On December 4th, 2015 my favorite radio program, OnPoint from WBUR-Boston, aired a discussion about the role of nuclear power in climate change in the USA. Guests included former NRC Chairwoman Alison Macfarlane, Josh Freed of the Third Way think tank in DC and Mark Jacobson of Stanford.
Freed made a statement that astounded me. He claimed that, after Germany elected to discontinue its nuclear power stations, it experienced a "significant increase in carbon emissions" (his quote can be found at 16:00-16:15 in the broadcast). This is plainly untrue, as the data below show. In 2011, Germany decided to shut down EIGHT nuclear reactors, with total capacity of about 8 GW. The list is available here. Look at the bar for 2011 and compare it with 2010. Actually, GHG emissions DECLINED. There is a slight uptick in 2013, but no additional reactors were closed in 2012. The remaining reactors won't close until 2019-2022. The fact is that nuclear power has been replaced with solar and wind energy.
Macfarlane acknowledged that nuclear should remain part of the solution, but she cautioned against assuming it could play an expanded role in American's energy future. She pointed out that nuclear plants take 20-25 years to construct and make operational. Given that we need to reduce carbon significantly in the next 15 years, new plants are not likely to be part of that solution. Mark Jacobson added that dollars tied up for 20 years would be better spent putting wind or solar energy into action. Wind farms and solar arrays can be constructed on the order of 3 years. Furthermore, Jacobson noted that nuclear plants currently produce expensive energy - 13 cents per kWh while wind produces power at much much lower price.
Freed responded by advancing utopian technological views of the future. As so many in the nuclear field do, he suggested that new plant designs will be cheaper and safer. Maybe so, but none of these designs have every been built or made operational. Freed blamed the NRC, saying, the the NRC should "develop a new set of regulatory and evaluation processes built toward getting innovative new designs tested and deployed" (quote starts at 19:55 in broadcast).
Sacrificing safety for speed hardly seems like a smart thing to do, given the relatively poor record of the nuclear industry. Mark Jacobson pointed out that 1.5% of the world's nuclear reactors have melted down. This is a pretty poor safety record. Sure, new technologies may be safer, but they may also be less safe. We simply won't know until we have a few decades of experience under our belts, which is why countries with a lot of nuclear experience, such as France continue to rely on light water reactor designs.
The take home message for me is that, while we won't likely see nuclear power abandoned in places other than Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Netherlands, we also are not likely to see nuclear play much of an additional role in reducing carbon emissions.
directs research at the Energy Trans Lab