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Nuclear Energy: Mark Bittman's Renewables Delusions

Nuclear and Renewables

Nuclear provided America with about 180 times more energy than solar last year, and is one of our cheapest, safest baseload sources of zero-carbon energy, and yet New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman insists that solar and other renewables are better positioned than nuclear to replace coal. This post debunks Bittman’s column. 

New nuclear plants are being built around the world including in the United States. Bittman incorrectly suggests that nuclear energy is going away. In fact, there are 69 nuclear power plants under construction around the world right now, dozens of which will come online in the next year. China has 28 plants under construction, Russia has 11, and there’s even a small handful in Europe. Japan is not only restarting some of their idled reactors, but also approving construction of new nuclear plants.

In the wake of Fukushima, no countries announced plans to cancel new nuclear reactors, and several countries (UAE, Turkey, Jordan) announced plans to begin construction on their very first nuclear power plants. The United States is indeed closing a few old plants — Vermont Yankee operated for four decades — but we also have four new larger nuclear reactors under construction.

Renewables require a massive expansion of the grid, not its demise. Bittman imagines that renewables are like personal computers displacing mainframes, essentially freeing us from the grid, but this is the opposite of what the NREL study he cites actually claims. NREL’s study relies on a huge expansion and upgrade of the electrical grid, not its dismantling. Renewable energy like wind and solar, by their intermittent nature, require more grid infrastructure not less.

In Germany, for instance, the government is currently spending $25 billion on 2300 miles of new high-voltage transmission lines, and when the sun doesn’t shine (which is often the case in Germany) the country relies on the interconnected European grid to import electricity from other countries (like nuclear-powered France).

Renewables, on the other hand, are far from ready to replace fossil fuels in any country. Germany, in fact, is building new coal plants.

Nuclear receives far less subsidies than renewables. Bittman attacks nuclear subsidies, but they are far smaller than renewables subsidies. Since 1950, nuclear power has received $3.60 in federal subsidies for every megawatt-hour of electricity it has produced, compared to $1.50 for coal, $5.70 for gas, $6 for hydro, and over $100 for solar and wind. Germany has committed over $130 billion to solar subsidies since 2000, yet only receives 5 percent of its annual electricity from solar.

Renewables are far more dependent on subsidies than nuclear. Meanwhile, renewables are completely dependent on federal and state subsidies. When the federal PTC for wind expires, new wind projects plummet. And these are not loans; these are direct payments, tax credits and grants ($10 billion from 2009-2014). Wind and solar may be competitive with coal in some areas, but that’s including these massive subsidies. Renewables also receive many implicit subsidies like renewable portfolio standards, priority access to the grid, net metering, etc.

Utilities pay billions to insure their nuclear plants. What about insurance? Utilities are required to buy the maximum amount of insurance available and pay into an additional fund of $12.6 billion in the event of an accident. And while federal loans for nuclear power plants are quite new (only one has been accepted), new nuclear power projects are under construction in South Carolina sans federal loans.

Nuclear scales seven times faster than renewables. Bittman claims renewables can scale quickly while nuclear is slow — the opposite is the case: nuclear can be scaled seven times faster than renewables. One recent analysis examined how quickly countries could add energy from various sources over an 11-year period in terms of how much additional energy was added per person (MWh/person/yr). Sweden, France, and Belgium’s nuclear build-out were the fastest, adding 5-7 MWh/person/yr. What of Germany’s push into renewables over the last decade? It added just 1 MWh/person/yr of wind and solar over the same amount of time.

The only country that has decarbonized at a fast enough rate to meet climate targets was France during its massive nuclear build-out. It went from zero percent nuclear to 80 percent in 30 years.

Sweden voted in 1980 to phase-out nuclear power by 2010, but this plan was cancelled over concerns of climate change and the realization that renewables were not a feasible option. And while coal use is shrinking in the United States, it is because of cheap natural gas, not a valuation of externalities. 

