaissance,” the numbers, again, are proving Lovins wrong. According to the World Nuclear Association, there are 53 new reactors now under construction with total capacity of more than 49,000 megawatts. And lots more reactors are on the way. Japan, the third-biggest producer of nuclear power (after the US and France), plans to construct 11 new reactors over the next decade or so. And the country plans to be getting 60% of its electricity from nuclear power by 2050 – double the current percentage. But Japan’s efforts will be miniscule when compared to those of China, which plans to build as many as 150 reactors.
Nuclear is Cost Competitive–With Wind and Solar (and Firm too)
The International Energy Agency sees nuclear as an essential part of the effort to stabilize global carbon dioxide levels. In its recently released 2009 World Energy Outlook, the agency expects global investment in nuclear power will total some $1.3 trillion over the next two decades. More importantly, the IEA’s latest report makes it clear that nuclear power is competitive with conventional power plants when it comes to cost. The agency “New nuclear power plants can generate electricity at a cost of between $55 and $80 per MWh [megawatt-hour], which places them in a strong competitive position against coal- or gas-fired power plants, particularly when fossil-fuel plants carry the burden of the carbon cost associated with the cap-and-trade system” that’s in place in Europe, and is proposed for the US.
The reality is that nuclear power is cost competitive with so-called “green” energy sources. The IEA projects that for power plants that begin operations between 2015 and 2020, nuclear will be among the cheapest options, even when compared to wind power and coal-fired power plants that use high-efficiency ultra-supercritical combustion. The agency estimates that nuclear power plants will be able to produce electricity for about $72 per megawatt-hour while onshore wind costs will be about $94 per megawatt-hour.
Furthermore, the construction costs for nuclear plants – even with the much-discussed cost inflation that has occurred in recent years — are still competitive with solar and wind projects.
Estimated Construction Cost of Various Electric Generation Plants
|Source||Construction cost per kilowatt of capacity|
|Nuclear||$4,000 to $6,700|
Sources: Wall Street Journal, New Energy Focus, Austin Chronicle, Austin Business Journal.
None of that is downplay the relatively high cost of nuclear power. In October 2009, the San Antonio city council delayed a vote on $400 million in bonds that were to be sold to support the municipal utility’s plan to build two additional reactors at the South Texas Project. The vote was suspended after reports surfaced that the two new reactors, with a total capacity of 2,700 megawatts, were going to cost a total of $13 billion, or about $3 billion more than previously expected. At the $13 billion price, that works out to about $4,800 per kilowatt. But that is still less than the cost of offshore wind power, which is about $5,000 per kilowatt and solar photovoltaic, which costs about $6,000 per kilowatt. In addition, several US companies are now developing modular nuclear reactors with outputs of 125 megawatts or less. If approved for manufacturing by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, those reactors should allow nuclear power providers to make significant cuts in the cost of their facilities.
Furthermore, comparing the initial construction costs of a nuclear power plant with those of coal and natural gas-fired plants is misleading because the long-term operating costs for nuclear reactors are lower than those for coal and natural gas. The reason: the fuel for nuclear reactors costs a fraction of what utilities pay to fuel their coal- and gas-fired plants over their lifetimes.
Natural Gas? or Nuclear? for the Carbon Concerned
None of this is to deny the attractiveness of natural gas. Given the recent drop in natural gas prices due to the shale gas revolution, gas-fired power plants are increasingly attractive. And gas-fired power plants emit about half as much carbon dioxide as coal while producing zero solid waste and essentially zero air pollution. But gas-fired power plants alone will not be enough to make the kind of drastic carbon dioxide cuts that we are told must be made to stabilize the Earth’s climate. Therefore, nuclear must be a major part of the energy mix. Despite these facts, advocates like the Sierra Club and Lovins – and of course, the LA Times — continue to claim that wind and solar can provide the scale of energy and power that will be needed to replace hydrocarbons and therefore reduce carbon dioxide levels.
That. Is. Not. Going. To. Happen.
Other than natural gas, nuclear is the only low- or no-carbon source that can make a significant dent in coal use. We may not like it, but we have to pick. In the near-term, meaning the next few decades, the obvious way to reduce the rate of growth in carbon dioxide emissions from the electricity sector is to increase the use of natural gas. Longer term, barring some miraculous breakthrough in energy storage technology, the only viable choice is nuclear.
 For solar, see: Katherine Gregor, “Cool City: Solar Subtleties,” Austin Chronicle, March 6, 2009. Available: http://www.austinchronicle.com/gyrobase/Issue/story?oid=oid:751802; and Christopher Calnan, “City council gives Austin Energy the go-ahead for major solar project,” Austin Business Journal, March 5, 2009. Available: http://austin.bizjournals.com/austin/stories/2009/03/02/daily49.html; for nuclear, see: Rebecca Smith, “The New Nukes,” Wall Street Journal, September 8, 2009, 3. Available: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204409904574350342705855178.html. Wind figure is for Sheringham Shoal offshore wind farm in the UK. Estimated cost is 1 billion British Pounds. In mid-September 2009, that was equal to about $1.7 billion. See: “Onshore construction begins for Sheringham Shoal wind farm,” NewEnergyFocus.com, September 7, 2009. Available: http://www.newenergyfocus.com/do/ecco.py/view_item?listid=1&listcatid=32&listitemid=2978§ion=Wind
 Jim Forsyth, “San Antonio sees cost for new Tex reactors rising,” Reuters, October 27, 2009. Available: http://www.reuters.com/article/rbssConsumerGoodsAndRetailNews/idUSN2726904520091027
Robert Bryce is the managing editor of Energy Tribune. His next book, Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future, will be published in April.