The View from Pew

I had the privilege last week of attending a speech given by Eileen Claussen, the President of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. Pew is a critical organization in constructively spreading awareness and promoting practical thinking among government and business leaders about the climate change issue.

Ms. Claussen’s main message was that it was important to view climate change as an opportunity, not a threat. She provided an optimistic message, asserting that many major companies (e.g., BP, Shell, GE, DuPont, etc.) have made this shift in perspective, and that others are bound to follow.

It is notable that a number of electric utilities (e.g., Exelon, Cinergy, AEP, PG&E, Wisconsin Electric, DTE, Entergy, Ontario Power, TransAlta) are on the Pew Center’s Business Environmental Leadership Council. It’s also notable that a number (though not all) of these companies have large nuclear portfolios. And, it’s further notable that Ms. Claussen was of the opinion that nuclear had to be a large part of the solution to the climate change issue.

Personally, I agree with that assessment. Because nuclear is essentially a zero-carbon energy source that is proven to be scalable and in adequate supply, it seems clear that any future energy system must involve substantial nuclear power generation capacity if it is to successfully address the climate change challenge while providing the requirements that citizens of the developed world in the 21st Century demand.

But, however pragmatic I think it to be, this view is outright anathema to many environmentalists. What does the cleantech community think about nuclear? Is it part of the solution, or part of the problem?

3 replies
  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Being zero-carbon is a benefit of nuclear power. Problem is, it's pretty much the only benefit. The issues of economics, insurance, proliferation, terrorism, waste, etc. etc. are never going to go away.Small-scale renewable sources hooked up to a smart grid: that's a solution cheaper, safer, and more stable than nukes. That's why research and investment in that area is exploding, while nuclear power remains moribund despite the strenuous efforts of governments to subsidize it into existence.

  2. James Aach
    James Aach says:

    As a longtime energy worker, I offer the following:Nuclear has the zero carbon benefit, a high capacity factor on average (it's almost always there and running), a fuel transportation benefit (it's difficult to continue to supply coal to a plant during a prolonged blizzard), and some stability in fuel costs compared to natural gas (I think). The downsides are maintenance issues (the technology isn't extremely complex, but there's a lot of it to maintain), public safety fears, actual safety concerns (which are real but different in type and amount from what the general public seems to think), and waste storage (a problem I believe has been born out of proportion.) Cost is also a benefit if you compare it on an energy output bais with proposed alternatives beyond fossil fuels – though economies of scale could help there. Finally, nuclear has one big benefit – it can generate a huge amount of power. This last item is of great importance. Even if we cut our electric power use fifty percent with conservation, western countries still use a really, really huge amount of power. A large baseload plant cannot be replaced by a few windmills (more like thousands or more per plant) or a field of solar panels or a large pile of manure generating methane. Not enough. In the end, the math has to work out so that the power produced = power needed. The difficulties I see with the small-scale renewables are not insurmountable, but they are significant. Financially, they are not yet competitive, though economy of scale may help. (It may also hurt financially or enviromentally, depending on what they are made of). Socially, the general public likes cheap power that's easy to get. Shifting to power sources that require personal time and may cost more (at lest up front) could be a problem. There also continue to be issues with electricity storage – batteries, etc. aren't all that good. Electricity storage is important because of the last item I'll mention – reliabiity and grid stability. The current US grid setup allows an almost constant flow of electric power to everyone, regardless of local or regional conditions, because of the existence of baseload plants on a widespread grid. Replacing some of these with small producers which are probably more dependent on atmospheric conditions (wind, sunlight) means there will be times when total power on the grid may be significantly less than demand. Perhaps the advanced grid could just cut off the offenders – but that could be a large area during a hot, windless summer day. Every energy source has its good points and drawbacks. None are intrinsically good or evil. I believe it's unlikely there's one "magic bullet" out there to solve our energy problems. It's going to take a mix, along with public acceptance of factors like less power available, higher costs, and more individual work. It's a tough deal.For those who'd like a quick, entertaining primer in electirc power production, and particular nuclear energy, see my techno-thriller novel Rad Decision, available at no cost at Judging from their comments at the homepage, readers seem to like it.James Aach20+ years in the energy biz."I'd like to see Rad Decision widely read." – Stewart Brand, founder of The Whole Earth Catalog.

  3. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    It is the only real option for a steady alternative to petroleum. Renewable will always be intermitent and we need sources of electricity that can be turned on and off to effectively keep up with demand during peak hours. With that said it has to be used as a bridge fuel, I see little point in trading one finite fuel for another. Waste will always be an expensive if not dangerous problem so we can't rely on nuclear for much longer then we need to.

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