Issues & Insights

Nuclear Power Is The Only Viable Solution To Climate Change

SpringerLink

 

The most recent séance on climate change, finishing today in Glasgow, largely resembles many of the earlier ones – hysterical warnings of existential threats to the planet; demonization of the fossil fuels that, literally, fuel the vast majority of the world’s economies; and kicking the can down the road on commitments to decarbonize (India just committed to goals to be met by 2070). And, of course, no climate change conclave would be complete without pontification from former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, and a stern scolding from dysphoric, cheerless teenage activist Greta Thunberg.

Perhaps appropriately, the event as usual produced more heat than light, and once again, what could prove to be the single most important strategy – a marked increase in the role of nuclear power as one of the “green technologies” – was ignored. 

At home and abroad, American politicians routinely play their part in this environmental kabuki, peddling apocalypse and demanding that Americans accept skyrocketing gasoline and home heating costs, rolling blackouts and brownouts, endless subsidies for uneconomic vehicles and power generation, and on and on. Although the U.S. contribution to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is substantial (around 15% of the world’s total in 2015), it is falling, and by 2025, those emissions could be 14%-18% below 2005 levels. Rather than accept the progress brought about by technology and ingenuity, our leaders want the U.S. to put on a self-destructive show to impress the rest of the world.

Wishful thinking and flawed assumptions are the order of the day, often relying on climate models that exhibit the typical “garbage in, garbage out” flaws that make models little more than directional guesses. For example, most models assume that humans will fail to adapt to changing conditions that allow floodwaters to rise without mitigation measures, wildfires to burn without forest management and farms to fail by refusing to alter the crop mix.

Compounding the uncertainties, many countries are underreporting their greenhouse gas emissions in their reports to the United Nations. An examination of 196 country reports by the Washington Post revealed significant gaps between what nations declare their emissions to be versus the greenhouse gases they are actually releasing into the atmosphere. The gap ranges from at least 8.5 billion to as high as 13.3 billion tons a year of underreported emissions.

Either in the interest of ideology or profit, climate activists promote wind and solar solutions despite the enormous carbon footprint to manufacture them, the intermittency of their energy production, and their inefficient use of resources and land. Rather than accept the proven utility of fossil fuel backup, they prefer to consign us to unreliable power grids. Or they overlook the monstrous costs and pollution required to manufacture and dispose of batteries for energy storage on top of what is needed for electric vehicles.  

These costs are far from trivial; and in addition, wind and solar power create extreme intrinsic unreliability, as illustrated by the catastrophic West Texas freeze last winter, when renewable power sources and natural gas equipment failed. While there are hints of breakthroughs in utility-scale electrical storage – the recently publicized but unproven “iron-air” array, for example – the reality is that creating resilience is expensive and magnifies the battery production challenges. Given battery costs of $100 per kWh and a typical turbine output over four days of 36-72 megawatt-hours, a single wind turbine backup battery would cost $3.6 million to $7.2 million. There are 11,000 West Texas wind turbines, so backup costs are in the billions.

There was already a huge challenge in just making enough EV batteries. As physicist Mark Mills pointed out in the Wall Street Journal: “The [International Energy Agency] finds that with a global energy transition like the one (President Joe) Biden envisions, demand for key minerals such as lithium, graphite, nickel and rare-earth metals would explode, rising by 4,200%, 2,500%, 1,900% and 700%, respectively, by 2040.”

Not only might the planet not have the capacity to meet this demand, but many of these materials come from places that are hostile or that we do not control – such as China/Mongolia, the Congo, and Bolivia – leading to an unpredictable supply.

The environmental impact of battery production is significant. The production of lithium is either carbon dioxide polluting or wasteful of water — up to 500,000 gallons per ton of the mineral. Cobalt mining produces radioactive contaminants, including uranium. About 80% of the weight of a Tesla battery – 1,200 pounds gross – requires mined materials. In practice, that means mining about 100,000 pounds or 50 tons of raw ore per vehicle. If 10 million U.S.-based electric cars are sold in 2030 (about half of sales), that would translate to 500 million tons of new mining with all the accompanying emissions from mining equipment and the accompanying pollution. To put that in context, current U.S. coal mining is about 700 million tons per year.