No energy technology is perfectly clean, and solar panel production creates toxic waste. Bittman imagines solar is clean but the mining of materials used in solar panels is extremely toxic, and the production of PV solar panels produces more SO2 than when coal is burned (per unit of energy created). About 80 percent of European solar panels are manufactured in China, whose environmental and occupational protections may not be up to Bittman’s standards. In 2011, massive protests erupted in China after an accident at a solar panel factory resulted in a toxic waste spill.

Advanced nuclear reactors are being developed around the world. There have been a variety of designs built and tested over the decades, from salt-cooled to gas-cooled, pebble-bed to liquid fueled. In 1986, the US EBR-II plant performed a demonstration of its advanced passive safety features, where power was shut off, cooling ceased, and the reactor was able to shut-down and cool itself without any human or mechanical intervention. A similar test was performed with a gas-cooled reactor in China in 2004. The Superphénix plant in France – another sodium-cooled fast reactor that operated from 1986-97 – was 1200 MW, larger than most commercial nuclear power plants today. None of the examples above are “coulds.”

Since they use fuel much more efficiently, advanced reactors would lessen the need for uranium mining. Some new reactors can use nuclear waste as fuel or decommissioned weapons material, meaning there is much less need for new uranium to be mined. And while uranium mining can indeed be dangerous, it’s not nearly as dangerous or environmentally harmful as coal mining.

Antinuclear activists are one of the greatest threats to action on the climate. Bittman likely has no sense of the scale that’s required to deal with climate change. Consider that if a single 500 MW nuclear reactor is taken off the grid, over 100,000 solar home installations and 750 wind turbines would need to be installed in order to generate enough power to fill the void. Bittman fears the new nuclear craze, but what’s crazy, and scary, is his insistence that we shut down the development of new, advanced nuclear plants that have proven to be able to displace coal. As former NASA climate scientist James Hansen said, “The danger is that the minority of vehement antinuclear ‘environmentalists’ could cause development of advanced safe nuclear power to be slowed.”

Photo Credit: Renewables Delusions/shutterstock

Jessica Lovering's picture

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 14, 2013 1:22 am GMT

Steve, what is it exactly about nuclear energy, which is ultimately the source of all potential energy contained within the chemical bonds of biofuels, which is not natural?

I’d argue that it’s much more natural – it’s certainly more direct, and the efficiency of biofuel production is so low that using them to create liquid fuels is going backwards.



Nobel-prizewinning biochemist Hartmut Michel describes why all biofuels are “nonsense”:

“Because of the low photosynthetic efficiency and the competition of energy plants with food plants for agricultural land, we should not grow plants for biofuel production…with respect to the carbon footprint, it would be even much better to reforest the land used to grow energy plants, because at a 1% photosynthetic efficiency, growing trees would fix around 2.7kg of CO2 per square meter, whereas biofuels produced with a net efficiency of 0.1% would only replace fossil fuels which would release about 0.31 kg CO2 per m2 upon combustion!”

Roy Wagner's picture
Roy Wagner on Sep 14, 2013 3:17 am GMT

I also half agree safe Nuclear is essential  most advanced designs are 10 years away from being permited and licenced and will then take another 10 years to build best case scenario say 15 years.

How much more renewables capacity will be deployed in the next 15 – 20 years the equivilant of 100 Nuclear plants. Hydroelectric geothermal and ocean energy can all provide a consistent supply.along with batteries CAES pumped storage and the existing gas powered spinning reserves and peaker plants.

That’s goingto make a pretty good dent in fossil fuel generation.

We can’t wait for Nuclear to become politically correct we have to start now.


Marcus Pun's picture
Marcus Pun on Sep 14, 2013 5:16 am GMT

Minnesota is hooked in with the Midcontinent Independent System Operator which includes Manitoba, and 15 states including Indiana, Minnesota, the Dakotas, Arkansas, etc – pretty much the northern half of the midwest, with 93,000 miles of transmission lines at its disposal.   It’s one of the largest electricity markets in the world, runs on Smart Grid with synchrophasors providing grid data 30x/second.  See map. They also manage wind power siting for economic effectiveness(according to their literature) and apparently wind provides $250 million benefit to the system.

