Reviving the Nuclear Dream

With a massive boom in production, natural gas and renewables offer an attractive means to green the U.S. economy. But achieving a truly carbon-free world may require reviving the nuclear dream.

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A brief pull-back followed the 2011 meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi reactor in northern Japan, but global construction of new nuclear energy capacity is once again back on track. Above, one of five new nuclear reactors presently under construction in Russia.

It’s been five years since the tsunami caused by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake off Japan’s eastern coast washed over the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, causing critical failures to the plant’s cooling systems and the meltdown of its three active reactors, reigniting the debate over the future of nuclear energy.

Nuclear energy today is perhaps the most criticized, politically difficult and, well, misunderstood, available power source. But it may also be the best hope for a carbon-free future.

The Fukushima meltdown sparked protests around the world, scuttling plans in Switzerland for a new reactor and in Italy for the country’s first. Japan immediately began winding down production from its more than 50 nuclear reactors, producing no nuclear energy by 2014. Germany, meanwhile, shut down eight of its seventeen active nuclear reactors immediately following the disaster, promising to shutter the remaining nine by 2022.

As of March, Germany still relied on the technology for about 16 percent of its total energy generation and has moved aggressively to promote the use of renewable sources, but the decline of nuclear energy has lead, perversely, to an increased reliance on coal, which now accounts for half of Germany’s power needs. Japan, facing a similar crunch, has moved to restart three of its reactors despite massive protests.

What both countries have realized is that it’s difficult to power two of the world’s five-largest economies without nuclear energy, which now comprises more than 10 percent of all electricity generated on the planet. And with 65 new reactors under construction in 13 countries and more than 150 in the planning stage — including some in countries like Thailand, Indonesia, and Bangladesh that are going nuclear for the first time — that figure looks to rise further.

An inspector from the International Atomic Energy Agency examines the exterior of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant during an inspection of the plant’s decommissioning.

photo © IAEA

But perhaps the biggest issue with building more nuclear plants isn’t safety, or politics or even public opinion, said Alessandro Piazza, a Columbia Business School PhD candidate with degrees in nuclear engineering.

No, he said, they’re just really expensive.

“The issue with nuclear is that it has the highest capital costs,” Piazza said in an interview. The US Energy Information Administration estimates that new nuclear plants coming online by 2020 will be among the cheapest sources of carbon-free electricity at $95.2 per megawatt hour, behind only geothermal, onshore wind, and hydroelectric — each of which currently faces challenges of scale. But while the costs of running the plants are minimal, initial construction can take years with costs stretching into the billions. The controversial new Hinkley Point C reactor in the United Kingdom, planned to come online in 2018, carries an estimated price tag of £18 billion ($25.8 billion).

In addition to the dramatically higher construction costs, the perceived risk of nuclear plants requires extensive insurance coverage — a requirement complicated in the early years of the technology by a government blackout of nuclear information. “Back in the day, many utilities didn’t want to develop nuclear plants because they can’t find insurance companies to cover the maximum liability in case of disaster,” Piazza explained.

To cover the rest, governments have had to vouch for any remaining liability — that’s why nuclear facilities in many countries are state-owned and operated. It also means that fossil-fuel–fired plants, which aren’t yet financially beholden to potential disasters created by climate change, have been an artificially cheaper alternative.

“All energy sources have downsides, including nuclear,” Piazza continued. “People are understandably concerned about waste, and I share their concerns. It used to be the case that carbon emissions were not a concern, and now they have grown to be a much bigger threat than nuclear waste. When you have fossil fuels that cause millions of casualties a year globally because of cancer and pollution and what not, then it’s important to consider all options on the table.

Geoffrey Heal, an economist at Columbia Business School who has researched energy extensively and formerly served as a special advisor to OPEC, agreed.

“In the long run,” he said, “I do see a role for nuclear because it’s the only baseload technology we have that doesn’t generate greenhouse gases.” Baseload power plants are the backbone of the world’s power grids, supplying consistent electrical power to meet the basic minimum demand.

Coal-fired plants, which make up the vast majority of present baseload plants, are generally accepted to be the electricity-generating mechanism contributing the most to global climate change. This has fueled urgency to curb their use, as the Obama administration attempted to do last year in the form of new EPA regulations.

While renewable sources including solar and wind farms generated more than one-fifth of the world’s energy in 2011, a figure projected to rise to 25 percent by 2040, neither can be relied on for baseload power. Wind can be spotty. Solar panels are worthless when it’s dark. Even hydropower can be affected by droughts, as seen in California over the past several years.

As a result, one of the biggest problems facing renewables is a lack of reliable storage. If sufficient battery systems could be deployed and relied upon, stored solar and wind and perhaps even hydropower could be used all day, greatly reducing the need for baseload coal, natural gas and nuclear generation.

“Batteries are an essential component of properly exploiting renewables,” Piazza said. “The good thing about fossil-based power plants and nuclear is that those can operate continuously for the baseload. Because solar and wind only work during particular times of the day, batteries are crucial to exploiting them fully, but the technology has not made the strides that we’d hoped it would make. Batteries today are much better than they used to be, but they’re not quite there yet.”

And battery technology may not meet such demands for decades, potentially as long — or longer — as it would take to ramp up nuclear generation.

With renewables unable to provide consistent baseload power throughout the day — and night — for now, much of that capacity could come from natural gas, which, while not as damaging as coal, still produces significant emissions.

“If you’re depending very heavily on renewables, you need something very flexible to provide backup,” Heal explained. “Renewables are unpredictable. If you had 100% renewables, there would be times you wouldn’t have any power. You’d need another source that could step in.”

