The Climate Conundrum Over Nuclear Energy

A nuclear power plant. i i

Nuclear power plants like this one in Middletown, Pa., currently supply 20 percent of the nation's electricity. Some legislators want them to provide more, but it's turning into quite a sticky subject. Carolyn Kaster/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Carolyn Kaster/AP
A nuclear power plant.

Nuclear power plants like this one in Middletown, Pa., currently supply 20 percent of the nation's electricity. Some legislators want them to provide more, but it's turning into quite a sticky subject.

Carolyn Kaster/AP

Nuclear power poses a major conundrum. Nobody's thrilled about nuclear waste, people fear potential accidents, and proliferation of nuclear weapons is downright scary. On the other hand, nuclear plants generate lots of power and no carbon dioxide. And when people crunch the numbers to see how to phase out carbon dioxide emissions, they often come up with nuclear energy playing a major role.

"Nuclear technology is something that's there, we know how to do it, there's no technical challenge in being able to apply it, unlike many of the other technologies," says Richard Meserve, president of the Carnegie Institution for Science. He used to chair the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and he served on a recent National Academy of Sciences committee looking at the future of energy in America.

For example, there's no proven technology to capture and store carbon dioxide from coal plants. So Meserve says the challenge in nuclear isn't technology, it's money.

"These plants are very expensive at the front end. Wall Street lost a lot of money when we built our existing nuclear plants because of the long time to construct the plants in a period of very high interest rates."

So even though there are now 26 applications pending for new reactors, most everyone seems to be too timid to take the financial plunge.

The federal government is talking about loan guarantees and other incentives to help plants get over that hump. Some see that as a giveaway to the industry. Others see that as necessary to keep nuclear in the mix.

Tom Terbush of the Electric Power Research Institute says his utility-funded group is agnostic about where power should come from. But when he looks at the deep carbon cuts being promised for the next decade or two, he too comes up with nuclear as part of the solution.

"These are big, basic plants," Terbush says, and "yes, they take a few years to build. But we know how to build them. And once you build them, a typical generating unit can produce enough power for nearly a million homes, so it's a big chunk."

Terbush says every option has its challenges. You would have to put up a thousand wind turbines, for example, to match the power output of a single nuclear plant. So his organization figures that nuclear needs to play a substantial role, along with every other technology that produces clean power.

"If you're putting all your eggs in one or two or three baskets, even if you just put all your eggs in the nuclear basket, say, that probably wouldn't get you to where you need."

Others who look at the mix of future power options are not so sanguine about nuclear.

"While it may sound convenient or easy to just throw a few thousand megawatt nuclear power plants on the ground, it's not necessarily cost-effective," says Ellen Vancko, with the Union of Concerned Scientists environmental group.

Her group's analysis shows that the cheapest thing to do is to reduce demand for electricity by improving efficiency. Of course, there's also a challenge in motivating tens of millions of homeowners to insulate their attics and to replace old freezers.

Some hard-line environmental groups, like Greenpeace, remain staunchly opposed to nuclear power even in the face of climate change. But the Union of Concerned Scientists, for one, says the U.S. can't afford to shut the door entirely on nuclear power.

"But there's a huge difference between calling for, first, a limited number versus, as some are suggesting, 100 new nuclear power plants being built between now and 2030," Vancko says.

What ultimately happens will probably depend on experience with those next few new plants. Meserve of the Carnegie Institution for Science says he expects half a dozen new plants to go into operation by 2020.

Right now, nuclear power provides 20 percent of the nation's electricity. With no new plants, that number would gradually decline, just as the demand for clean power grows.

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