Why nuclear power is bad for your wallet and the climate

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Does climate protection need more nuclear energy? No, just the opposite. Saving the most carbon per dollar per year requires not only generators that do not burn fossil fuels, but also those that can be deployed with the least amount of time and money. They are not nuclear.

Make 10% of the world and 20% of commercial electricity in the United States, nuclear power is historically important but is now stagnant. In 2020, its global capacity additions minus withdrawals totaled just 0.4 GW (billion watts). Renewables, on the other hand, added 278.3 GW, or 782 times the capacity, capable of producing around 232 times more electricity per year (based on U.S. performance in 2020 by technology). Renewable energies have inflated supply and displaced carbon every 38 hours like nuclear has done all year round. At the beginning of December, the score for 2021 looks like -3 GW nuclear, renewable energies +290 GW. Game over.

The world already invests $ 0.3 trillion each year, mostly voluntary private capital, in energy efficiency and renewables, but about $ 0.015 to $ 0.03 trillion, or 20 to 40 times less, in energy efficiency. nuclear, mostly enlisted, as investors were burnt. Of the 259 American power reactors ordered (1955-2016), only 112 were built and 93 remain operational; as of mid-2017, only 28 remained competitive and had no outages for more than a year. In the oil industry, this is called an 89% risk of dry holes.

Renewable energies have provided all of the world’s electricity growth in 2020. Nuclear power struggles to maintain its tiny margin share as its suppliers, culture and prospects shrivel. The world’s reactors are on average 31 years old, in the United States, 41 years old. In a few years, withdrawals of old, unprofitable reactors will constantly eclipse additions, tipping production into permanent decline. Global nuclear capacity has already fallen in five of the past 12 years for a net drop of 2%. Performance has become erratic: the average French reactor in 2020 was not producing anything a third of the time.

China represents the most significant current and projected nuclear growth. Yet China’s investments in renewables in 2020 roughly matched its cumulative nuclear investments from 2008 to 2020. Together, in 2020 in China, the sun and wind generated twice the nuclear output, adding 60 times more capacity and 6 times more production at a cost 2 to 3 times lower per kWh. Sun and wind are now the cheapest bulk energy source for over 91% of the world’s electricity.

Nuclear power has no business case

Nuclear power has a bleak outlook because it has no business case. New plants cost 3 to 8 times or 5 to 13 times more per kWh than new, unsubsidized solar or wind power plants, so new nuclear power produces 3 to 13 times less kWh per dollar and therefore displaces 3 to 13 times less carbon per dollar than new renewable energies. So buying nuclear makes climate change worse. End-use efficiency is even cheaper than renewables, and therefore even more efficient for the climate. Arithmetic is not an opinion.

Unsubsidized efficiency or renewables even beat most existing reactors Operating cost, so a dozen have closed in the past decade. Congress is trying to save others with a $ 6 billion lifeline and generous, sustainable new operating grants to replace or augment state largesse, on top of existing federal grants that rival or exceed nuclear construction costs.

But no business case equals no climate analysis. Supporting obsolete assets so they don’t slip off the market blocks more climate-efficient replacements – efficiency and renewables that save even more carbon per dollar. Supporters of new climate subsidies have just been played.

The fashionably renowned “small modular” or “advanced” reactors cannot change the outcome. Their smaller units cost less, but production drops even more, so SMRs only save money in the sense that a smaller portion of fatty liver helps you lose weight.

Initially, they will at least double the cost per kWh of existing reactors; this cost is around 3 to 13 times renewable energies (not to mention efficiency); and renewable energy costs will be halved again before SMRs can evolve. Do the math: 2 x (3 to 13) x 2 = 12 to 52 times. Mass production cannot close this huge cost gap, nor could SMRs scale until renewables decarbonized the U.S. grid.

Same free reactors could not compete: their non-nuclear parts were too expensive. Small modular renewable energies are decades ahead of exploiting mass production economies; nuclear power will never be able to catch up. It’s not just too little, too late: the market space hogs nuclear, blocks grid capacity, and diverts investments that more climate-efficient carbon-free competitors cannot then challenge.

Meanwhile, new security issues and the proliferation of SMRs threaten exhausted schedules and budgets, so promoters are grappling with core security regulations. NRC’s proposed Part 53 would perfect long-term regulatory capture, shifting the end-to-end process of its expert staff from specific prescriptive standards, rigorous quality control, and verified technical performance to non-compliant claims. substantiated, proprietary data and subjective risk estimates of policy appointees.

But this final abdication cannot save nuclear power, which stumbles even in countries with powerless regulators and suppressed public participation. Ultimately, physics and human fallibility win. History teaches that lax regulation ultimately causes misadventures that build confidence, so gutting safety rules is simply a pact of delayed assisted suicide.

Modern renewable generation continues to grow faster than nuclear generation ever did at its peak in the 1980s. During the period 2010-2020, renewables reduced global carbon emissions from the nuclear power sector. electricity 6 times more than switching from coal to gas (ignoring methane leaks) and 5 times more than nuclear growth.

Among the convincing examples, Germany replaced nuclear and coal production with efficiency and renewable energies: in 2010-2020, production from lignite fell by 37%, hard coal by 64%, petroleum by 52% and nuclear by 54%; the power of the gas increased by 3%; GDP increased by 11% (17% before the pandemic); CO from the electrical sector2 fell 41%, hitting its goal a year earlier with five percentage points to spare.

Japan’s economies and renewables, meanwhile, replaced 109% of lost nuclear production if adjusted for GDP growth, 95% if not, so that its 21 “operational” reactors, shut down for 10 to 14 years. , have lost their market. And no country retains an operational need or a business case for large “basic” thermal power plants – expensive, inflexible, now redundant for reliability – although inflexible mindsets are receding even more slowly.

Many in Washington are voicing the mushy mantra that the climate emergency requires “all of the above.” In fact, no: the more urgent the climate change, the more we need to invest wisely, not indiscriminately, to buy cheap, fast, safe options instead of expensive, slow and speculative options. Only this strategy saves the most carbon per dollar and per year. Everything else makes climate change worse.

So the next time you hear an official, keen to appease every constituency, say that we stand for “all of the above – we don’t select and back the winners,” remember the reply from the Dean of Regulators. US Utilities Peter Bradford: “No, we don’t select and support winners. They don’t need it. We select and support the losers.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owner.

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Amory B. Lovins is Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University. He has advised major corporations and governments in over 70 countries for 49 years.


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