So if it isn’t windy in Minnesota I think they can cope with the other sources availbable to them.

Marcus Pun's picture
Marcus Pun on Sep 14, 2013 5:27 am GMT

Seems to me that with the idiocy surrounding the management of the San Onofre plant and others like Rancho Seco many years ago, that your consiracy is redundant.  It will be a VERY long time before renewables will replace nuclear. The real necessity is knocking out fossil fuel dependency for all sectors of the economy. We need nuclear along with renewables for that. According to Stewart Brand, “…t’s nuclear versus coal. Across the board, comparing the problems of spent nuclear fuel and spent coal fuel, it’s 1,000 or 100 to one, in terms of nuclear being more safe. … Climate change is the worst thing that can happen to biodiversity. It puts the environmental movement in a different situation. It changes priorities. Suddenly, worrying about radiation 6,000 years from now kind of goes down the list.”

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 14, 2013 7:08 am GMT

Exactly. And “coping” means falling back on fossils.

That may have been acceptable in the 19th century, but it’s not anymore.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 16, 2013 1:33 pm GMT

“The cost of the actual reactor is a surprisingly small portion of the total cost of the facility”

Which is exactly why SMRs are so promising, they minimize all costs aside from the per kW cost of the physical reactor.

Fast neutron reactors completely change the economics of waste management, Steven Chu and now Ernie Moniz have alluded to this fact several times.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 16, 2013 1:43 pm GMT

Marcus, you obviously do not understand what dispatchable means. Wind and solar, unless mated with storage systems, are not dispatchable.

Also weather, if you haven’t yet noticed, is very difficult to predict.

“Wind is econimical. Live with it”

Learn to spell, Learn what dispatchable means, Learn how grid electricity works, and then come back and talk.

 Wind is a reasonably economic way to cut emissions but it in most areas it is very dependent on the PTC. The sticker price does not include the costs associated with variable generation, you need to learn abou those costs.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 16, 2013 1:51 pm GMT

The growth in energy demand makes the growing contribution of renewables mean little – basically the annual emissions will only continue to increase unless the developing world starts to adopt renewables and nuclear at levels of the developed world. According to the EIA coal and natural gas consumption are projected to increase annually through 2050. The situation will become dire, we really need to advocate for as much clean energy as possible.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Sep 16, 2013 4:43 pm GMT

Please ask the Chief of Staff for the DoE to consider the proper recycling of spent fuel, as (just) fission products will have been mostly decayed back down to safe levels by then.

Right now, there is an all out war between energy decline (and resulting excess CO2) and abundant almost clean energy. Let’s scientifically figure our way to reap the benefits of this much greater source from a MSR and deal with the (much smaller amounts of) wastes, thereof. Is there any other way to power modern society into the mid range future?

Marcus Pun's picture
Marcus Pun on Sep 18, 2013 1:50 am GMT

Spelling police, really?

Concentrated solar is dispatchable – over a period of time, depending upon the storage medium. 

Wind can be dispatchable if you have excess generation, which is the situation they have in Germany and I think Maine.  They have to feather the windmills so they do not overload the system. They do not have enough storage for their excess. Yet. So they have to shut down turbines and then bring them back up again. Brute force. Inelegant.   For Solar PV and most wind you are correct as I misunderstood the terms. I had taken it for being tied to the grid and available for use.  A lot of PV and wind are not even tied to the grid so I find that using grid alone as a basis for RE growth to be suspect.  It’s been a while since I have dealt with energy issues in a technical sense, but that’s ok. It’s a good to get back into things.  Next on my list of refresher course is regression analysis as the Anik Levinson draft report has hit my BS meter at a very high level and I need to make sure I can poke holes in it in a proper manner.

