Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition: Nuclear power and climate progress in the 21st century

17 December 2015
Peter A. Bradford
adjunct professor, Vermont Law School
and former Nuclear Regulatory Commission member

In the 15th year of the era formerly known as “the nuclear renaissance,” not a single molecule of carbon dioxide emission has been avoided by a renaissance reactor built in the United States or in Europe. Unless the 40-year-old Watts Bar 2 reactor scheduled to operate in Tennessee early in 2016 is called “renaissance,” this situation will not change for several more years. 

Climate change, so urgent and so seemingly intractable, has become the last refuge of nuclear charlatans throughout the Western world. From well-meaning ideologues and editorial writers claiming that the unknowable is theirs to state with certainty, to paid advocates more skilled in pleasing and persuading government officials than furthering consumer and environmental well-being, prophetic arguments have swollen from a stream to a river and now merge with the Seine in Paris, threatening to submerge the world under a layer of nonsense rising as inexorably as the seas themselves.

We are told that:

  • Energy efficiency and renewables cannot save us because they are too costly, too small and too variable, despite their falling costs, rapidly rising deployment, and particular success in the world’s fourth largest economy in Germany.
  • The power markets that that have functioned reliably and efficiently for 20 years and that repeatedly reject nuclear as too expensive are “flawed” because they don’t reward nuclear for its benefits as to fuel diversity and reliability, and—in a valid criticism not fixable by uniquely nuclear subsidies—do not reflect the lack of carbon pricing in most of the United States.
  • Nuclear power’s problems of cost, delay, and inflexibility will soon be solved by new designs, if only misguided regulators and environmentalists will get out of the way, never mind that regulators and environmentalists have had no hand in the cancellation of some 25 renaissance reactors.

James Hansen, perhaps the most visible of the climate scientists who advocate heavy reliance on breeder or other innovative reactor designs without paying any attention to their track record of long and costly failure, has become ever more reminiscent of Groucho Marx leaping from a paramour’s bed to confront a disbelieving husband with: “Who are you going to believe, me or your eyes?”

Our eyes tell us that the breeder reactor technology has been abandoned in the United States, in France, in Germany, and in Britain. In Japan, the Monju breeder has operated one year out of the last 20. (See von Hippel et al, “Fast Breeder Reactor Programs: History and Status"). Of course success in technology often builds from many failures, but there are no signs of success on this horizon, and delay—as Hansen among others often tells us—allows ever more CO2 to concentrate in the skies to accelerate warming for decades regardless of the technologies deployed 20 years from now.

The op-ed that Hansen and three other scientists signed from Paris says that by building 115 reactors per year from now until 2050, we could eliminate fossil fuels from the electric sector. What these four nuclear horsemen don’t mention is that, using the cost of Britain’s proposed Hinkley station as a proxy (even though breeders and their attendant reprocessing facilities would surely cost more), this commitment would cost some $2 trillion per year, or $70 trillion altogether. 

Making assumptions about renewables and efficiency plus electrical storage capacity that are more plausible than Hansen’s assumptions about an immediate reversal in the fortunes of breeder reactors, equivalent carbon reductions can be achieved at much lower cost and in less time, leaving money over for continuing research and development, even nuclear R&D.   

Another group of scientists (including one of Hansen’s cosigners), also writing from Paris, said, “Our nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) has grown since 2007 without increases in energy consumption due in large part to major advances in fuel economy in vehicles and energy efficiency in buildings. Solar power comprised 32 percent of all new electric generating capacity in the U.S. last year—a twelvefold increase in the amount of solar photovoltaic installations since just five years ago. Wind power now generates about five percent of our nation’s electricity, and in some regions already costs less than natural gas and coal-fired generation. Texas alone nearly doubled its wind energy generation between 2009 and 2014. Propelled by remarkable gains such as these, states and cities across our nation are setting ambitious targets for reducing carbon emissions.” 

Our real challenge is to develop market rules and regulatory processes that allow low-carbon technologies to reap the rewards of their relative cleanliness while competing vigorously with each other to meet the needs of developing and developed nations. The economists who succeed in this urgent task are a much better bet than scientists who claim the gift of prophesy.

The Hansen letter contains these remarkably unself-aware sentences:

“To solve the climate problem, policy must be based on facts and not on prejudice.”

“The climate issue is too important for us to delude ourselves with wishful thinking.”

“The future of our planet and our descendants depends on basing decisions on facts, and letting go of long held biases when it comes to nuclear power.”

Amen, brother.