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Nuclear Power: Ongoing Debate

image credit: Getty Images

HBO's Chernobyl

Many believe that we are at a crossroad as a species due to CO2 emissions from fossil fuels. Plans such as the Green New Deal (that I have previously discussed here) and other energy sector de-carbonization plans have been in the news lately, but surprisingly none have included ideas about nuclear power. Recently we have seen a negative public opinion of the industry, and a greater political push for de-carbonization.  Shows like HBO’s Chernobyl continue to cast a negative light on a technologically established energy source that could help assist in accomplishing these political goals. Opinions aside, the debate over nuclear energy continues and monitoring the implications of any potential regulatory changes will be important for electricity market analysis.

Many who saw HBO’s latest series “Chernobyl” were horrified by the visualization of the failed Russian power plant (cue the show’s creepy soundtrack). While it may have been great for TV, this popular show was blamed for misleading public opinion when it comes to the industry (see what they got wrong here). For many, this becomes their sole opinion about nuclear power. While it is unknown if public opinion has really hampered the industry, it is known that subsidies granted to other carbon-free energy technologies, and the growth of natural gas fired generation, can be to blame.  Critics of nuclear power argue that nuclear facilities give off radiation that can result in cancer, and even Seinfeld couldn’t make that a joking matter. Disposal of spent uranium is also a point of criticism. For these criticism’s we turn to some “alternative facts”. US nuclear power has provided reliable, carbon-free energy for 20-25% of our electricity for the last 20 years.  For comparison, in 2013 all other carbon free electricity sources totaled 12% and today are up to 19%. Nuclear facilities require significantly less land space and also have less physical impacts on wildlife than solar and wind energy. Also, when you factor in the reliability and ability for electricity to easily be dispatched when needed, nuclear could certainly assist with the movement towards a carbon-free grid.

U.S nuclear electricity generation
Source: EIA "Today in Energy", March 2019

The Presidential election of 2020 nears and climate change policy has been in the platform of most Democratic candidates. This policy debate will center on the energy industry and many may come to the conclusion that renewable energy technology is not sufficient at this time to meet ambitious political goals. The next step would be an evaluation of the carbon free benefits of nuclear power. While the EIA is forecasting a 17% reduction in nuclear generation over the next 5 years, recent news in Ohio about First Energy postponing the retirement of two nuclear facilities has many in the industry hopeful for future government support. Currently, there is 1,670 Megawatts (MW) worth of nuclear generation capacity being built or planned to be built in the next 5 years. This is countered with 8,312 MW of capacity (8% of total) planned for retirement in the next 5 years. A trend that is not likely to reverse without the help from market forces i.e., an increase in Natural Gas fired generation cost, or a government policy change i.e., a subsidy for carbon free power.

Source: EIA AEO 2019

Is nuclear power the most underrated energy source we have in the US? Maybe, but the amount of nuance in electricity markets necessitates proper analysis. If the US is to really make a carbon-free “green” energy push, it would make sense that nuclear power is in the discussion. The debate over energy will continue on and it hopefully won’t be as serious or depressing as the HBO Chernobyl series. In the mean time, we will continue to see growth from natural gas fired generation and renewable generation, but it may not be enough to accomplish the political goals of carbon-free emission reduction of 60% or more. Electricity markets will remain in flux and and it is important to keep an open mind towards potential structural changes during this time of debate.

Chris Amstutz's picture

Thank Chris for the Post!

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Victoria Hudson's picture
Victoria Hudson on Aug 8, 2019 3:19 pm GMT

Thanks for this wonderfully balanced discussion, which has been shared on LI, FB and Twitter. There has been some news, however, about nuclear power and its role in energy plans. Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy (EFN) and others have promoted it; however, clearly part of the problem is the attention span of the masses. It's a complex issue with solutions, it just needs more thoughtfully succinct ways of presenting it (your article is one). btw - you may find Richard Rhodes's proposed solution to nuclear waste interesting ( )

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 8, 2019 3:32 pm GMT

Victoria, nuclear waste has not been a problem - any more than chlorine, mercury, arsenic, benzene - you know, all those other things of which a teaspoon or two can kill you, for half a century. No deaths or injuries, no harm to humans, plants, or animals.

The problem is one of public perception alone.

Chris Amstutz's picture
Chris Amstutz on Aug 8, 2019 8:42 pm GMT

Thank you for this Victoria. The debate over Nuclear certainly interests me and is important for my roll as a market analyst. I look forward to reading more of both sides of the discussion.

Chris Amstutz's picture
Chris Amstutz on Aug 9, 2019 2:27 pm GMT

Victoria, where can I find the post shared on LI, FB and Twitter?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 8, 2019 3:25 pm GMT

"If the US is to really make a carbon-free “green” energy push, it would make sense that nuclear power is in the discussion."