It is easy to ignore these realities and set pie-in-the-sky goals while frightening the public into accepting them. Biden’s expansive commitments and the IPCC’s alarmist report (August 2021) on climate change are cases in point. But perhaps the single greatest sin is the demonization of nuclear power, including the decommissioning of existing nuclear plants that are still serviceable. Significant advances in nuclear power plant design that have improved efficiency and safety have been ignored.

Jacopo Buongiorno, a professor of nuclear-engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has cited findings from the IPCC (Figures 7.6 and 7.7) that over the lifecycle of power plants – which includes construction, mining, transport, operation, decommissioning and disposal of waste – per quantity of energy, the GHG emissions for nuclear power are 1/700th those of coal, 1/400th of gas, and one-fourth of solar. According to him (“Nuclear Energy: The Need For Radical Innovation,” Nuclear Energy Talk for Nuclear Science and Engineering Alumni, June 8, 2021), nuclear also requires 2,000 times less land than wind and nearly 400 times less than solar. For any given power output, the amount of raw material used to construct a nuclear plant is a small fraction of an equivalent solar or wind farm.

Although nuclear waste is obviously more difficult to dispose of – a problem that must be solved but is frequently used as a convenient excuse – its volume is 1/10,000th of the waste of solar, and 1/500th of wind. This includes abandoned infrastructure and all the toxic substances that end up in landfills. According to Buongiorno, a person’s lifetime use of nuclear power would produce a total of only about 75 ounces of waste. (And much of that could be recyclable.) Even including the Chernobyl disaster, human mortality from coal is 2,000 to 3,000 times that of nuclear, while oil claims 400 times as many lives.

A comprehensive analysis conducted at MIT in 2018 concluded that although a number of low- or zero-carbon technologies can be advantageously employed in various combinations, nuclear is virtually essential as a contributing low-carbon technology. Without it, “the cost of achieving deep decarbonization targets increases significantly.” That is transparently a hedge against admitting it would be almost impossible to decarbonize without it.

Despite that promise, the traditional nuclear option has become increasingly costly, while other green technologies have become less expensive, often due to subsidies. The MIT analysis makes several important recommendations to reverse that trend. For example:

  1. An increased focus on using proven project and construction management practices – to decrease the probability of delays and other problems in getting new nuclear power plants online. This entails using proven supply chains and workers, and obtaining cooperation and flexibility from regulators to accommodate minor, unanticipated, needed changes in design and
    construction.
  • A shift away from primarily field construction of cumbersome, highly site-dependent construction of power plants to more serial, or assembly-line, manufacturing of standardized plants. The MIT analysis suggests that this should make use of “an array of cross-cutting technologies, including modular construction in factories and shipyards, advanced concrete solutions (e.g., steel-plate composites, high-strength reinforcement steel, ultra-high-performance concrete), seismic isolation technology, and advanced plant layouts (e.g., embedment, offshore siting), could have positive impacts on the cost and schedule of new nuclear power plant construction.”
  • A shift toward reactor designs that incorporate inherent and passive safety features. We can make the operation of plants simpler and improve the resiliency to human errors with core materials that have high chemical and physical stability, and high heat capacity, along with automated safety systems that require limited or no emergency AC power and minimal external
    intervention.
  • Tweaks to the current regulatory framework to improve the speed and efficacy of licensing reviews. Serially produced, assembly-line production of small reactors should enable regulators to streamline approvals.
  • “Decarbonization policies should create a level playing field that allows all low-carbon generation technologies to compete on their merits” (per the MIT 2018 analysis). In other words, put government support of nuclear power on equal footing with the subsidies and other favorable treatment provided to other green technologies and fossil fuels.
  • Increased government funding of programs for prototype testing and commercial
    deployment of advanced reactor designs
    . This funding could take several forms: (a) sharing research and development costs, (b) funding directed at attaining specific technical milestones, (c) offsetting some production costs for innovative designs, and (d) defraying some regulatory licensing and compliance costs.

There are many nuclear technologies being investigated and funded by private capital, including molten-salt reactors, liquid-metal reactors, advanced small modular reactors (SMRs), microreactors and quite a few more. More than 70 development projects are under way in the U.S., with many designs intended to create assembly-line construction facilities to simplify and standardize testing, licensing and installations. One promising approach is to replace large-scale facilities in favor of many smaller but safer, cheaper, and more manageable ones. The $10 billion, 10-year planning and implementation cycle for a large nuclear plant can be cut in half with an SMR and halved again with a microreactor.

