A note on the news of November 4
By George Harvey
Four environmental scientists got a lot of press today, after they called on green groups to back development of ‘safe’ nuclear reactors. The reason they did this is that they believe we cannot rely on solar and wind to do the job.
I believe I can show that nuclear power probably will not help much, if at all. I also believe I can show that nuclear power is unnecessary.
Why current nuclear designs cannot reduce global warming
Arguments on safety and waste management aside, nuclear power is too expensive to be acceptable. The government of the UK has made this perfectly clear. In order to get the Hinckley Point C plant built, the UK had to agree to a price of $26 billion for two reactors of 1600 MW each. Even that was not enough to get the investors to agree to build the plant. The UK also had to promise that electricity from the reactors would be guaranteed to sell at double the current rate and have its price adjusted to cover inflation for the next 35 years. Even that was not enough to get the investors to agree to build the plant. They had to allow Chinese investors, who were willing to put money into a risky enterprise, into the deal.
The stated costs do not take into account the issues of liability, which is covered by the UK government in a system similar to the US’s Price-Anderson coverage for nuclear plants. It also did not take into consideration what will be done with nuclear waste.
Bankers and investment houses across Europe have been calling the terms insane. It does, however, demonstrate the faulty logic of building new nuclear plants.
The UK government might just as well have put up a sign at the gate saying, “Hinckley Point C Nuclear Plant – This won’t work.”
Why new ‘safe’ nuclear plants cannot help reduce global warming
New designs exist on paper that some people call safe. Whether they are actually are safe is another question. They have not been tested.
It takes time to design a nuclear plant. It takes longer if the design is of a new type. We could easily anticipate that it would take at least five years to come up with fully developed designs for a new pilot plant, to test the principles of a new system.
Such designs already exist. If we pick one that is already complete, it will take at least five years to build the plant.
But we cannot just build the plant, because it has to be permitted. That is to say, the design itself has to be investigated by a regulatory body, such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. That will take at least three or four years, if they work at breakneck speed.
Siting the plant will inevitably produce opposition, and this will cause delays. Since it is pointless, and possibly impossible, to site an unapproved plant, we could add at least two years to the process.
Before the plant can be operated, it has to be licensed. This will take at least a couple years.
Clearly, we would be fooling ourselves to believe a new design could be developed into a new plant in under fifteen years. Unfortunately, that is not the end of it. This is not a new generating facility. It is a pilot plant. In order to build full-scale plants, the pilot plant has to be tested, design flaws have to be found, corrections have to be made, and the whole has to be redesigned for commercial operation. This would take at least five years.
If we work at break-neck speed, the first new ‘safe’ nuclear plant might come online in 2033. That is if we are lucky. Given the history of the nuclear industry, it might be better to anticipate an earliest possible date of 2040.
That, however, is the date of the introduction of the first of these nuclear plants. If they are about the same size as current plants, and we bring 25 online every single year, it would take 18 years to reach the level of output we currently get from nuclear power, about 10% of the world power supply. Assuming we are lucky, and building plants begins in 2033, we get the output of the new ‘safe’ plants to the current level of output in 2051.
The increased temperatures from global warming lag the carbon dioxide output by about 20 years, according to some scientists. If that is correct, the full effect of this supply, which is 10% of our current demands, will not be felt until 2070 or so.
Why we will not need nuclear power
It is not uncommon for environmental scientists to say we have all the technology we need to deal with global warming. We have been hearing this for a number of years. We have seldom heard the contrary. The four above-mentioned scientists are in a distinct minority. And even though the technology we have had should be sufficient, we have been seeing new developments that will make the job easier.
First off, we are not dependent on just solar and wind. We also have hydropower – including several new types of hydropower that do not require dams. We also have biomass, biogas, and biofuels – which are being developed rapidly, and which could provide a respectable percentage of what we need. In the case of biogas from bio-digesters, a side product is compost for the soil. We also have a possibility of geothermal. And (trump card) we also have efficiency.
If we did not have solar and wind at all, wave power could supply all our needs. So could geothermal. But we do have solar and wind. The US DOE says the state of Vermont can get over 130% of the power it needs from the wind, and nearly 1000% of the power it needs from sunshine. Add efficiency into the equation, and those figures could go to 200% and 1500% easily.
Backers of nuclear power tell us that we need baseload power, so we can always know the lights will go on. Contrary to that view, nuclear power provides a poor match to grid demand. The plants take over a day to get to full power. The result is that in order to make money during the day, it has to run at full power all night, when people do not want it. The result is that the price of power can go negative at night.
Solar, wind, biofuels, and hydro together form a group of power sources that are beginning to be understood as a better match for grid demand than coal and nuclear. In Germany, there is a new kind of baseload power being developed using what is called a “virtual power plant,” in which small wind, solar, hydro, and biomass generators are turned on and off as needed to provide the precise amount of power the grid needs. Power demand is highest when the sun shines, and the wind is always blowing somewhere; add biomass and hydro, which can run around the clock, and there is no need for nuclear or coal. This confirms studies such as one done at the University of Delaware, which indicate that if we attempt to get our power 100% from renewables, they will need some extra help about 8 hours per year.
The worldwide cost of going to renewable power has been estimated as $60 trillion. If we take that as $1.5 trillion per year, it seems almost overwhelming. When we reduce the amount by what we would save if we stop subsidizing fossil fuels and nuclear, however, the figure becomes more clearly manageable, at about $800 billion, or so. When we reduce that amount by what we would have to spend anyway, building new nuclear and fossil fuel plants to replace those that are getting old, the figure becomes very clearly manageable. When we reduce that amount by what we will save on fuel, we might see that switching to all renewables is a good way to meet all our needs, and save money too.