The self-limiting future of nuclear power, Part I
My analysis on nuclear power for the Center for American Progress Action Fund is finally finished and online. I think you will find it useful because it has many links to primary sources and tries to avoid the typical discussions by nuclear proponents and opponents, focusing instead on the rapidly escalating cost of nuclear power.
My point in this paper is not to say nuclear power will play no role in the fight to stay below 450 ppm of atmospheric CO2 concentrations and avoid catastrophic climate outcomes. Indeed, I even include a full wedge of nuclear in my 14-wedge “solution” to global warming — though as will be clear from the study, “The Self-Limiting Future of Nuclear Power,” that achieving even one wedge of nuclear will be a very time-consuming and expensive proposition, probably costing $6-8 trillion.
Fundamentally, the large and growing risks from climate change, particularly the real danger that failure to act now means we will approach a horrific 1000 ppm by century’s end, mean two things:
- We must seriously entertain any strategy that can significantly reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
- We must focus on the lowest-cost options first, because we simply don’t have an unlimited amount of capital.
My primary point in this paper is to shatter the widespread myth among conservatives — and others — that nuclear power will be a dominant solution to global warming. No. It is extremely unlikely to even be 10 percent of the total solution. This is particularly true in the United States, where we have so many more cost-effective alternatives now, as I explain in the paper, including energy efficiency, wind power, solar photovoltaics, and concentrated solar power.
Here is the executive summary of the report:
Nuclear power generates approximately 20 percent of all U.S. electricity. And because it is a low-carbon source of around-the-clock power, it has received renewed interest as concern grows over the effect of greenhouse-gas emissions on our climate.
Yet nuclear power’s own myriad limitations will constrain its growth, especially in the near term. These include:
- Prohibitively high, and escalating, capital costs
- Production bottlenecks in key components needed to build plants
- Very long construction times
- Concerns about uranium supplies and importation issues
- Unresolved problems with the availability and security of waste storage
- Large-scale water use amid shortages
- High electricity prices from new plants
Nuclear power is therefore unlikely to play a dominant — greater than 10 percent — role in the national or global effort to prevent the global temperatures from rising by more than 2 degrees C above preindustrial levels.
The carbon-free power technologies that the nation and the world should focus on deploying right now at large scale are efficiency, wind power, and solar power. They are the lower-cost carbon-free strategies with minimal societal effects and the fewest production bottlenecks. They could easily meet all of U.S. demand for the next quarter-century, while substituting for some existing fossil fuel plants. In the medium-term (post-2020), other technologies, such as coal with carbon capture and storage or advanced geothermal, could be significant players, but only with a far greater development effort over the next decade.
Progressives must also focus on the issue of nuclear subsidies, or nuclear pork. Conservative politicians such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and other nuclear power advocates continue to insist that new climate legislation must include yet more large subsidies for nuclear power. Since nuclear power is a mature electricity generation technology with a large market share and is the beneficiary of some $100 billion in direct and indirect subsidies since 1948, it neither requires nor deserves significant subsidies in any future climate law.
The full report is here.