SMRs could be deployed today if we could surmount the negative propaganda about the nuclear industry. Microreactors could generate between 1 and 20 megawatts of power (enough to provide electricity to 500 to 20,000 homes) while needing to refuel only once every five to 10 years. They are air-cooled, capable of being shut down rapidly with no risk of radioactive release, and occupy very small spaces. The low volume of waste could easily be transported safely to a storage site as compared to the more concentrated volume from larger facilities.

Source: SpringerLink

Source: ResearchGate

If we can get past the political hurdles, microreactors can be used in diverse applications such as charging stations for electrical vehicles and propulsion for large commercial ships. They could also power data centers; large, energy-intensive factories; desalination plants and more. Heat generation is essential for many manufacturing processes, and microreactors can provide that directly without burning fossil fuels. It is worth noting that the U.S. Navy has employed shipboard nuclear reactors for more than 50 years with no significant problems or mishaps. (Currently, there are 83 nuclear-powered ships in service – 72 submarines, 10 aircraft carriers and one research vessel.)

Nuclear power is cheap, efficient, extremely reliable, and nearly carbon-free. New designs, including smaller reactors, drastically reduce the risk of large-scale radioactive contamination.

We need to stop wasting trillions of dollars on strategies that punish American citizens and businesses while China and India increase their greenhouse-gas emissions. The U.S. could set an example for the world with the ultimate infrastructure project: building and deploying advanced nuclear power plants that painlessly accelerate our decarbonization. We think the path to the future should be based on science instead of senseless sacrifice.

Note: This op-ed is similar to but more in-depth than an analysis the authors recently published in the Wall Street Journal.

Dr. Miller is a physician and molecular biologist, and a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. Andrew Fillat, who trained as an electrical engineer, has worked for technology venture-capital and information-technology companies. They were undergraduates together at MIT.

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27 comments

  • California was once the trend setter, but China and the UK are taking the lead in NEW nuclear power plants as California moves into the abyss with the closure of its last at Diablo Canyon in a few years.

    The world’s biggest emitter, China’s planning at least 150 new reactors in the next 15 years, more than the rest of the world has built in the past 35. The effort could cost as much as $440 billion; as early as the middle of this decade, the country will surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest generator of nuclear power.
    https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2021-11-02/china-climate-goals-hinge-on-440-billion-nuclear-power-plan-to-rival-u-s

    UK poised for 16 mini nuclear reactors for carbon-free electricity.
    https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/oct/15/uk-poised-to-confirm-funding-for-mini-nuclear-reactors-for-green-energy

    • China is also greatly expanding it’s coal plants. They’ve looked at all the data on climate and concluded it isn’t being driven by human activities.

      CA really needs to push Nuclear given their cronyism motivated environmental laws aren’t sustainable, with insufficient ‘clean’ infrastructure projected to be in place by the time their all-electric vehicle laws take effect. And also doubtful they’ll be able to import as much out of state power as they’ll need.

      Something both Elon Musk and the CEO of Toyota noted– there isn’t anywhere near enough electric power given existing infrastructure, or possible ‘green’ non-nuclear additions in the foreseeable future for the politicians vision of a majority electric vehicles.

    • Tsk, tsk. How quickly and blithely they forget the ongoing disaster at Fukushima and revert to the narrative it can never happen again.

    • Yep. Considering that disasters are inevitable, it looks like within a generation more or less we’ll be able to validate Malthusian theory. That’s the good news.

  • Although the proposition that CO2 governs climate change is dubious and likely false, nuclear power deserves consideration for reasons beyond releasing zero CO2. Some small nuclear reactors, in the UK for example, have already harnessed CO2 as an alternative refrigerant or coolant and as an alternative to super-heated water (H2O) or steam to drive energy-producing turbines. Thus, nuclear reactors should also be considered as potential CO2-sinks, or a way to recycle CO2 generated by coal plants and other sources. Obviously, Chinese coal CO2 could be recycled productively for their nuclear power plants and other industrial uses. Looking at it like an ecosystem, fossil fuels and nuclear power could become a good combination for China.

