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Is Nuclear Power Our Energy Future—Or a Dinosaur in a Death Spiral?

Ensia | March 2, 2016

CREDIT: Shutterstock.

This article has been republished with kind permission from Ensia. It was written by Dave Levitan.

Nuclear power is dead. Long live nuclear power. Nuclear power is the only way forward. Nuclear power is a red herring. Nuclear power is too dangerous. Nuclear power is the safest power source around. Nuclear is nothing. Nuclear is everything.

It is now generally agreed that the world must rapidly reduce carbon emissions in order to fight off dangerous climate change, but the "how" of that process remains up for debate. And within that debate, nothing seems to produce such starkly opposing viewpoints as nuclear energy. Some experts and advocates argue that carbon-free nuclear power represents the only real hope of keeping the planet's temperature in check. Others claim that nuclear is risky, unnecessary and far too expensive to make a dent.

The same basic data set—nuclear plants currently in existence, those under construction, the status of new technologies, the history of costs and delays, and a few striking accidents—produces those totally contradictory opinions and predictions. Nuclear power is a Rorschach test: You see what you want to see—a rosy nuclear future or an old-world dinosaur in a slow death spiral—reflecting your own views on the energy present and future. In all likelihood, no one will be proven right or wrong for decades.

Today and Tomorrow

Nuclear power today accounts for around 10 percent of the total electricity generation around the world. This varies sharply by country—in the U.S. the rate is about 20 percent, in Russia and Germany it is a bit lower than that, while some other European countries get 40 or 50 percent of their electricity from nuclear reactors. France has long led the way proportionally, at more than 75 percent (it has the second most total reactors, behind the U.S.). China, though building rapidly, drew less than 3 percent of its power from nuclear in 2014.

There are 442 reactors currently in operation globally, and the International Atomic Energy Agency says 66 are currently under construction. Twenty-four of those are in China; no other country is currently building more than eight.

That's the nuclear landscape now. The question is, how will it change in the coming years? And equally important, how should it change? The answers to both of these depend on whom you ask.

The International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook 2014, which includes a close analysis of nuclear power, projects a 60 percent leap in global installed capacity by 2040, with almost half of that growth coming from China.

"I think we definitely need it in the battle against climate change. This is broadly recognized," says Jacopo Buongiorno, a professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Because now there is such an overwhelming concern about climate change, it's like a tide that lifts all boats. Anything that is perceived as clean is going up. I think it is absolutely necessary."

That type of take on nuclear isn't particularly hard to find, but neither is this one: "I don't think nuclear power is a necessary component at all," says M. V. Ramana, a research scholar at Princeton's Nuclear Futures Lab. "Nuclear power as a share of electricity generation is only likely to decline in the foreseeable future. If we hold that up as a means of emission reductions, then we will not be successful with meeting any of the ambitious climate goals set" in the recent Paris agreement, in which 195 countries agreed to reduce emissions sharply.

In the run-up to that agreement, a group of the most prominent nuclear proponents—climate scientist James Hansen, Stanford's Ken Caldeira, and others—wrote in the Guardian that "nuclear will make the difference between the world missing crucial climate targets or achieving them."

This was met with particularly harsh disdain from Naomi Oreskes, Harvard science historian and co-author of Merchants of Doubt, who wrote a response at the Guardian branding this "a new, strange form of denial."

The heart of Hansen's and Oreskes' disagreement regards the necessity for nuclear and the technical feasibility of scaling up renewables: Are other energy sources sufficient to wean us from fossil fuels? Or is the reliable, large-scale (a single new reactor can reach 1,600 megawatts capacity, three times the size of the world's largest solar plants) baseload power that nuclear provides a necessary component of the low-carbon future?

The anti-nuclear side of the argument focuses on several studies that have illustrated a renewables-only way to the goal, which could be cheaper and free of the risks associated with nuclear. Mark Jacobson, director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program at Stanford University, has published state-specific plans showing how 100 percent renewables penetration would be achievable. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, part of the U.S. Department of Energy, published its "Renewable Electricity Futures Study" in 2012 and explained a clear path to 80 percent penetration in the U.S. Others have shown similar routes forward.

