Nuclear Energy: Threat or Opportunity?

by Richard T. Stuebi

Several months ago, I was asked by the Chagrin Foundation for Arts & Culture, in my lovely home town of Chagrin Falls OH, to speak on the topic of nuclear energy at their Chautauqua-at-Chagrin lecture series this summer.

I agreed, and proposed the title of my talk “Nuclear Energy: Threat or Opportunity?” I thought that it would be kinda catchy, and that I could figure out something interesting to say under that heading.

Well, the talk is tomorrow (Tuesday July 20 at 6 pm ET), so this past weekend, I forced myself to organize my thoughts on what to say. It was more challenging than I had anticipated.

This is because the title of my talk actually turned out to be truly apt: nuclear energy is both a threat and opportunity. There are huge advantages and substantial risks associated with nuclear energy. It’s easy to see one side of the coin or the other, but it’s hard to see and accept both sides of the coin at the same time.

Among the points I intend to make in my lecture:

There is no easy, cheap, one-size-fits-all answer for powering our economy in a way that provides the standards of living we’re accustomed to, at the costs we’re accustomed to paying, in avoiding the bad future to which continued status quo will drive us. Nuclear energy can be a major part of the total solution, but only if we’re willing to accept the costs and risks.

Many people tend to think that nuclear powerplants are inherently dangerous, thinking of Chernobyl. Chernobyl was truly an aberration – all safety systems were intentionally disabled and the plant was pushed to limits as an experiment. (Hey, that’s a really good idea!) Three Mile Island was a more plausible worst-case scenario — and its environmental impact of was/is small relative to the long-term impact of coal mining or burning, or petroleum extraction or refining. The BP Gulf oil spill is far worse of an ecological catastrophe than Three Mile Island, but no-one’s talking about banning oil. Instead of environmental risks, the real risks of nuclear energy are about fuel security and fuel disposal.

The U.S. taxpayer has long heavily subsidized, and continues to subsidize, nuclear energy. With maybe a hundred billion dollars of cumulative R&D funding over the decades, plus substantial tax credits and loan guarantees, the U.S. government has been and remains the biggest benefactor of the nuclear industry. Private industry sure isn’t: there hasn’t been an order for a new nuclear reactor in over 30 years. When opponents discredit renewable energy due to subsidies (which they admittedly do receive), it’s pretty hypocritical: nuclear (and fossil) energy has gotten and still gets far more subsidy dollars than renewable energy has and does.

If we shut down all the nuclear powerplants in operation today, the risk associated with spent fuels would still exist, and emissions would likely go up – at least unless/until enormous amounts of new wind/solar installation were to backfill nuclear retirements. For the time being, the economics of new wind and solar energy (indeed, any new powerplants) are considerably higher than the costs of running existing nuclear plants, so electricity prices would go up if nuclear were to go away. So, shutting down operating nuclear plants doesn’t seem like a promising strategy from either an economic or environmental perspective.

The costs of new nuclear are completely unknown. There hasn’t been a new nuke completed in the U.S. since the 1980’s, and no new orders since the late 1970’s. New designs are on the drawing board, but none have been implemented. Including earning a fair return on investment in new plants, costs could be as low as 8 cents/kwh or as high as 15 cents/kwh. The range is so wide because it could take 5 years or 15 years to complete a new plant – based upon uncertainties about licensing, approval and permitting processes. The cost of new nuclear is generally more than new wind, and while less than new solar today, the costs of new solar should become competitive with technological advancements in the coming years. So, it would seem that this argues for massive wind and solar installation, rather than new nuclear (or new fossil powerplants).

But, it’s not so easy. Wind and solar are not “round-the-clock” – at least unless/until there’s cost-effective energy storage for the power grid (don’t hold your breath). And other options aren’t so appealing either.

New gas-fired powerplants have fairly low emissions and can be approved/built quickly, but price/supply of natural gas is uncertain and highly volatile. New coal powerplants would be an even riskier bet.

Using conventional technology and ignoring greenhouse gas emissions, the cost of energy from new coal powerplants is probably on the order of 6-8 cents/kwh. However, if the U.S. ever becomes serious about dealing with climate change via a carbon policy, then the economics of coal power will deteriorate significantly — either to capture carbon (largely untested and expensive technology) or to pay for the costs of emissions. In a carbon-constrained world, it’s easy to project the costs of new coal power at > 10 cents/kwh. So, if we don’t care about climate change, coal is likely to be the dominant answer, and few new nukes will be built in the U.S.

On the other hand, if climate change matters, then there’s a potential role for new nuclear in the U.S. This role is amplified if we want to deal seriously with the other energy imperative we face: eliminating our reliance on petroleum for transportation. Clearly, we won’t see nuclear powered vehicles. But, with improvements in battery technologies, we can (and likely will) see more electrification of transportation – through plug-in hybrids and even pure-electric vehicles. If/as that happens, we’ll need much more power generation capability — especially if a lot of old coal plants are retired in response to climate legislation. But, where will that new power come from? If we want it to be from zero-carbon sources, and if we’ve already installed as much wind/solar as we plausibly can (assuming no effective grid storage technology), nuclear will be a very interesting option.

Summarizing, the more we try to deal with climate change and oil dependence, the more appealing nuclear becomes. Environmentalists are torn: many oppose nuclear on philosophical grounds based on their perceived risks, while other thought-leaders (e.g., James Lovelock) are nuclear proponents based on the practical realities. Which risks are more pressing: climate change and energy insecurity, or radioactive wastes and weapons materials for terrorists? Those are the tradeoffs upon which tilts the balance for nuclear energy. Americans don’t seem to like that answer: they want no risk and low cost, and whine when they don’t/can’t get it.

