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Renewables Sorely Missing from Nuclear Power Debate

Given the people who run things in America at this stage, I’m not convinced that any kind of catastrophe coming out of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant will force a rethink about the wisdom of nuclear power generation. Listen to this tool from Third Way spinning like a top about the situation in Japan, with very little knowledge that I can see other than who signs his paycheck:

Josh Freed: When nuclear goes wrong, it goes wrong big. Though what that means aside from a lot of white-knuckle days and nights for everyone, we don’t know yet. One shouldn’t minimize the dangers faced by the workers, but even something as catastrophic as the disaster in Japan might turn out to be a lot less catastrophic in terms of damage and loss of life than we fear right now.

And you have to weigh that against the health, environmental impact and assorted other costs of the fossil fuels we rely on every day. And if, like most people, you think climate change is happening and poses a massive threat, you have to ask what options we have. Right now, 65 to 68 percent of our electricity is coal or natural gas. Twenty percent is nuclear. And the remaining 12 percent is renewables. Now, the renewables are certainly growing, but it’s going to take a long, long time to get them to scale such that they can make a big dent in fossil fuels, let alone replace them. And they still require some kind of corresponding baseload fuel to provide the electricity for when they’re not running. So for a source that doesn’t emit carbon or other pollutants that contribute to health problems, the other source you have is nuclear.

Allow me to call bullshit. You do not have to weigh the costs of nuclear power against the health and environmental impact of fossil fuels. You have to weigh it against the costs of all other energy alternatives. And given that, it comes up well short. The defenders of the nuclear industry want to construct a world where the only choices for energy are coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear. That’s just an absolute falsehood. But, they say, actual clean energy like solar and wind and geothermal and tidal is too costly. What do you call an industry that requires $54 billion in loan guarantees from the government to construct any plants? And with the EPA finally getting around to pricing externalities of other power generation, at least indirectly, the cost argument is a giant red herring.

As for this conceit that you’ll still need other fuel sources in a renewable world: tell it to the researchers:

For a long time, the argument that the world could wean itself off both fossil fuels and atomic energy was confined to earnest green groups. Last month, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) released a 250-page report on how to get there by 2050. The roadmap starts with wringing out the enormous amount of waste energy from our industrial processes, buildings, and transportation systems. (That means everything from better insulation for homes to boosting recycling in, say, the paper industry). After that, our power would come from a variety of renewable sources, from sustainably harvested biomass to concentrated solar plants (which, in theory, can store power even when the sun isn’t shining) to acres and acres of wind turbines. It would be costly and difficult, sure, but technically feasible if everything went right […]

…a report by environmentalists isn’t going to convince everyone we don’t need nuclear energy. So, late last year, two engineering professors, Mark Jacobson of Stanford and Mark Delucchi of University of California Davis, published two papers in Energy Policy offering their own detailed analysis of how the world could get 100 percent of its electricity from existing renewables—mostly solar and wind—by 2050. The task would be staggering. We would need nearly four million five-megawatt wind turbines—i.e., turbines twice as big as those currently on the market. (China just built its first five-megawatter last year.) Plus 90,000 large-scale solar farms—for reference, there are only about three dozen in existence now. Plus 1.7 billion three-kilowatt rooftop solar systems—that is, one for every four people on the planet. But it’s doable. The main challenge, the authors found, would be mining enough rare-earth metals—like neodymium—for all those electric motors. So, again, mind-blowingly hard, but it’s at least possible to go carbon-free without nuclear (or algae). What’s more, the world wouldn’t have to pay that much more for energy than it does today.

I’m sure you could tally up all the fossil fuel plants operating today and write a paper from the perspective of 40 years ago with a bunch of big numbers showing how impossible it would be to serve the world’s energy needs.

The point is that this should generally be the goal. In fact, there’s one country where it is the goal – Germany, which has an official policy of moving to 100% renewables by 2050. When Matt Yglesias bemoans Germany taking their nuclear plants offline (ones they planned to decommission by 2020 anyway) by saying “if what was happening here is that the German government was announcing a visionary plan to transform Europe to a renewable energy utopia, I’d be clapping,” he’s just woefully misinformed. They are. And we all should be clapping, instead of covering for the nuclear industry because they over time kill less people, one catastrophe or two notwithstanding.

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David Dayen

David Dayen