Nuclear proponents argue that there are impediments to having a grid entirely run on renewables. Buongiorno, for example, says that the intermittency of solar and wind can realistically only be addressed by adding large amounts of electricity storage (in the form of large batteries or other newer tech such as compressed air) to the grid, and that would change the ongoing "renewable prices are plummeting" narrative.

"When I hear people say 'Oh, the costs are coming down,' the costs for generation may be coming down, but if installing that capacity forces me to have energy storage, you have to add those costs," he says. Think of it like buying a car: The baseline price sounds okay, but it's all the options and add-ons that'll get you. Buongiorno says he expects the costs of nuclear construction will come down, and that when storage costs for renewables are factored in, nuclear—with its reliable, 24/7 output—starts to look much more attractive as an alternative.

Billions and Billions

When it comes to any energy source, it is cost that sits at the root of the discussion. Adding more nuclear to the grid could reduce some of the burden on renewables and storage, but the economics of nuclear itself could prove an insurmountable roadblock.

In general, the more experience accumulated with a given technology, the less it costs to build. This has been dramatically illustrated with the falling costs of wind and solar power. Nuclear, however has bucked the trend, instead demonstrating a sort of "negative learning curve" over time.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the actual costs of 75 of the first nuclear reactors built in the U.S. ran over initial estimates by more than 200 percent. More recently, costs have continued to balloon. Again according to UCS, the price tag for a new nuclear power plant jumped from between $2 billion and $4 billion in 2002 all the way to $9 billion in 2008. Put another way, the price shot from below $2,000 per kilowatt in the early 2000s up to as high as $8,000 per kilowatt by 2008.

Steve Clemmer, the director of energy research and analysis at UCS, doesn't see this trend changing. "I'm not seeing much evidence that we'll see the types of cost reductions [proponents are] talking about. I'm very skeptical about it—great if it happens, but I'm not seeing it," he says.

Some projects in the United States seem to face delays and overruns at every turn. In September 2015, a South Carolina effort to build two new reactors at an existing plant was delayed for three years. In Georgia, a January 2015 filing by plant owner Southern Co. said that its additional two reactors would jump by $700 million in cost and take an extra 18 months to build. These problems have a number of root causes, from licensing delays to simple construction errors, and no simple solution to the issue is likely to be found.

In Europe the situation is similar, with a couple of particularly egregious examples casting a pall over the industry. Construction began for a new reactor at the Finnish Olkiluoto 3 plant in 2005 but won't finish until 2018, nine years late and more than $5 billion over budget. A reactor in France, where nuclear is the primary source of power, is six years behind schedule and more than twice as expensive as projected.

"The history of 60 years or more of reactor building offers no evidence that costs will come down," Ramana says. "As nuclear technology has matured costs have increased, and all the present indications are that this trend will continue."

Some experts, however, dispute the idea that the "negative learning curve" is intrinsic to the nuclear industry. In a recent paper Ted Nordhaus of the energy think tank The Breakthrough Institute pointed out that the history of nuclear plant construction costs varies dramatically by country. South Korea, for example, has demonstrated a fairly consistent drop in costs over time; it imported its first designs from foreign companies with more experience before homegrown designs took hold, and all the country's plants are built and owned by a single utility. Nordhaus wrote, "with the right policies and institutions, nuclear plants can be built quickly, safely, and cheaply."

Still, most countries have seen costs increase. As it stands, only China's non-free market may allow for a truly rapid build-out of nuclear plants; the country's current domination of the nuclear construction world reflects this idea, and the 2016 Five-Year Plan includes provisions to approve and build six to eight new plants each year.

The industry, for its part, argues that the benefits of nuclear are worth the price tag. The Nuclear Energy Institute, which represents plant owners, builders, designers, suppliers, and related companies, notes that in the U.S. nuclear power generates as much as $50 billion each year from electricity sales and revenue, and provides around 100,000 jobs. The lack of carbon emissions, of course, only adds to the benefits.

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