It's not surprising that as events unfold in Japan, discussions about the safety and future of nuclear power continue to dominate news and media outlets. In last week’s blog, I made the case that while nuclear power has very little to do with distributed energy, it has everything to do with energy efficiency. But in all the conversations about nuclear power’s potential to curb greenhouse gas emissions and the possible hurdles and dangers associated with alternative sources like renewable energy and natural gas, there is no acknowledgement that how we use energy is also significant.
This week, in a piece entitle “The Devil We Know,” Slate’s Michael Levi spins out some possible scenarios for our energy future in the event that our current nuclear power plans are curtailed or terminated. Amid all the prognostication, one fact remains clear: increased regulation and possible dismantling of our current nuclear power plants is what will have the most significant impact on our energy supply and our plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
There are currently 104 nuclear reactors settled out throughout the country supplying 20% of our nation’s power. And those ranks won’t be expanding any time soon. According to the DOE, “Estimated costs for new nuclear plants have continued to rise, making new investments in nuclear power uncertain. In the Reference case, only about six new nuclear power plants are completed by 2035” (www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/aeo/pdf/trend_3.pdf). Even if those nuclear plants were to go online by 2035, the total energy supplied by nuclear technology would, according to DOE estimates, drop from 20% to 17% as renewable energy begins to pick up the slack.
It’s difficult to predict what our energy needs will look like 24 years from now, let alone determine exactly how our power supply may evolve and expand (or contract) over the next two decades. As a result, even if plans for the construction of new nuclear power plants are abandoned, it’s quite possible that other sources will quite easily fill the gap—specifically if the financial incentives currently associated with the expansion of nuclear power (including federal funding and tax breaks, as well as private investment) are funneled into other fields.
But because 20% of our energy supply currently comes from nuclear power, severely restricting—or eventually dismantling—current nuclear facilities will have a bigger impact. But just what kind of impact is debatable. Will costs go up? Will the electric car be killed once again? Will we find ourselves shackled to foreign oil for generations? (www.businessinsider.com/what-would-be-the-impact-if-we-discontinued-nuclear-energy-2011-3)
According to Levi, we can forget about significant economic impacts. “New nuclear development doesn't make electricity cheaper, since nuclear power plants tend to be expensive to build,” explains Levi. In fact, the DOE estimates that if every nuclear facility were shut down at the 60-year mark, electricity prices would increase by 4% over the next 25 years (www.slate.com/id/2288875). We need not expect an increased dependence on foreign oil if we abandon our current and future nuclear facilities, either. That is because nuclear power, as Levi explains, “displaces other sources of electricity, like coal and gas; it doesn't replace oil.”
If it’s not a cheaper alternative, and it cannot replace fossil fuels, why is nuclear power part of our nations energy supply? One answer: climate change. As I said last week, climate change is the new bogeyman, and all kinds of policy and funding is being thrown at the problem—including nuclear energy. Under the Waxman-Markey climate bill, the plan was to increase nuclear power by 74% by 2030 in order to curb greenhouse gas emissions. By keeping to the status quo—and supplanting coal for nuclear power—the EPA estimates that we will see a 50% rise in greenhouse gas emissions.
So far, other fixes have been met with skepticism. Could other low-carbon alternatives take the place of nuclear power? According to Levi, an EPA model attempted to answer this question by imagining a future with just a slight increase in nuclear power generation with the goal of identifying what other sources could take its place. While coal (with carbon capturing technology) and natural gas were highlighted as likely options, it should come as no surprise that renewable energy was deemed inadequate (due to its intermittent nature and the difficulty in storing its excess generation).
So once again, we find ourselves suffering not from a dearth in energy options, but from a lack of imagination. As I’ve said in the past, I fervently believe that current attitudes towards renewable energy are short sighted: We cannot continue to judge renewable energy based on its current incarnation, but instead should be focusing on where we want renewable energy to be in the next 5, 10, 20 years.
And what about energy efficiency? In the thousands of words crafted in service of nuclear power and its relationship to our national energy policy, only a small fraction have been used to discuss energy use. Our models are based on what we are currently using and how to fulfill our future energy needs—but that is the wrong track to take. We should be spending our resources—figuratively and literally—on finding ways to use our energy more efficiently while at the same time reducing energy demand. Instead of tracking where we might end up based on where we are headed, we should pick a future reality we want realized and then adjust our current course accordingly.
So what do you think? Could discontinuing or curtailing our current nuclear power supplies lead to an increase in even less desirable alternatives, like “fracking?” Can sustaining—or even increasing—nuclear power generation be justified based on the threat of climate change and the cumulative effect of carbon emissions? And why aren’t energy efficiency and demand reduction part of the conversation?