    CO2 is more compact, more efficient and simpler to use than H2O in nuclear energy production (the UK lesson). China with its coal plants could become a world leader in producing and recycling CO2 for nuclear power production and as an industrial commodity. The USA could do likewise, rather than accepting the retarded logic to close pipelines and completely ditch fossil fuels. I love wind and solar, but CO2 is a valuable industrial commodity, and should be considered as such, rather than as a waste product on par with sewage sludge. Natural gas used to be flared off or burned as a waste product of oil production, much as CO2 is now considered a waste product.

    Stop demonizing CO2 as a deleterious waste, and start using CO2 for nuclear power and other productive uses. The fact that carbon is the basis of human and animal life, thanks to CO2 being a green plant food for photosynthesis is sadly neglected. CO2 is already transported in USA pipelines for use as an oil-field fracking alternative. So infrastructure for transporting CO2 need not be a problem, except for an entrenched political anti-pipeline mentality. The food and pharmaceutical industries already use CO2 as a solvent for its superior extractive qualities. As an alternative chemical feedstock, CO2 syntheses can produce numerous higher-value compounds. If Japan had used CO2 instead of H2O as a coolant at its Fukushima nuclear plants, ocean contamination and other environmental and human health problems might have been dramatically lessened. For sure, less ocean and water supply contamination.

    • So you believe we are no longer between Ice Ages? You and the author apparently believe in the Left’s myth.

      I believe we may one day be very happy that we have a little more CO2 in the atmosphere. Africa has been greening, as well as other parts of the world, and it may help stave off the next glaciers moving as far South as they usually do.

      A little warming is good, and a blessing.

      Most of the kooks on this planet don’t realize that commercial greenhouses PRODUCE CO2 to help their plants grow bigger and faster.

      I’ve never heard anyone talking about how we should stop them from doing so. Imagine that. In the midst of all this there are people who are, for profit, creating CO2, and no one talks about it.

      We’ve gone from 350ppm to 420ppm. Shall I write that out in decimal form so people can understand just how minute of an increase this is?

      Here it is. 350 parts per million looks like this – .00035

      Here is 420pp, – .00042

      Shall I calculate the percentage if increase for you? It’s nothing.

      Not too mention, serious and sober scientists will tell you that CO2 has about the worst heat transfering properties of anything out there.

      The Sun caused the warming, and now it is already cooling again.

      Believe in Man Made Global Warming when Barack Obama sells the house he JUST BOUGHT on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. Scared if seas rising is he?

      And believe in MMGW when Gore sells his private jets and multiple mansions.

      Fools.

  • The best kept secret, and most upsetting for environmentalists, as put forward in IPCC AR5, is the note that to meet any ‘net zero (!) targets, nuclear has to be increased by 150%-400%

  • CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) is a natural fertilizer for plants. Nurseries pump a little extra CO2 into their greenhouses to get better plant growth. The idea that CO2 is some kind of poison is absurd. Australia wrote up their remarkably successful crops this year for the world press. Even Afghanistan bragged about their bountiful crops this year. The slight increase in CO2 in the atmosphere is feeding a hungry world.

  • The University of Oregon at Corvallis has developed small nuclear plants that ca be transported on the back of a truck, or by rail, so they can go almost anywhere in the country. American ingenuity!

    • I believe there was been a similar unit in place in Antarctica for many years>
      A PM3-a unit provided power during the 60’s and 70’s at McMurdo station

      • Hadn’t seen that. Nice to know that small nuke plants can be distributed all over the country. I grew up in the mountains of Idaho, and we created our own power, small dam to be attended daily, and our own powerhouse! I know what it’s like to be without power!

      • I was unaware of such designs until this week. It’s comforting to know that there are alternatives in place aside from Joe Biden’s unbelievably stupid idea to put windmills offshore all around the country. Does nobody in this administration keep up with the news at all/

      • Nuclear will seal your fate far more certainly than fossil fuels. The big hold-up here is that at least the insurance industry is realistic and is unsympathetic towards your fantasies.

  • CO2 is good and we need more of it in our atmosphere, not less.

    Search “The Greening of Africa”. NASA pictures show the truth.

    The planet doesn’t even know we are here.

    The next volcanic super-eruption will release more carbon than all of mankind’s activities ever. Is someone going to stop that?

