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Nuclear Energy - Our best weapon against Climate Change

image credit: AUthor Picture Not copyrighted Author is person in picture taken 1986
Charles Bayless's picture
Retired CEO Tucson Electric Power

Mr. Bayless is a retired Utility Executive and a lecturer on Energy Policy, Climate Change and Ocean Acidification. Until June 30, 2008 Mr. Bayless was President and Provost of the West Virginia...

  • Member since 2001
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  • Nov 3, 2019

Here is a link to my Public Utilities Fortnightly Interview on Nuclear Energy. As a Climate Fanatic (I took Freshman Physics so I have no choice but to be a Climate Fanatic ) I believe Nuclear Energy is an indispensable component in our battle against Climate Change in the near-term.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Nov 3, 2019

Great interview, Charles, thanks so much for sharing!


The batteries are great for about a day. Clearly in Arizona, you're going to do a much better job of approaching grid reliability with one day of battery than you are in Cleveland. In just a couple of years, hopefully in Arizona just with a couple of days of battery, you can get to grid reliability. But you're not going to do it in Cleveland. So, what we're going to need, rather than do something like six days of generation is, we're going to have to rely on gas units. Now the more renewables we get, the less these gas units will run.

I appreciated these arguments and the Cleveland effect you discuss. Do you think the availability of something like HVDC interconnecting more parts of the nation's grid could help out this issue at least marginally?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Nov 3, 2019

Excellent, Charles. I seems anyone who has studied physics is also a nuclear fanatic (if anyone insisting on meticulous energy accounting deserves that label).

One correction:

"It costs a heck of a lot more to run a nuke than it does a gas plant because of all the technical people, the safety mechanisms, and things, but they're neglecting carbon."

A common myth. According the the U.S. Energy Information Administration, it costs a heckuva lot (27%) less to run a nuke plant than a gas plant, per megawatthour of electricity - even with small-scale renewables added to the mix:

Also, what would be the purpose of spending money on solar panels and batteries in Arizona, with the country's largest nuclear plant (Palo Verde) in-state?

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Nov 11, 2019

Great points Charles, I liked this quote:

"At the cost of energy, a new thousand megawatt and wind farm in Arizona is cheaper than a coal plant. There's no doubt about it. But when you start throwing up the static VAR compensators, ancillary services, backup, reserves, and batteries that you've got to have, it's not cheaper.

When you include climate change, it switches back to being much cheaper than coal. It all depends. I joke that people in the fossil fuel industry don't recognize climate change externalities, and people on the renewable side don't recognize the externalities of the grid. "

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Nov 12, 2019

The nuclear industry´s strategy seems to be to demonize all other possible alternatives to fossil fuels until nothing is left but nuclear.  It offers little in its own favor. The strategy  worked for quite a while until the last few years when the cost of solar and wind plummeted.   The facts remain that 1) Of all the options, nuclear is by far the most expensive.  See, for example, 2) Nuclear´s only play these days is to extend the life of existing plants while the industry comes up with the next big thing, one that has been promised for upwards of 50 years, just repackaged and re-marketed. 3) Nuclear is still in denial mode with respect to the waste problem.  4. While the carbon footprint of extended life nuclear plants may be low, new plants are by no means even competitive with solar and wind with respect to the life cycle carbon footprint.    And even the extended life nukes are non-competitive in some markets.  The industry, as far as I can tell, doesn´t even address the issue, other than to say what a shame it would be to shut down perfectly good nuclear generator plants, as long as the government (us) pays for it.  There is a place for research. But for how long will the taxpayer carry the industry?  5. Big nuclear accidents happen.  They do not inspire confidence.

I just don´t see the case for new nuclear, barely for old nuclear. Maybe we all will tomorrow. But it never seems to come.  In the meantime, renewables provide more and more clean and dependable energy to many people now.   Their trajectory is almost vertical. Storage systems advance steadily.  And the intermittency issue is getting old already. Also And, with respect to peakload gas: “Nowadays with the emergence of energy storage and other technologies the peaking power plants have started to phase out in the developed countries. Energy storage, demand response techniques and innovative grid technologies are becoming more and more attractive. In places like Germany and California, USA these signs are prominent.” Please find another horse to flog.

Until nuclear can make a case for itself on its own merits instead of by denying the value of alternatives, the nuclear industry will have to be regarded as an extreme liability, both financially and environmentally.   Great research. Really interesting.  I can´t get enough about super conductors and giant magnets.  I hope the taxpayers agree to keep paying.

But, essentially the nuclear industry´s suggestion seems to be to nationalize the electricity industry by  government financing, constructing and indemnifying nuclear plants. Yeah, that´ll work.

There may be a pie in the sky. But, let´s not count on it anymore

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Nov 13, 2019

"Until nuclear can make a case for itself on its own merits..."

Simply put: the only modern grids which have ever deeply decarbonized have done so using a combination of nuclear and hydro (see France, Sweden, and Switzerland). 

Despite all the hype, there are still zero examples of this accomplishment using solar and wind.  These variable renewables simply work best when part of a fossil fuel dominated grid.  As the fossil fuel fraction decreases, the transition becomes more and more difficult.

And before you declare new-build nuclear dead, please realize that growing nations like India and China are building nuclear plants roughly at the same rate as wind and solar generation (when corrected for capacity factor).

If the big nuclear accidents, with their exceptionally benign impact on the public do not inspire confidence, then you misunderstand/over-estimate the impact (you would not be not alone, as there are many stakeholders who wish to mislead you).


Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Nov 13, 2019

Two points:

1. Yes, I live in a deeply de-carbonized society where 98% of all power comes from renewables, including hydro.  Half of all new purchased cars are fully electric. More are plug-in hybrids. There are gas fired plants that could run, but never do, never have to. The intermittency issue with solar and wind is quickly disappearing.  Carbon taxes start to bite and all kinds of carbon reduction possiblities present themselves Offshore wind will likely resolve it completely for some countries, especially those with smart grids that can access whatever renewable is available.  Power is stored by pumping water back up behind dams when power is available. Even offshore platforms are being converted to run with either wind power generated on site, or long extension cords run to the platform from shore, using hydro or other wind sources.

Yes, the problem gets more difficult when solar and wind alone get up around 40% of the generating capacity.  And, until recently, the only alternative was to peak load with gas or diesel. Smart grids are smoothing that out. Offshore wind is far more stable.

2. India and China can just decide to build nuclear - there are no stakeholders to satisfy. It costs what it costs. If they fail, then there are no consequences.  Hell, even if it blows up there are few consequences to those responsible for it. That´s what will have to happen in America with nuclear. The government will say it has to happen and use tax money to pay for it.  Americans will be thrilled to pay for that.

3. Only one caveat: Nuclear may come up with a magic bullet and be ready to deploy it within the next 10-20 years. They´ll have to dedicate the first ones to capture the carbon generated while waiting for the magic bullet. And if the bullet doesn´t quite live up to expectations, there is no solution.

It´s hard enough to justify the expense of extending existing nukes in places like Arizona where solar is as dependable and way cheaper.  It may be easier in Cleveland. But not cheaper.

So yes, you may be able to tilt the playing field by charging a real lot for emitting green house gases. Maybe $2 per gallon of gas. That will certainly get attention. But not enough still to be able to build new nuclear.






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