The capital costs of a natural gas station are relatively low when compared to other sources, and it’s a backup that can be switched on quickly.

“You can ramp natural gas stations up and down very fast,” Heal added. “If the wind suddenly drops, it can take you 24 hours to turn on a coal-powered station. Gas-powered stations are basically jet engines — you can switch them on, and it’s three to four minutes to full thrust.”

And natural gas, at least in the US, mainly because of the fracking revolution, has never been cheaper. Much also has been made of the advantages of the US achieving energy independence, particularly from countries in the war-torn Middle East and the world’s most famous cartel—OPEC. It’s geopolitically advantageous for the US to produce so much natural gas, especially now that liquid natural gas, or LNG, can more easily be shipped or even exported to rapidly growing economies with surging energy demands. There are tremendous financial incentives to keep producing natural gas, even if it isn’t as clean as nuclear or renewables.

China, the world’s largest energy consumer, could similarly benefit from its own shale resources, but drilling there is more complicated and more expensive, given much of the local geological profile, Heal said. In the second half of 2014, natural gas prices in China were, on average, more than three and a half times the level in the US, making other forms of energy more attractive. The country has spent big subsidizing the production of solar panels — driving down the price of panels globally — and is investing heavily in nuclear.

“If China were ever to get on top of its shale like the US has, it would make a lot of sense for it to employ renewables plus gas and nuclear as some base load,” Heal added.

Energy consumption in China has grown exponentially since the beginning of the 1990s and is expected to continue to grow at a staggering rate. Using natural gas to generate all of that power would be far more environmentally friendly than using coal, but it would still be much dirtier than getting that electricity from nuclear. Still, building new atomic-energy plants in what may soon be the world’s largest economy isn’t without serious concerns.

the three mile island nuclear facility during operation

In 1973 the United States Atomic Energy Commission claimed that over 1,000 nuclear plants would be active in the US by the end of the century. But nuclear energy began to fall off shortly thereafter, hastened by events like the partial meltdown of one reactor at the Three Mile Island Station.

© Centers for Disease Control & Prevention

“China’s building a huge number of nuclear power plants, and I’m personally uneasy about that,” Heal added. “If I were a Chinese citizen, I’d be nervous for two reasons: First, China’s a seismic zone — as prone to earthquakes as Japan. The second thing is, China doesn’t really have a super record of building infrastructure safely. They’ve had problems with bridges and high-speed trains. And nuclear power stations are not tolerant of errors.”

China plans to add 23 reactors by 2020, increasing its nuclear generation capacity to 15 percent from its current level of 2 percent, according to a recent Quartz report. At least four of the planned stations lie on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, which regularly sees earthquakes of 6.0 magnitude and larger.

How India decides to power its growing economy will be equally important. Prime Minister Narenda Modi has offered financial incentives to spur solar production, but the country has struggled to finance all of the projects it wants to build. At the end of January 2016, according to an April 4 Bloomberg News report, the nation had 5.25 gigawatts of installed solar capacity, compared with a 2022 target of 100 gigawatts. By comparison, individual reactors at many nuclear plants have capacities of a gigawatt or more.

“My expectation is that India will, more or less, follow China’s path, which means burning coal for some period of time, and then figuring out that it’s not sustainable,” Piazza said. “They might do nuclear—they already have it.”

Much as how India’s energy demands have earned it the title of “the next China,” Piazza said he’s also concerned about the developing nations that will become, in his words, “the next India.”

“Countries that are up and coming like Indonesia — a very big country, that’s growing very rapidly — soon they’re going to face similar problems” he said. While energy demand is relatively stable in the developed world, according to researchers at Oxford, consumption continues to grow at 5 percent per year in the rest of the world. Without carbon free alternatives, that growth poses a serious challenge to the prospect of keeping global warming limited to the 2°C threshold agreed to by world leaders in Paris in December.

For now, nuclear remains the only carbon-free technology that could meet that rising demand, but it faces substantial challenges. New nuclear plants, both in Europe and the US, have taken significantly longer to build and have cost much more than initial forecasts.

Part of the delay is due to a reawakened fear in the broader public of nuclear technology in the aftermath of Fukushima. “There’s often an irrational fear of radiation,” Piazza explained. “In reality, radiation [in limited amounts] is natural. Bananas are radioactive because of Potassium-40.”

Regular international flyers are further exposed to much more radiation than those who live near one of the more then 400 nuclear plants worldwide. And living near a coal plant can often be worse when it comes to a person’s overall health, including risk of radioactive exposure. But the potentially dramatic, if less likely, risks of nuclear meltdown stir the imagination.

“A lot of people have written letters to newspapers in France saying they shouldn’t build the Hinkley Point reactor,” Heal said of the planned 3.2 gigawatt reactor on England’s southwest coast. “That it’s a bad design, that it’s over budget. Part of the cost problem with these new reactors is building strong enough safety systems to meet public demand based in part on safety misperceptions, and they’ve probably overdone it. There’s a sense that the reaction to Fukushima might have led people to build too much in the way of safety into these designs, when the designs weren’t suited to that. Now, they’re almost impossible to build.”

Still, even given the costs, timelines, and politics, building more nuclear plants is absolutely better than burning more coal. Until energy-storage technology matches energy-generation technology, if we hope to limit the impact of climate change, nuclear won’t just be preferred over coal and natural gas, it will be required.

About the researcher

Geoffrey Heal

Geoffrey Heal, Donald C. Waite III Professor of Social Enterprise at Columbia Business School, is noted for contributions to economic theory and resource and...

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