We don’t often discuss nuclear power, primarily because we’re focused on distributed energy systems rather than utility-scale power plants. But, as many pundits and politicians have noted, the current tragedies unfolding in Japan have shone a spotlight on nuclear power. In light of world events—as well as the fact that nuclear power has experienced a resurgence as of late—it makes sense to discuss nuclear power; especially as it relates to clean energy and efficiency.
For those of us who were around during the era of the “No Nukes” t-shirts and Chernobyl, the rising popularity of nuclear power is confusing and disturbing. It wasn’t that long ago that the prevailing wisdom was that the costs of nuclear power—both in terms of the expenses associated with actual implementation, as well as present and future environmental impacts—outweighed any benefits.
In 2009, for example, the Environment California Research & Policy Center concluded that, “launching a nuclear power industry nearly from the ground up is too slow and expensive a process,” and instead suggested developing new and more stringent energy efficiency standards while also promoting renewable energy options. The Environment California also determined that even if 100 reactors were built by 2030, those plants would still only reduce total US emissions by 12% over the next two decades: “Too little, too late.”
In contrast, by taking the $600-billion price tag for those reactors and instead investing that money in renewable energy, the US could reduce its carbon pollution by more than half for the same period. When you add in the costs associated with running a nuclear power plant, clean energy is an even easier choice—delivering “five times as much progress per dollar as lowering pollution.” (http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/greenspace/2009/11/nuclear-power-less-effective-in-american-than-energy-efficiency-and-renewable-energy-says-report.html)
At the time, former US Nuclear Regulatory Commission member, Peter Bradford made this comparison in a statement: “Counting on new nuclear reactors as a climate change solution is no more sensible than counting on an un-built dam to create a lake to fight a nearby forest fire.”
Somewhere along the way, climate change superseded nuclear winter as the new bogeyman. In fact, even as Japan struggles to stave off a complete reactor meltdown … even as the country’s public health advisories continue to grow in both severity and volume … even as Japan will now find itself struggling to make up the 30% shortfall in its energy supplies as its nuclear facilities are shut down … even in the face of all these adverse effects, US policy makers continue to push for an expansion of our own nuclear power capabilities. Currently, the US has 104 nuclear plants in 31 states that together produce 20% of the nation's electricity. And for those of us in states like California (home of two nuclear power plants: Diablo Canyon near San Luis Obispo and San Onofre, between Los Angeles and San Diego), the dual dangers of earthquakes and tsunamis are not far fetched.
So what do you think? In downplaying and misrepresenting the capabilities of renewable energy (as discussed in my previous blog), was a vacuum created that allowed nuclear power to slip in as a “reasonable” alternative to fossil fuels? And what about backup power? Shouldn’t we expect reliability, redundancy, and safety from our large-scale power suppliers? Finally, is nuclear power yet another example of how we often defer to increasing energy supplies rather than focusing on decreasing energy demands?