Will the climate crisis force America to reconsider nuclear power?

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TTHE DIABLO CANYON The nuclear power plant is located approximately 200 miles north of Los Angeles on the central coast of California. Its twin reactors lie between the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Emerald Hills on the other. The Golden State’s only remaining nuclear power plant provides nearly 9% of its electricity production and accounts for 15% of its clean electricity production. Yet despite California’s aggressive climate targets and a nationwide push to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, Diablo Canyon is expected to close by 2025. A new report from researchers at Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) reveals how damaging that would be.

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Diablo Canyon went live in 1985 and has operated without incident. But the plant is controversial. Diablo is near several major fault lines, and locals have long feared an earthquake could trigger a nuclear disaster. United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) ordered utilities to assess their factories for flood and earthquake risk after the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant meltdown in Japan in 2011. Diablo Canyon was found to be safe.

Despite this, in 2018, the California Public Utilities Commission approved a proposal by Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest utility and operator of Diablo Canyon, and environmental and labor groups to shut down the plant. . PG&E argued that there was a decline in demand for nuclear power due to the promise of renewables, such as wind and solar, and the growth of ‘community-choice aggregators’, which enable local municipalities decide where they get their electricity from.

Three things have changed since. First, California adopted SB100 in 2018, forcing the state to achieve 100% clean electricity generation by 2045. Second, the southwest is suffering from what paleoclimatologists believe is its second worst drought in 1,200 years. Reservoirs in the region are drying up, limiting the supply of hydroelectric power. Only 11% of the state of California’s electricity production came from hydropower in 2020, a decrease of 44% from 2019 (see Chart 1). Electricity produced from clean energy sources (including nuclear) accounted for 51% of California’s electricity production last year, up from 57% in 2019.

Third, a heat wave in August 2020 resulted in power outages across the state, with demand for electricity (to power air conditioners) exceeding supply. The California Utilities Board is scrambling to meet growing demand. The regulator recently ordered utility companies to purchase renewable energy and storage batteries in an attempt to make up for Diablo’s impending loss.

These three trends have left researchers wondering how keeping the plant running could change California’s energy outlook. They discovered that to maintain it until 2035, ten years after its current operating license issued by the NRC, reduce emissions, improve grid reliability and save the government $ 2.6 billion. Analysis shows that Diablo’s continued operations would reduce carbon emissions from power generation by 11% each year from 2017 levels. And unlike wind and solar power, nuclear power provides a stable source of electricity that is unaffected by climate change.

Researchers also suggest that Diablo could potentially help California make its energy sector greener and tackle water shortages by producing hydrogen or powering a saltwater desalination plant in addition to producing water. ‘electricity. “You can’t afford to take technological solutions off the table” when you pursue net zero goals, says Jacopo Buongiorno, one of the authors and nuclear scientist of MIT. “All of the above is really the best strategy. “

It’s one thing to prove Diablo’s worth, and quite another to cancel his retirement. A law aimed at protecting marine ecosystems would force the plant to replace its water intake system, which cools its reactors, with a new system that reduces the intake flow by 93%. It would also be necessary PG&E reopen its 2018 regulations and renew the plant authorization, which can be an onerous process; or sell Diablo to another utility.

Fission impossible?

The debate over Diablo Canyon reflects the recent rebranding from nuclear. Steve Nesbit, president of the American Nuclear Society, says three things happened in the 2000s to put a stop to nuclear power in America: Fracking took off, the 2007-08 financial crisis reduced demand electricity and the accident in Fukushima frightened politicians. Plants that were commissioned were behind schedule and exceeded budget. Yet, evidence shows that when nuclear reactors shut down, polluting fossil fuels make a difference.

Even though the power stations are shut down, nuclear power is gaining in attractiveness. Environmental groups have long been skeptical of nuclear power because of the toxic waste it produces or because they were against nuclear weapons. Jessica Lovering, founder of Good Energy Collective, which aims to build the “progressive nuclear energy case”, says today’s climate activists are more pragmatic and focus on the lack of carbon emissions in the world. nuclear. She cites the Sunrise Movement as a group that is not necessarily pro-nuclear, but opposes the shutdown of existing power plants.

Nuclear is responsible for nearly 20% of the United States’ electricity production and about half of its clean energy. An ecoAmerica survey found that 56% of Democrats supported nuclear power in 2020, up from 37% in 2018 (see graph 2). “Young people today may not take with them the baggage of their parents and grandparents, who were raised during the Cold War, in their vision of nuclear energy,” says Nesbit. .

Politics is slowly catching up. Pro-nuclear groups emphasize the use of the language of “clean electricity” or “zero carbon” in state and federal climate goals as a way to keep the door open to nuclear, rather than requiring renewable energy. Jennifer Granholm, Energy Secretary to President Joe Biden, told a crowd at COP26, the world climate conference in Glasgow, that nuclear power is an “essential tool” to decarbonize the grid. Republicans and Democrats alike are excited about the potential for converting coal-fired power plants to nuclear power plants. When TerraPower, a company founded by Bill Gates, announced it would build a nuclear reactor at the site of a shutdown coal-fired power plant in Wyoming, Ms. Granholm, the Republican state governor and her senior senator were in attendance. . The federal government is also subsidizing the project to the tune of $ 80 million.

But nuclear energy still faces several obstacles. Most important, experts say, is the prohibitive cost of building a new factory. New designs, such as that of TerraPower, can help with this. Many states, including California, have also de facto banned the construction of new reactors until the radioactive waste can be permanently disposed of. The federal government tried for decades to build a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada, but met stiff resistance from local politicians who didn’t want things buried in their backyards.

The first of Diablo’s reactors will lose its license in 2024. The report’s authors hope the Golden State will come to its senses before then. “Circumstances have changed,” says Ejeong Baik of Stanford. “Diablo Canyon presents an opportunity,” she adds. Will California take it?

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This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the title “Energy Deficiency”


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