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December 26, 2016

Combating Climate Change - The Nuclear Option

“So, Tom, I understand that you are skeptical of science by consensus and don’t feel that there is yet a reliable model for predicting global temperatures given a particular level of CO2 emissions. That would be fine if this were an academic discussion but the fate of life on earth as we know it may hang in the balance. Why aren’t you convinced enough to take action now since the vast majority of climatologists agree that the anthropogenic effect is at least significant?” This is some of the reaction, at least on Facebook, to my posts here and here on climate change science.

Fair enough question. Actually I think we should be taking action now. But the question should be “what action”? I’d start with rebuilding the US nuclear industry.

No less an authority than climatologist James Hansen, who is certainly one of the scientists most alarmed by the effects of carbon emissions, says in an article written with three colleagues:

“To solve the climate problem, policy must be based on facts and not on prejudice. The climate system cares about greenhouse gas emissions – not about whether energy comes from renewable power or abundant nuclear power. Some have argued that it is feasible to meet all of our energy needs with renewables. The 100% renewable scenarios downplay or ignore the intermittency issue by making unrealistic technical assumptions, and can contain high levels of biomass and hydroelectric power at the expense of true sustainability….

“… a build rate of 61 new reactors per year could entirely replace current fossil fuel electricity generation by 2050. Accounting for increased global electricity demand driven by population growth and development in poorer countries, which would add another 54 reactors per year, this makes a total requirement of 115 reactors per year to 2050 to entirely decarbonise the global electricity system in this illustrative scenario. We know that this is technically achievable because France and Sweden were able to ramp up nuclear power to high levels in just 15-20 years.”

Being done in China, of course. In the US this means getting Yucca Mountain open. It was first designated as a repository for nuclear waste in 1987. We’ve paid for it many times over in charges on nuclear plants; but the waste from our current plants is still in their onsite storage pools, largely because Senator Reid managed to block opening Yucca. He’s gone; time to open Yucca for current and future waste and start building new nukes.

I am NOT advocating massive subsidies for nukes or a prohibition of competing power sources. I am advocating lowering the incredible high cost of building a nuclear plant through regulatory reform and making sure that it is recognized as being carbon-free and smoke-free and Sulphur-free and nitrous-oxide-free etc. etc.

  1. Wherever there are standards for the amount of “renewable” energy utilities must buy, make sure these are changed to be “emission free” as Hansen suggests. If there are no such standards, nukes will have to compete on price (which I think they’ll be able to do).
  2. A couple of standard reference designs should be pre-approved. This means that the approval process for each proposed new plant does NOT have to include and should not include the design of the plant itself. Only site-specific issues need to be considered. Permits for new designs should be possible, of course.
  3. Limit the permitting period to two years. The answer may well be “no” for any specific plant. That frees resources to look to site elsewhere.
  4. Once a permit is granted, do NOT allow “protests” to disrupt construction. Period. Of course legal appeals are possible; but, once the initial permit has been granted, appellants who want a stay of construction should have to post a bond equal to the cost of the delay, which will be forfeit if the appeal is lost.

BTW steps three and four need to be taken for all infrastructure projects (see this ancient post). Interestingly, developers of wind projects in Vermont are finding their projects delayed by harassment as well.

 Just think, once we have enough nuclear plants, we won’t have to footnote that Teslas run on 33% coal-derived energy.

The net effect of building more nuclear plants, especially if done without subsidies, should be cheaper and not more expensive power. So, if it turns out that fears of climate change were over-done, we will still have improved the energy supply, especially in developing countries.

But, if you believe in the need for subsidies and mandates, you really should heed Hansen’s advice and insist that they be available to reestablish nuclear power.

Hard to see why this isn’t something we all agree on – unless, of course, we have a vested interest in some other source of energy.

I’ll have more ideas for preemptive climate action we should take in subsequent posts and, of course, welcome your ideas to the discussion.

More posts in the climate change series:

“Dissent is not a crime” – Except to the New York Times

Believers and Deniers

Natural Gas vs. Climate Change

Past Climate Change - The Pictures

Solar and Wind Need Natural Gas

 Natural Gas and Fugitive Emissions


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