Leading Scientists Issue Plea for Nuclear Power: Here's the Important Facts They're Missing

Four of the country’s top climate experts have distributed an open letter “To those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power.”

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Who killed nuclear power? Hint: It’s not the people who actively supported placing a high and rising price on carbon pollution.

Four of the country’s top climate experts have distributed an open letter “To those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power.” I have the greatest respect for James Hansen, Kerry Emanuel, Tom Wigley, and Ken Caldeira — and have written dozens of blog posts about their vital climate work.

But I think their letter is mis-addressed and also misses the key point about nuclear power — because it is so expensive, especially when done safely, the industry has no chance of revival absent a serious price on carbon.

While solar power and wind power continue to march down the experience curve to ever lower costs — solar panels have seen a staggering 99% drop in cost since 1977 — nuclear power has been heading in the opposite direction.

Nuclear power appears to have a negative learning curve:

Average and min/max reactor construction costs per year of completion date for US and France versus cumulative capacity completed.

Amazingly, in the past few few years utilities have told state regulators that the cost of new nuclear plants is in the $5,500 to $8,100 per kilowatt range (seeNuclear power: The price is not right and Exclusive analysis: The staggering cost of new nuclear power).

The letter opens:

To those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power:

As climate and energy scientists concerned with global climate change, we are writing to urge you to advocate the development and deployment of safer nuclear energy systems. We appreciate your organization’s concern about global warming, and your advocacy of renewable energy. But continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.

If every major environmental group in this country stopped whatever objections to nuclear power they have been offering, I suspect the industry would be in pretty much the same exact shape it is now. And whatever modest short-term benefit it might have for the industry would pale in comparison to the enormous, long-term benefit to the industry a national climate bill and global climate treaty would bring about.

As a practical matter, environmental groups have had little impact on the collapse of nuclear power in America. The countries where nuclear has dead-ended are market-based economies where the nuclear industry has simply been unable to deliver a competitive product (see “Two Years After $500 Billion Fukushima Disaster, Nuclear Power Remains Staggeringly Expensive”). Indeed, despite having U.S. taxpayers swallow most of the risk for the high-cost of new nukes through the loan guarantee program and most of the risk of a major nuke disaster through the Price Anderson act, the industry has been unable to provide a competitive product.

Objectively, then, the groups who have been most successful in thwarting the much-hyped nuclear renaissance are those who blocked efforts to make nuclear power more cost-competitive. And the best, most market-based way to make nukes more cost competitive is to put a serious and rising price on carbon pollution that starts to reflect the harm it does to public health and a livable climate.

So those like Hansen, Emanuel, Wigley and Caldeira who want nuclear power to be a major contributor to solving the climate problem should be addressing themselves to those who are blocking serious climate action, not those who have been devoting vast resources to trying to put a price on carbon.

The letter continues:

We call on your organization to support the development and deployment of safer nuclear power systems as a practical means of addressing the climate change problem. Global demand for energy is growing rapidly and must continue to grow to provide the needs of developing economies. At the same time, the need to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions is becoming ever clearer. We can only increase energy supply while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions if new power plants turn away from using the atmosphere as a waste dump.

Here the letter conflates the issue of opposition to the current crop of nuclear power plants — which are simply uncompetitive quite separate from the very legitimate issues of safety, waste disposal, proliferation, and water consumption — with a supposed lack of support for next generation nuclear power plants (that will be magically cheaper, despite all trend data to the contrary).

I am entirely in favor of developing a next-generation of nuclear power plants — and most of the climate-concerned environmentalists I know are also. But a major effort to develop such reactors does not guarantee they will suddenly become economically competitive.

The letter continues:

Renewables like wind and solar and biomass will certainly play roles in a future energy economy, but those energy sources cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires.

I think it is quite safe to say that renewables will do more than “play roles” in a climate constrained world — they will play the major role.

It would be astounding if a technology that exists only in PowerPoint presentations — magical small, cost-effective, fail-safe nuclear reactors — could possibly be researched, developed, demonstrated, and then scaled up fasterthan a host of carbon-free technologies that are already commercial today. And remember, most of those technologies, like solar and wind, have actually demonstrated a positive learning curve, unlike nuclear reactors!

2007 Keystone report concluded that just one wedge of nuclear power “would require adding on average 14 plants each year for the next 50 years, all the while building an average of 7.4 plants to replace those that will be retired” — plus 10 Yucca Mountains to store the waste.

But we need at least 12 to 14 wedges to avert catastrophic climate change. So it’s pretty safe to say that most of those wedges will be non-nuclear — and most of those can begin aggressive deployment now.

I wish politicians and opinion makers had the same understanding of climate science as Hansen, Emanuel, Wigley, and Caldeira. If they did, carbon pollution would have a high price, and the marketplace would quickly figure out the most cost-effective way to slash pollution.

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