  • I was a Petroleum Engineer for 40 years. My career was the pursuit of finding and producing oil & gas in many regions of the U. S. HOWEVER, I have called for the construction and operation of nuclear power plants for many, many years – for longer than I was an engineer. I saw this coming in the early 70’s – our paralysis and obstinate obstruction to the construction of nuclear plants that easily would have virtually eliminated a vast majority of the pollution and high cost of energy throughout the U. S. The irrational fear of nuclear energy is just that – totally irrational. And now we will pay the price – in a very large way – and my overriding royalty interests in oil & gas properties will continue to pay handsomely, because we have little choice but to continue to produce electricity with fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.

  • I used to be in building nuclear components for the US Navy Fleet. One of the greatest mistakes the US ever made was to go away from nuclear power generation in the 1970s. Since the 1960s the US Navy has been running on nuclear power with little to no problems. Today we are paying for that mistake and will continue to pay the price.

  • May I point out that our planet’s climate has been changing continuously for the past 4+ billion years — since long before any humans were around to cause anthropogenic warming or cooling. Prior to the presence of humans, the planet has been substantially warmer and cooler than it presently is. Also, the gas mix of the atmosphere has previously contained sometimes substantially more greenhouse gasses than presently. Thus the title of this essay, “Nuclear Power Is The Only Viable Solution To Climate Change” is pure malarkey. The climate is going to continue changing no matter what.

  • Many many years ago a researcher into Nuclear Power Plants told me that there were several key things required to allow the swift and economical deployment of nuclear power. First a limited number of standard designs. This allowed one time certification of a design type instead of unique and lengthy certification of each plant. This also allowed the production of standardized parts. No one off custom parts. This also allowed standardized training of operating personnel and construction forces. So, if only say three models were deployed, small, medium and large, The lead time and costs would be dramatically less. The other item was the reprocessing of nuclear fuel. That eliminates a whole bunch of the waste. That’s what the French do and they do not have a massive mountain full of it.

  • The way the article addresses nuclear waste is laughable. I suppose because they have no answers for it. And your assessment of casualties from Chernobyl is also wrong. I am not against nuclear power, but you are being disingenuous here. And subsidies do not make things cheaper, they artificially bring prices down, but we still are paying the full price for them in the final tally. Decommissioning costs are very high as well, and after a relatively short productive lifespan. With reference to casualties caused by coal, it seems you have not ever heard of clean coal technology where emissions are near zero. I am an engineer that has worked in the nuclear industry.

  • There is a fatal flaw in this article; the assumption that any observed “climate change” is due to man’s activities. Global temperatures have not risen at a rate consistent with what the doomers were predicting decades ago, and the rate of global sea level rise has not significantly increased in the past 50 years. These facts DESTROY the man-made global warming theory, and therefore, man-made climate change theory. Time to move on to a new crisis.

  • There is no climate crisis. Predictions of calamity have failed to materialize. I would like to invite readers to search for photos of Hwy 101 in San Diego County. It is 90 years old. In northern San Diego county on the coast, the south bound lane of the road does not have a shoulder, it is the sand of the beach. Got that? No parking lot, nothing. Pull off 101, step out your car and you are standing on sand and at the beach. It’s just a few feet above sea level. If the ocean had been rising like the cultists claim, it would be under water, but the fact is that there has been no discernable rise whatso ever. It’s a statist hustle.

  • ? How bad must reactors b b4 i&I would not support? They r 1% uranium efficient and will result n environmental hell when bombed by
    an enemy. A Lead/fuel reactor is perfect but essentially all other designs r horrible. A perfect reactor is fantastically good. Current and essentially all proposed reactors r fantastically bad. Fight 4 perfect reactors, not 4 horrible reactors

  • I have heard no mention of money in this trillion dollar BBB nonsense slated to further the research on fusion reactors. That just proves to me that the whole GND is a fairly tale ginned up to conceal political motivations.

  • Wind and Solar energy ad just totaly unrelible and is a threat to large Birds forget this China Syndrome load of Malarkey from Hanoi jane and those idiots from Greenpeace their just out to appear on some stupid liberal News Program

  • There is nothing wrong with the climate, it has been changing for over 4 billion years. It’s a non-issue made into a Leftist crusade the object of which is to impose top down socialism globally by means of wealth redistribution from the first world to the third by means of carbon credits, and divide us all against each other politically to make imposing socialism/communism that much easier.

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