On balance, I think the risks associated with climate and oil outweigh the nuclear waste and weapons risks. Accordingly, I tend to think that nuclear needs to be a bigger part of the energy toolkit of the future – at least until ocean-based power generation and/or grid-scale energy storage become economically viable. If nuclear is not to be part of the energy solution of the future, then there will be other costs/risks to bear — some of which could be very dramatic.

If we get it badly wrong, either way, the future of life on this planet may be seriously jeopardized.

Richard T. Stuebi is a founding principal of NorTech Energy Enterprise, the advanced energy initiative at NorTech, where he is on loan from The Cleveland Foundation as its Fellow of Energy and Environmental Advancement. He is also a Managing Director in charge of cleantech investment activities at Early Stage Partners, a Cleveland-based venture capital firm.

10 replies
  1. Jerome
    Jerome says:

    Richard writes: "But, it’s not so easy. Wind and solar are not “round-the-clock” – at least unless/until there’s cost-effective energy storage for the power grid (don’t hold your breath). And other options aren't so appealing either."I don't think we will have to hold our breaths for too long if we get widespread use of electric vehicles. The batteries in these vehicles will be a great, cost-effective place to store electricity for the grid. Denmark has already figured this out. That is why it is the second test location for electric vehicles and the infrastructure supplied by Better Place, Shai Agassi's company.

  2. Daniel Stello
    Daniel Stello says:

    Well you’ll be speaking already today, that might not leave you enough time to research this, but I thought I should mention it anyway.Here in Europe the Nuclear dilemma is starting to wash out slightly. There are serious discussions in some counties, about commissioning new plants and reopening old reactors. The pro’s and con’s, that are being thrown back and forth, are pretty much the same, as the once, that were in play 20 years ago; when the atomic power sector was throttled down on political grounds. The major reservations seem to be; waste-disposal and core reaction safety. Speculations on these issues have revived the idea of building thorium based reactors, as a means to minimize the waste/proliferation factor and basically eliminating the possibility of a melt-down.The main concerns with the thorium reactors, seems to revolve around the cost, or rather the missing certainty on the economical factors. It does, however make a fine point, in the threat vs. opportunity discussion, I think.

  3. Peter Lilienthal
    Peter Lilienthal says:

    Nuclear competes more directly with sind and solar than the "leave all options on the table" crowd seem to understand. With all three options the limiting factor is the economics of having excess power when it isn't needed. All three of those technologies need to be complemented with flexible technologies. Gas is the default choice and storage is everyone's panacea, but load management, including smart control of EVs, is much more promising.

  4. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    pity there's no 'in depth knowledge today, the author clearly is misinformed on some issues. FACT, we, as a world consume 25% more energy than falls on the world in Solar or wind. wind became a fad in europe, only because heavily subsidised, and, even PAID when not used. The blades wear rapidly, and can only function between certain wind speeds, and, all 4,000 of UK wind generators only equal ONE coal fired station. If it becomes too great a contribution, has to be turned off so as not to destabilise frequency control. i have no problem with Nuclear; excepting that Electricity is very good at some things, and very poor at others! distribution as a fuel itself, is extremely poor, and if all trucks and cars became electric, then, to rival a busy forecourt, and fuel trucks in less than HOURS, would need a nuclear power station at every busy forecourt.I detest our reliance on oil, simply because it has now become an icon of control and greed. The only answer, currently, would be if every household and auto could have their own nuclear supply; currently, with fission, that becomes a total nightmare. Maybe, fusion, with very little dangerous radiation? Perhaps a commercial version of the Farnsworth Fusor?mike.Mike. J. Furness

  5. 2openeyes
    2openeyes says:

    As the apparent sole TMI survivor commenting here and witness to the untold health disaster of the past 30 years in that area, having lost family and friends to cancers not counted, researched or tallied to show what has really happened (PA still fails to gather cancer statistics to allow for this) TMI should not be summarily dismissed as 'no Chernobyl' as some say.The problem that is overlooked is who runs the nuclear plant. France runs their own, it is not run for profit by a company with shareholders demanding more profits at the expense of safety–the exact reason there was improperly trained staff in the control room who made the human errors necessary for the accident to happen. Then there was the faulty x-rays that were doctored and passed to get the plant running–those same x-rays were of the valves that failed. Again, profit ahead of safety.The BP fiasco of sacrificing safety for less cost and faster drilling enough proof we cannot trust profit-driven companies to handle processes that have the possibility of hurting and killing millions with one error. And there were backup systems in 1979 too, but they all failed.I learned the lesson. I was pro-nuclear until March 1979. Am I the only one with sense?The premise that we must do something to maintain our current lifestyle is the wrong argument. We must adapt our lifestyle to suit reality.Nature's law is that only those that can adapt survive.

  6. Daniel
    Daniel says:

    Mike Furness says "FACT, we, as a world consume 25% more energy than falls on the world in Solar or wind."Mike, if you are going to say something is a "FACT", it would help if what you say is remotely true! It looks like you are only off by 4 orders of magnitude.From Wikipedia article on solar energy: "The total solar energy absorbed by Earth's atmosphere, oceans and land masses is approximately 3,850,000 exajoules (EJ) per year.[6] In 2002, this was more energy in one hour than the world used in one year.[11][12] "

  7. Cameron Benz
    Cameron Benz says:

    @ whoever mentioned small home based nuclear reactors…. Mr Fusion anyone? lolIn all seriousness though, the primary concerns I would have would be that no private industry run the facilities and we have some plan for disposal of the waste rather than letting it leak into the ground on it's way to the Columbia River a la the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

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