As for wind being dependent on the PTC, it is a factor but there are others; state renewable portfolio standards, gas prices, and if electricity growth contimues. Texas and other states are building out as much wind as they can, regardless. Some of the motivation is water usage. Fossil and nuclear consume a lot of water. Texas is in the third year of a drought. Natural gas prices are low now, but for how long? Gas generation is around 4 to 4.5 cents per KWh, If it goes up a few cents then wind starts having an equivalent price.   In states that have heavily invested in energy efficiency, the current avg of 7500KWh/per capita/year for states like NY, CA, MA, and RI, there will still be some future savings but that may not match population growth. States like Wyoming-27,000KWh/per capita, and about 20 others in the midwest and south with per capita usage above 14,000KWh per capita/year have a lot of low hanging fruit. Many of these states do not even have EER standards yet. Some of them have only started EE programs within the past 3-6 years. Others have yet to barely start beyond the energy savings from more efficient appliances that was started by California’s appliance standards around 1978. So conservation will be a lot cheaper than wind energy without PTC, and thus is probably not viable in these 20 or so states except that some of them are tied to MISO which is very much involved in wind generation siting.  As for costs, a Texas study puts the price of wind energy at $50/MWH or half a cent per KWh, which is not a deterrent to Wind production

Intersting paper as TCAP is for wind energy as much as Mark Antony was for Julius Caeser. Sort of energy praeteritio.



George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Sep 18, 2013 3:57 pm GMT

I am not against wind energy, but it is far from being capable of limiting global warming. It can contribute but nuclear is the only fully scalable and dispatchable clean energy source which is even remotely economical currently.

Also the practicality of wind energy is tied tightly to the prices of natural gas. Cheap Natural gas is the variable generation enabler in the US. Higher gas prices actually make wind less viable as it leads to less efficient use of fuel and generator assets.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Sep 20, 2013 5:28 am GMT

Did I say biofuels… Well if I did, I must have already said that they take TEN times the lands as does solar. Pretty bad, huh (now get on to REAL solutions, already)! Now, I’m not saying they don’t have a place, every little bit helps! But they can NOT (based on physics) power a growing world transportation.

All the problems you list have ben “like duh” for sooo long now, I want a REAL solution, as said earlier. Perhaps, you replied under the wrong comment (as I have mistakenly done) If so, apologies.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Sep 20, 2013 5:36 am GMT

Thanks for this response… it makes sense (sadly). Everytime I question these silly enviro groups, I get either nothing or a snied reply about how they like to propose yet MORE regulation. 

Stephen Nielsen's picture
Stephen Nielsen on Oct 8, 2013 1:12 am GMT

I love alternate universe arguments.  Their effectiveness lies in the fact that they are based on imagined scenarios and can never be tested in the real world

Mr. Edo's picture
Mr. Edo on Oct 31, 2013 7:23 pm GMT


Germany is producing the energy-equivalent of 40 (FORTY) nuclear power plants with Wind and Solar Energy alone.


This number will only increase and solidify as it has been doing.


This makes nuclear energy entirely unnecessary and obsolete.



Mr. Edo's picture
Mr. Edo on Oct 31, 2013 7:23 pm GMT


Germany is producing the energy-equivalent of 40 (FORTY) nuclear power plants with Wind and Solar Energy alone.


This number will only increase and solidify as it has been doing.


This makes nuclear energy entirely unnecessary and obsolete.



jan Freed's picture
jan Freed on Nov 1, 2013 1:20 am GMT

George: You cannot discredit UCS with such allegations.  “Poisoning the well”  is a standard debate technique. 


On the other hand, you have not managed to

contest any of the UCS statements from the links I provided.  That would be far more persuasive.


Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Nov 1, 2013 3:00 pm GMT

Until energy storage is cheaper than coal, until hundreds of thousands of square miles of solar is cheaper than coal, and until people become truly energy concious (so as to understand these things), places like Germany (and rest of world) will continue to import or build MORE coal. Period.

LFTR is a meltdown proof fission concept which reduces material requirements by at least a thousand and offers a million times the energy density as coal.

Only space based solar could ever compete with that (but we need the energy of fission to get us there).


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