Where are the smart nuclear advocates?

Enthusiasm for nuclear power among its advocates has found new energy lately and has generated reams of what they view as important arguments in newspapers, TV ads and industry forums. Instead of focusing on nuclear’s primary barrier to widespread use – economics – all manner of peripheral arguments are being made.  Their arguments can be categorized as: 1) the public’s perception of nuclear risk is misplaced and would improve with proper education; 2) nuclear is in competition with renewables and they are therefore the enemy; and 3) nuclear is the low carbon option for the future. The first argument is actually irrelevant; the second is rather silly.  The carbon argument could be useful to mitigate economics if there was a way to value it, but I doubt many large utilities and large industrials are avidly lobbying for carbon cap and trade or carbon taxes.  Without something like those measures, carbon reduction is simply a nice sentiment.

Public Perception

So what about the public?  The fact of the matter is that, at least in the U.S., public perception or nuclear hazards has not halted the construction of any nuclear power plants, nor is it likely to do so in the future.  What’s interesting is that this has been the case for the last 30 or 40 years, in spite of Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1982) and Fukushima (2011).

Check out the results of polls between 1977 and 2006.  The next figure shows the results of three separate surveys repeated on roughly a two year cycle between 1976 and 2006.  Public acceptance was over 50% until the TMI accident.  It remained below 50% until 1991 and has been above 50% through 2006.


Public Approval of Nuclear Power, 1977-2006

gallup

Source: NC State University

The figure below shows that a Gallup poll begun in 1994 and conducted annually from 2004 through 2012 shows that, with the exception of 2001; public acceptance has been above 50%.


Gallup Poll on Nuclear Power Favorability in U.S., 1994 – 2012

gallup2

Source: Gallup Group

I have a suspicion that many advocates simply assume that its public fears that halt new plants, without knowing the facts.

Renewables

Anyone who starts down the path of arguing for nuclear by arguing against renewables simply advertises their lack of knowledge as to how electricity is generated, transmitted and delivered.  Simply put, nuclear is base loaded power – power that is generating virtually 24/7.  It competes in a wholesale market that contains the cheapest sources of power available.  As demand rises, new generation is called, or dispatched, based on cost.  Until there exists economic grid scale storage for renewables they do not compete with base loaded power.

They do compete with renewables for subsidies, and lately renewables are getting a little more than the value of nuclear’s PTC, liability insurance, R&D and loan guarantees.  If one adds up all the subsidies nuclear has received for the last 50 years, it will take a very long time for the aggregate of renewable subsidies to surpass nuclear’s, however.

Carbon

Nuclear power plants emit virtually no conventional emissions and are viewed by some either as “zero-emissions” or as “carbon free.”   The table below shows the annual emissions of primary pollutants for three large power plants in Pennsylvania in 2009, as compiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Emissions Profile, Large Electricity Generating Stations 2009

     

Nitrogen Oxides

Sulfur Oxides

Carbon Dioxide

  Fuel

GWh

Tons

Tons/kWh

Tons

Tons/kWh

Tons

Tons/kWh

Homer City Unit 3 Coal

                    4,118

         4,507

          1.09

         55,431

              13.46

         4,165,058

         1,011.43

Fayette Energy Facility Natural Gas

                       983

               72

          0.07

                   6

                0.01

         1,176,466

         1,196.81

Limerick 1 Nuclear

                 10,019

0.0

0.0

0.0

                     0.0

0.0

                      0.0

Source: EPA

Nuclear has therefore begun to figure more prominently in national generation portfolios as part of carbon mitigation strategies.

This is, however, an area of controversy.  Like the electric car, emissions are not limited to what the device produces but what emissions occurred to construct and fuel it.  While the power plant does not emit carbon or other harmful compounds, the processes used to manufacture the fuel, plant construction, nuclear waste management and decommissioning all have their own carbon footprint.  And as with most technologies that are politically charged, there are studies that will support almost any position.

The IAEA conducted a study to assess the full range of emissions over the life cycle of the power plant.  The results of their most recent work are shown in the following table.

IAEA Life Cycle Carbon Emissions, Nuclear Generation

 

Grams CO2/kWh

Generation Source

Minimum

Mean

Maximum

Lignite

800

1,100

1,700

Coal

770

1,000

1,300

Oil

500

800

1,200

Natural Gas

400

500

800

Coal with Carbon Sequestration

10

100

300

Biomass

35

65

100

Solar PV

40

50

80

Wind

10

10

30

Hydro

0

5

35

Nuclear

3

7

25

Source: IAEA

A researcher at the University of Singapore surveyed 103 different life cycle greenhouse gas emissions studies involving nuclear power. Of that population he qualified a subset as havi8ng sufficient detail and appropriate methodology.  The result is summarized I this table.

Summary Statistics of Qualified Nuclear Life Cycle Emission Studies

 

Grams CO2/kWh

Life  Cycle Segment

Minimum

Mean

Maximum

Front-end

0.58

25.09

118

Construction

.027

8.20

35

Operation

0.1

11.58

40

Back-end

0.4

9.2

40.75

Decommissioning

0.01

12.01

54.5

Total

1.36

66.08

288.25

 Source:  National University of Singapore

The results of this survey give a more realistic appraisal of nuclear carbon emissions; nonetheless nuclear remains low in the list of alternatives. And as with all politicized discussions, you can find a study that supports nearly every position.

Smarter Advocacy

So why not be a smart advocate for nuclear?  Here’s how:

  1. End the endless churning of articles and op-eds along the lines of “If only the public understood how low the risks are,” or “Renewables will never be a significant source of energy/will never provide all our energy needs.”
  2. Deal with the real elephant in the room – cost.  It’s clear that the all in costs of new nuclear plants are more expensive than their alternatives in free market economies.  What is the value added that makes it worthwhile to pay a premium for nuclear?  That is the key to greater market penetration.
  3. Find value propositions that rationalize the premium.  One value added could be carbon mitigation.  Unfortunately it has no quantified value in the US at the moment, but could offset part of the nuclear premium if it were valued.  Nuclear advocates should get squarely behind any legislative initiative for a cap and trade market for carbon or carbon taxes that can be quantified and avoided.

 

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