If the US is to lead the way in the fight against climate change, does it make sense  "natural" gas, solar, wind, geothermal, biogas, hydrogen, batteries, demand response, distributed energy resources, time-of-use pricing, carbon pricing, cap-and-trade, or anything other than nuclear is part of the the discussion?

"Nuclear power paves the only viable path forward on climate change."

- Climatologists/climate scientists James Hansen, Kerry Emanuel, Tom Wigley, Ken Calderia, open letter to participants at COP21 (2015)

"Without an immediate, all-hands-on-deck, moonshot-scale effort and investment in nuclear power, humankind is screwed."

- Unremarkable Autodidact Bob Meinetz, EnergyCentral (2019)

Chris Amstutz's picture
Chris Amstutz on Aug 9, 2019 12:53 pm GMT

So are you arguing that solely nuclear is what we should be pursuing because of climate change?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 9, 2019 4:22 pm GMT

Our goal should be generating all electricity with nuclear energy, then converting other tasks where possible to electrical power.

• It's the only realistic path which offers the possibility of burning no fossil fuel at all.
• A goal for the U.S. being 100% carbon-free by 2050 is achievable (France decarbonized 75% of its electricity in 15 years with nuclear).
• Nuclear fuel is extraordinarily cheap, and essentially makes efficiency irrelevant.
• With rapid deployment of Integral Fast Reactors (IFRs), U.S. nuclear plants would have ~800 years of fuel, labeled "waste", stored in dry casks onsite.
• The U.S. IFR program was "ready for prime time" when it was killed in 1994 by Senator John Kerry and Bill Clinton. Both now say it's a decision they regret.

Existing renewables can help reduce emissions in the meantime, but adding more requires more gas generation. There's no evidence planting trees, demand/response, time-of-use pricing, hydrogen, batteries, or cap-and-trade has made a dent in overall carbon emissions. Worse than a waste of time and money, they offer false hope.

Chris Amstutz's picture
Chris Amstutz on Aug 9, 2019 5:37 pm GMT

Makes sense. Personally I would be opposed to any government controlled initiatives and feel that it needs to be market forces. Obviously this makes it harder if not impossible to get off of fossil fuels though, if that is truly what people want.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 9, 2019 6:30 pm GMT

Chris, from an extreme center-wing moderate: relying on market forces will indeed make it impossible to get off of fossil fuels.

Self-interest has never solved any problem of societal need. That's why diehard conservative Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency - he recognized free-market capitalism wasn't up to the task. Some people call it socialism; I call it collective solutions to collective problems.

onedit: France's nuclear revolution can be credited to one man: Prime Minister Pierre Messmer.

In 1973, France was generating nearly all of its electricity by burning oil when the OPEC Oil Crisis brought the country to its knees. Messmer, by "ministerial decree" (no votes, no discussion), instituted a plan to power France completely by nuclear energy. If it wasn't for Chernobyl, he probably would have accomplished his goal.

Was the Messmer Plan an example of market forces or governmental overreach at work? You decide!

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Aug 8, 2019 5:17 pm GMT

Many who saw HBO’s latest series “Chernobyl” were horrified by the visualization of the failed Russian power plant (cue the show’s creepy soundtrack). While it may have been great for TV, this popular show was blamed for misleading public opinion when it comes to the industry (see what they got wrong here).

I thought Chernobyl did a decent job at showing how much of the fallout from the accidents came from the mismanagement, the coverup, the not following protocol. It's not surprising, though, that those only watching passively took away that nuclear was the evil they always thought it was. The show presented an opportunity to help mature the mainstream conversation on nuclear, unfortunately the fallout (pun not intended) appears to have shown they fell short of those ideals

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 8, 2019 5:58 pm GMT

Agree, Matt. It's hard to "show" the safety of radiation when it's invisible. Public perspective is a product of public concern, flashing red lights, the worry on others' faces, clips of hydrogen bombs exploding, etc. Fear, based on fear.

Ironically, much of that concern is a product of the responsibility of early nuclear scientists itself. Without much understanding of the dangers of radiation, nuclear pioneers took extra precautions which probably weren't warranted.

Now, when the public sees a concrete containment dome over a nuclear reactor, they're looking at protection designed to reduce the statistical risk of public mortality from one every 8,000 reactor-years to one every 22,000. Without a way to slow climate change, it's unlikely anything after the next 1,000 years will matter. Or put another way: without effective remediation efforts for climate change, the half-life of human civilization is  ~500 years. We might as well throw nuclear waste in the dumpster.

Chris Amstutz's picture
Chris Amstutz on Aug 8, 2019 8:44 pm GMT

I will give credit, I believe I saw somewhere that the shows director did come out and say that the show is about the lies, deceit, and USSR, and not about how dangerous Nuclear power is. Thanks for that Bob, I am sorry I wasnt already familiar with your article!

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