Energy experts come full circle on nuclear power
By Bruce Lantz
As if there wasn’t already enough confusion over the best ways to combat climate change — electric vehicles, hydrogen power, solar, wind and other methodologies — now the so-called ‘experts’ have raised the scepter of — dare we say it? — nuclear power as a potential solution to our energy woes.
The pressure is on. In Canada, for example, by 2035 every new vehicle sold in the country must be electric, as mandated by federal law, even though only 5.2% of new cars sold in 2021 were electric. For some the shift is seen as devastating, since it will wreak havoc in Canada’s oil patch, while others have seen it as an opportunity for new, ‘green’ developments in hydrogen fuel and others.
Some of us may remember not too fondly when nuclear power was banished after the fiasco at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union in the mid-80s, followed by Fukushima, Japan in 2011. That brought nuclear development to a standstill in most parts of the world. Now it’s being seen as another power source, particularly replacing much-maligned coal. Experts say it will be critical for reducing carbon emissions and will reduce the world’s reliance on fossil fuels from authoritarian regimes such as Russia. Advocates note that nuclear power offers a consistent energy supply, given that solar and wind power aren’t consistent as the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. And while there are improvements in electricity storage, studies show that using nuclear energy makes decarbonizing the grid easier and cheaper.
The United States government is spending serious money to prolong the life of existing nuclear power plants and is offering incentives for the construction of new ones. Even California has reversed its anti-nuclear stance with the government moving to extend the life of the state’s last remaining nuclear power plant due to concerns about the reliability of the electrical grid. NuScale Power (NYSE:SMR) is planning to build six small nuclear reactors in Idaho to power nearby municipal utilities once fueled by coal, and Terra Power (NASDAQ:TERP) is planning a reactor at the site of a closing coal plant in Kemmerer, Wyoming along with five additional sites at or near retiring coal sites in the American West.
The potential for converting coal to nuclear power plants is immense. There are thousands of coal power plants in operation which will need to stop spewing CO2 by 2050 to meet climate goals, and studies have shown that the up-front capital costs for new nuclear power projects are 30% less at old coal plants than at fresh new sites. Plus, well-paying jobs will await former coal workers.
But the safety issues long surrounding nuclear plants remain today. Along with Chernobyl and Fukushima, there have been 33 serious incidents at nuclear power stations worldwide since 1952 and nuclear waste is a serious issue, with more than 250,000 metric tonnes of spent fuel rods sitting in cooling pools at both closed and operative nuclear plants. Finland has spent $3.4 billion creating an underground repository for their nuclear waste — much less than the $96 billion the U.S. will spend on nuclear waste management by the end of this century.
However, the other concerns about nuclear energy remain, such as their cost and deployment time. The perception is that the greatest barrier to the supposed nuclear power renaissance is that it is unable to deliver affordable power on time and on budget. The cost is extreme, in the tens of billions of dollars, which scares off potential investors, and cost overruns are the norm not the exception. The average construction time, which doesn’t include arranging finances, planning, licensing and site preparation, is about a decade. That doesn’t bode well for nuclear, when studies show it’s 3-8 times more expensive than wind or solar power. While smaller-scale reactors are viewed by proponents as the salvation because they’re quicker to build with factory-made parts, they only generate, at most, a 10th of the energy of a conventional reactor and have many of the same problems. And reports indicate that they are even slower to reach operational status and are more expensive per kilowatt capacity.
Of course, those who support the use of nuclear power would have us believe that the massive baseload system reactors provide when they’re operational is just what weather-based renewables need during down times, but nuclear energy is the opposite of what decentralized clean energy systems require. But renewables and nuclear energy don’t mix well, according to Toby Couture of E3 Analytics. Nuclear power is “inflexible and unable to ramp up and down,” he said, “but flexible, nimble supply provided by the likes of storage capacity, smart grids, demand management and a growing toolbox of other mechanisms — not the large and inflexible supply of nuclear reactors.”
So, after all the arguments pro and con, how are we supposed to know what’s best for the future, for our world? Obviously, nuclear power had fallen out of favour after the disasters of Chernobyl and Fukushima. But now some view it as a solution, along with electric vehicles which are expensive, unproven and impractical, and a vast array of renewables such as solar and wind power, which have their own drawbacks.
Skeptics might be forgiven for wondering if the powers that be are merely grabbing onto every untried, unproven suggestion that emanates from some (by no means not all) in the science community, along with overeager and untrained environmentalists. Not to suggest they are wrong, but some will remember the demand some years ago to ‘save our forests’ by replacing paper bags in grocery stores with plastic ones. So, we shifted toward what we were told was essential to save the world. Then, of late, those same advocates shifted 180 degrees and now say that plastic is bad so it’s better to use paper. Didn’t they do their research before? Now are we being led down yet another garden path? The world has become like a yoyo moving at the whim of special interest groups who foist their theories on the public with no guarantee they won’t be changed in another few years — after trillions of dollars have been spent making their fantasy into reality.
Maybe we should have been content with getting our energy from oil and gas, a less expensive and proven source, until we saw irrefutable proof that a particular change was without question the best way.