Many conservatives and some so-called environmentalists and greens now espouse nuclear power as the solution to combat global warming. Kéllia Ramares investigates whether building a new generation of nuclear power plants is practical, possible, or wise given both their huge expense and that climate change is already occurring and global oil peak is imminent. (The issues of nuclear waste and security will be dealt with later in this series).
The following people are featured in the report:
- Scott Burnell – Spokesperson – Nuclear Regulatory Commission – Maryland, US
- Richard Heinberg – Author – The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies – California, US
- Sheila Watt-Cloutier – Chairperson – Inuit Circumpolar Conference – Nunavut, Canada
- Tom Williams – Spokesperson – Duke Power – North Carolina, US
- John Ritch – Director General – World Nuclear Association, UK
Stay tuned for Part II of The Cyanide Solution on nuclear waste. *
The Cyanide Solution refers to the unfortunate new global policies of dramatically increasing coal and nuclear power stations. The chemical formula of cyanide is CN.
In March of 2001, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney told MSNBC, “If you want to do something about carbon dioxide emissions, then you ought to build nuclear power plants. They don’t emit any carbon dioxide. They don’t emit greenhouse gases.”
The pro-nuclear recommendation from the Republican Cheney comes as no surprise to those who see the former Halliburton CEO as a proponent of corporate industrialism.
Former Vice President Al Gore, a reputed environmentalist, authored a book called, “Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit,” published in 1992. Yet on July 25, 1998, Gore visited the Chernobyl Museum in Kiev, Ukraine, and delivered a speech in which he said, “The lesson of Chernobyl is not an indictment of nuclear power as such. Nuclear power, designed well, regulated properly, cared for meticulously, has a place in the world’s energy supply.”
And no less a green figure than British environmentalist James Lovelock, who promoted the Gaia Hypothesis–Earth as a living, self-regulating organism–has decided that nuclear power is needed to combat global warming.
But even as some environmentalists start to rethink the traditional Green opposition to nuclear power, one must ask, “Is nuclear practical?”
In June, 2003, John Ritch, Director General of the World Nuclear Association, told Global Public Media’s Julian Darley that the nuclear industry plans for the long haul.
“The nuclear industry doesn’t engage in sort of short term planning. Right now the industry is gathering itself to start building a new generation of nuclear power plants.
The nuclear industry in the United States has set a goal of moving from 100 to 150 reactors, a 50% increase, in the next twenty years. It is a consequence of long-term planning that sees a future in which greenhouse-gas emissions are going to have to be reduced, and in which there may indeed be a shortage of certain fossil fuels.”
But Sheila Watt-Cloutier, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, says that
Global warming is melting the Arctic is melting so rapidly, that the traditional hunting culture of the indigenous Inuit is threatened right now:
“Where there used to be streams where you were able to cross to go into another hunting area, is now become a torrent river as a result of the glaciers melting. And we had a drowning there a couple of years ago as a result of that. We have lost hunters who have fallen through the ice.
We are working towards developing a strategy that would allow us to connect climate change to human rights issues.”
As an example of the long lead times needed by the nuclear industry to license and build a plant, consider Duke Power, headquartered in North Carolina. The utility provides electricity to residential, commercial, and industrial customers in North and South Carolina. Duke sees a need for additional generating capacity in its service area, and has no more room to build in its current plants. So in March, Duke Power met with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission—the NRC, for preliminary discussions about how to use the NRC’s yet untried combined operating license procedure to apply for permission to build and operate a new nuclear power plant.
Tom Williams, a spokesperson for Duke Power, described his company’s timeline for building a new nuclear plant:
“We think the overall process will take about four years to license the plant, and then about five years to build the plant. So, we’re looking at about a nine to ten year time horizon from the time from when we begin to when we actually have a plant online.
But it is important to note that we have not committed to do this yet. What we’ve said is that we’re looking at it very seriously. We’re preparing a cost estimate to see what it could cost to get a combined operating license.
If we decide to go forward with things, then we’ll be submitting bids for requests for proposals from the market to see who can help us oversee this process. And then we’ll select somebody to do that by the end of the year.”
Assuming again, that things go forward.
Scott Burnell of the NRC confirmed that Duke’s licensing application is still years away:
“The discussions have been in terms of understanding our process more completely and providing some hypothetical timelines for how they might proceed with a combined license application.
But they’ve made it clear to us that they don’t expect to come to a decision on how to move forward until later this year, and even if they do decide to move forward, they wouldn’t expect to actually submit the application until early in 2008.”
So if Duke applies for a license in 2008, its plant will not be online until about 2017 or 2018…Assuming Peak Oil doesn’t get in the way.
Oil is a finite resource…and Peak Oil, the point after which world oil production will be in terminal decline, is in sight. Exactly when Peak will occur has been debated for some time. The most optimistic forecasters, such as the U.S. Geological Survey, say it’s still two or even three decades away. But Richard Heinberg, author of “The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies”, thinks Peak is upon us:
“My concern now is that those of us who were predicting that oil peak might happen in the years between 2010 and 2015 were unrealistically optimistic. In 2006, there is less new production capacity that will be coming online than is the case in 2005. But the need for new production capacity in 2006 will be greater than it is this year. So, barring some really extraordinary unforeseen events, I think that 2005 is most likely going to end up being the peak year. And we’ll see declines in production from here on out.”
Even if all these issues could be satisfactorily resolved in short order, will there be enough energy to build nuclear plants when global oil production goes into terminal decline? Nuclear power plants are built of tons of concrete and steel that require much energy to manufacture.
If the energy and materials to build nuclear power plants must be taken from other forms of construction, which projects will be sacrificed? Military bases abroad, or houses, schools and hospitals at home?
For Global Public Media, I’m Kéllia Ramares.
Transcript by Kéllia Ramares