The Left's Untenable Position on Nuclear Power

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The Los Angeles Times may be wrong about energy policy, but it is consistent.

On Saturday, the paper published an unsigned editorial titled “No new nukes – plants, that is.” The piece declares that nuclear energy “is not a reasonable solution because plants take too long to build and cost far too much.” California’s paper of record recommends, predictably, that the US invest more money in “renewable power sources such as solar, wind and geothermal,” as well as “solar thermal storage facilities and plants that generate electricity using biomass.” It concludes that “Nuclear power is a failed experiment of the past, not an answer for the future.”

That piece reminded me of another Los Angeles Times editorial that I found during some recent research at the Library of Congress. While looking for articles about federal price controls on oil and natural gas, I came across another unsigned editorial from the Los Angeles Times, published in May 1975 called “Natural Gas: What to Do.” At that time, the US was facing a shortage of natural gas, a problem that was largely caused by federal price controls on interstate gas sales. The Times declared that a windfall profits tax should be imposed on the gas producers who “failed to plow most of the profits back into the hunt for new supplies.” The paper went on to conclude that “The choice is not between cheap and expensive natural gas, because there is no such thing as a plentiful supply of cheap gas.”

Of course, there’s no way that the Times could have foreseen how the shale gas revolution would overhaul the US natural gas sector. But the paper’s stance on nuclear power is of a piece with the myopia of America’s most influential environmental activists.

Despite their ongoing push for more low/no carbon forms of energy, the biggest environmental groups in the US remain adamantly opposed to nuclear. In 2005, some 300 environmental groups – including Greenpeace, Sierra Club, and Public Citizen – signed a manifesto which said “we flatly reject the argument that increased investment in nuclear capacity is an acceptable or necessary solution….nuclear power should not be a part of any solution to address global warming.”

And then there’s Amory Lovins, the Colorado-based media darling who has been opposing nuclear power for decades. In 1986, when asked about the future of nuclear power, Lovins declared flatly, “There isn’t one….No more will be built. The only question is whether the plants already operating will continue to operate during their lifetime or whether they will be shut down prematurely.” Since then, Lovins has repeated one of his favorite lines: “Nuclear is dying of an incurable attack of market forces.”

In 2007, when I interviewed Lovins, he declared that “a huge and capable propaganda campaign by the [nuclear] industry and its political allies is spinning an illusion of a renaissance that deceives credulous journalists but not hard-nosed investors.”

How did Lovins do on his prediction back in 1986? According to data from the International Atomic Energy Agency, about 130 new reactors with nearly 123,000 megawatts of generating capacity have been brought online over the past two decades or so. Those reactors represent nearly one-third of global nuclear capacity, which in late 2009 included 435 reactors with 370,000 megawatts of capacity.

World Nuclear Reactor Count

The number of nuclear reactors in the world is expected to double by 2030. By Seth Myers

Source: World Nuclear Association

By Seth Myers

As for his 2007 claim about the “illusion of a renaissance” the numbers, once again, are proving him wrong. According to the World Nuclear Association, there are 53 new reactors now under construction with total capacity of more than 49,000 megawatts. And lots more reactors are on the way. Japan, the third-biggest producer of nuclear power (after the US and France), plans to construct 11 new reactors over the next decade or so. And the country plans to be getting 60% of its electricity from nuclear power by 2050 – double the current percentage. But Japan’s efforts will be miniscule when compared to those of China, which plans to build as many as 150 reactors.

The International Energy Agency sees nuclear as an essential part of the effort to stabilize global carbon dioxide levels. In its recently released 2009 World Energy Outlook, the agency expects global investment in nuclear power will total some $1.3 trillion over the next two decades. More importantly, the IEA’s latest report makes it clear that nuclear power is competitive with conventional power plants when it comes to cost. The agency said, “New nuclear power plants can generate electricity at a cost of between $55 and $80 per MWh [megawatt-hour], which places them in a strong competitive position against coal- or gas-fired power plants, particularly when fossil-fuel plants carry the burden of the carbon cost associated with the cap-and-trade system” that’s in place in Europe, and is proposed for the US.

The IEA projects that for power plants that begin operations between 2015 and 2020, nuclear will be among the cheapest options, even when compared to wind power and coal-fired power plants that use high-efficiency ultra-supercritical combustion. The agency estimates that nuclear power plants will be able to produce electricity for about $72 per megawatt-hour while onshore wind costs will be about $94 per megawatt-hour.

Advocates like the Sierra Club and Lovins – and of course, the LA Times — continue to claim that wind and solar can provide the scale of energy and power that will be needed to replace hydrocarbons and therefore reduce carbon dioxide levels.

That. Is. Not. Going. To. Happen.

Other than natural gas, nuclear is the only low- or no-carbon source that can make a significant dent in coal use. We may not like it, but we have to pick. In the near-term, meaning the next few decades, the obvious way to reduce the rate of growth in carbon dioxide emissions is to increase the use of natural gas. Longer term, barring some miraculous breakthrough in energy storage technology, the only viable choice is nuclear.

© 2013 Energy Tribune

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