The Curious Wavefunction

The Curious Wavefunction

Musings on chemistry and the history and philosophy of science

Nuclear vs renewables: A tale of disparities.


Nuclear power plants (Image: Fast Company)

The Times's Eduardo Porter has a short piece on nuclear power vs renewables where he makes a plea for supporting the development of new nuclear technologies with improved safety and efficiency. He is also not impressed with the history, cost and future potential of renewables. One of the simple facts that people who support renewables seem to constantly downplay is the sheer scale on which they would have to replace fossil fuels, and especially coal, and the short time which they have to accomplish this; the gargantuan scale is one which - in spite of continued developments in technology - they are just not in a position to address for several decades. As Porter indicates, even a $30 per metric ton carbon tax would not help them scale such heights.

Nor are renewables cheap. The much touted German "miracle" of apparently cheap and limitless solar power benefits from subsidies. It also masks the inconvenient fact that Germany still imports cheap nuclear-generated electricity from France. In addition, the Germans have had to switch to coal to compensate for widespread nuclear power plant shutdowns and this has caused emissions to rise. The German tale of cheap energy from the sun is thus rather deceptive; in fact it's really an illustration of what happens when you suddenly switch to an unproven energy source and abandon a time-tested one. The story seems to reinforce the fact that every time you vote against nuclear power you are voting in favor of fossil fuels, and this is true even in a country aggressively committed to renewables.

Nor is renewable-generated energy cheap in the US. As Porter puts it,

"An analysis of power generation in 21 countries by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the International Energy Agency projected that even if the world were to impose a tax of $30 per metric ton of carbon dioxide, neither wind nor solar could outcompete gas and coal.

A new generation of nuclear power, by contrast, is potentially the cheapest energy source of all.

The study projected that the typical nuclear generator in North America could produce power at $50 to $75 per megawatt-hour, depending on assumptions about construction costs and interest rates, against $70 to $80 for coal-fueled power. Wind-powered electricity would cost from $60 to $90, but there are limits to how much it can be scaled up. A megawatt-hour of solar power still costs in the hundreds."

Part of what has made nuclear power cheaper is a silent revolution in the 90s - partly inspired by Three Mile Island that killed exactly zero individuals - which led to retrofitting of existing nuclear plants and significant gains in efficiency, even as new orders were being cancelled. New plant construction is still expensive though; partly for sane reasons, partly because of the draconian standards that nuclear plants are subjected to, and partly because of older designs that have been locked in due to a lack of innovation. However this state of affairs is decidedly changing; there are plenty of new designs as well as modifications of existing ones that promise to cut costs while improving safety and efficiency. And a new breed of young and old entrepreneurs is stepping into a space that has been devoid of innovation for way too long. These innovators have moved past the bugbears and scaremongering of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima and are far more worried about the very much real specter of climate change.

As for renewables, cost is not the only issue. One aspect of solar power which Porter doesn't mention in his piece and people don't seem to appreciate is how much pollution it can cause. A 2000 piece in Foreign Affairs magazine by Richard Rhodes and Dennis Beller pointed out the toxic metals - substances which unlike radioactive isotopes have an infinite half-life - that the solar power industry generates. Wind power also has similar deep-seated issues, including usage of vast tracts of land and destruction of bird life.

"A 1,000-MWe solar electric plant would generate 6,850 tonnes of hazardous waste from metals processing alone over a 30-year lifetime. A comparable solar thermal plant (using mirrors focused on a central tower) would require metals for construction that would generate 435,000 tonnes of manufacturing waste, of which 16,300 tonnes would be contaminated with lead and chromium and be considered hazardous...Wind farms, besides requiring millions of pounds of concrete and steel to build (and thus creating huge amounts of waste materials), are inefficient, with low (because intermittent) capacity. A wind farm equivalent in output and capacity to a 1,000-MWe fossil-fuel or nuclear plant would occupy 2,000 square miles of land and, even with substantial subsidies and ignoring hidden pollution costs, would produce electricity at double or triple the cost of fossil fuels."

These are serious and deep problems, and it's completely unclear how renewables can overcome them both on a large scale and in a short amount of time. Most advocates of renewables have not come up with a comprehensive plan to resolve these basic issues. Nobody is arguing against the development of solar and wind technologies since they can certainly play a vital role in certain areas, especially those with plenty of sunshine. But to deploy them on a nationwide scale means to confront the kind of issues which Germany is just starting to see. We need a lot of energy, and we need it fast, and it seems for now that an aggressive push toward safe, efficient and low-carbon nuclear power is the only dominant strategy that can kill both these birds with one stone.

Related posts:

1. Nuclear energy might have saved 1.8 million lives.

2. "Pandora's Promise" and the truth about nuclear energy.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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