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Nuclear options going forward

(Note: Commentaries do not necessarily represent the ASPO-USA position.)

We are at a crossroads with respect to nuclear energy, having discovered a new way (or several new ways) that nuclear plants can fail. How do we deal with such a situation? There seem to be several options, but all seem to have drawbacks:

1. Business as usual. Continue building nuclear reactors as in the past. This is pretty clearly not going to work, because citizens are worried about the situation in Japan and want to make certain a similar situation doesn’t happen near where they live. At a minimum, citizens want a re-examination of the risks involved so as to try to prevent future radioactive releases.

2. Build stronger / more advanced nuclear power plants in the future, in an attempt to avoid the newly discovered problems. One problem with this approach is that such power plants almost always cost more, so the front-end cost will be even higher than in the past. Another problem is that at least some risks will remain (political risk?) that have not been completely avoided by the improved design1. Furthermore, more advanced designs may introduce a new set of risks that will only become evident over time. Also, even if improved power plants are built in the future, it doesn’t address the problems with existing nuclear plants.

3. Start phasing out nuclear power plants that have deficiencies. The big issue is that someone, somewhere is now using the power generated by these deficient plants. For example, the power generated by Germany’s older nuclear power plants may not be required by Germany directly, but it is now part of the system of internationally traded electricity. A country such as Italy, which is an importer of electricity, may find it difficult to obtain as much electricity as is needed, if the older power plants are phased out. Russia could hypothetically phase out some of its nuclear power plants and substitute natural gas production, but this would likely leave less natural gas for export to Europe. If the phase out is in the United Kingdom (which is already experiencing a decline in North Sea natural gas), there may not be enough alternative sources of electricity available, so that rolling blackouts will be required.

4. Quit building new plants and phase out old plants as soon as possible. Because of lack of good substitutes, it is hard to see more than an occasional country following this practice, even if it would be the safest option in many respects.

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1 Among other things, we need to make certain that spent fuel rods can be kept properly in cooling tanks, even if a political revolution is going on nearby.

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Given the issues involved, some combination of options (2) and (3) seem to be likely outcomes. The question, though, is what impact such a change will have on total electricity production. We have been hoping to have electricity for plug-in electric automobiles, but how can we expect to have enough electricity for new usages if we are facing a possible decline in existing electrical supplies?


Figure 1 -- Based on BP and EIA data

For the US, nuclear amounts to 20% of electricity generation, while hydroelectric amounts to a little under 7%, other renewables (including wood, geothermal, wind, solar, and biogas) amount to 4%, and fossil fuels amount to 69% of electricity generation. If we consider total renewables (combining hydroelectric and other renewables), the percentage of US electricity from renewables has been flat to slightly declining in the past 20 years because hydroelectric generation has been decreasing.

Figure 2 shows that a disproportionate share of US nuclear plants is in states along the East Coast, where, EIA data indicate, 30-35% of electric power is generated by nuclear. If a substantial share of this production were lost because of failure to renew nuclear licenses (or for some other reason), it would be difficult to replace with renewables. The only possible partial replacement might be with offshore wind, but it tends to be at least twice as expensive as nuclear power.


Figure 2 -- Map created by EIA

California’s two nuclear power plants are quite close to fault lines. One of the plants is rated for a 7.0 earthquake, the other, a 7.5. Together they generate 16% of California’s power. California is already a major importer of electric power and has limited capability to import more. If California were to lose its two nuclear power plants, it might need to go to rolling blackouts to compensate for tight supplies.

Planning for the Future

One of the big questions going forward is how much electricity generation we need to plan for in 2020 or 2030. Until the recession of 2008-2009, electricity usage had grown consistently by a little over 2% per year, and most of this additional electricity was created by additional fossil fuel use2 (see Figure 1). The rest was created by running our nuclear power plants with less downtime.

The question is whether we can continue to ramp up electrical production by 2% or more a year if the contribution from nuclear is declining. If nuclear production needs to be scaled back, we may need a major downshift in our expectations regarding future electricity consumption. This could be a real “downer” because one of our current approaches to reducing petroleum use is to substitute electricity for diesel or gasoline. If both electricity and petroleum consumption are constrained, then there are fewer options for substitution, and we may need to plan for a real reduction in standard of living.

If we are headed for limited electrical supply, perhaps we need to be thinking about our electrical future more carefully. Do we want to purposely limit electrical demand, or are we willing to let it continue to grow? How will we make up our shortfall in electrical production if we phase out some of our nuclear plants? Do we continue adding more fossil fuel power plants despite their CO2 issues? Also, at some point, we may find natural gas3 and perhaps even coal becoming less available. How do we deal with these issues?

If we choose to do nothing, we may very well discover at some point that electricity demand exceeds electricity production, especially in some parts of the country. Are we willing to use rolling blackouts to ration electricity if there isn’t enough to go around? Even rolling blackouts require some planning. If we are not careful, we may cut off electricity to essential infrastructure, such as natural gas and crude oil pipelines, and thus make our situation worse than it would otherwise be.

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2 I checked to see whether this increase in electricity generation was offset by greater efficiency, but this did not seem to be the case. While natural gas generation was getting more efficient, efficiency of coal generation seemed to be slightly decreasing. This may reflect a combination of (1) no new coal plants being built for many years, (2) more emission controls and (3) gradually decreasing grade of fuel.

3 See Don’t count on natural gas to solve US energy problems

Gail Tverberg is on the editorial board of The Oil Drum and writes on her own blog, Our Finite World.

Editorial Notes: Gail Tverberg is a regular contributor to EB. -BA

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