The Science of Sustainability

Reconsidering Nuclear Power

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Not long ago, nuclear power was unthinkable among environmentalists, particularly in California, where a moratorium on new power plants has put a lid on the industry for thirty years. But that sentiment may be changing.

You may listen to the "Reconsidering Nuclear Power" Radio report online.

Amy Standen is a Reporter for QUEST and Radio News at KQED-FM.

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Category: Energy, Engineering, Environment, Physics, Radio

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About the Author ()

As a radio reporter for KQED Science, Amy's grappled with archaic maps, brain fitness exercises, albino redwood trees, and jet-lagged lab rats, as well as modeled a wide variety of hard hats and construction vests. Long before all that, she learned to cut actual tape interning for a Latin American news show at WBAI in New York, then took her first radio job as a producer for Pulse of the Planet. Since then, Amy has been an editor at Salon.com, the editor of Terrain Magazine, and has produced stories for NPR, Living on Earth, Philosophy Talk, and Pop Up Magazine. She's also a founding editor of Meatpaper Magazine.
  • http://www.thetech.org/genetics/index.php Barry Starr

    I really enjoyed this story. One of the big selling points of nuclear is its offsetting of greenhouse gases. Can you give me some idea of the offset? For example, let's say we wanted to keep our CO2 production at current levels. How many nuclear power plants would we need to build to supply any increases we needed in energy production? How big a dent will these nuclear power plants put in the U.S.'s carbon footprint?

  • Per Peterson

    Existing reactors in the U.S. produce 100 GW of electricity, 20% of U.S. consumption. This is approximately one full "climate stabilization wedge," where the idea is that one would have some 8 to 10 different technologies (efficiency, renewables, etc.) that added together would serve to stablize carbon emissions. Thus if the U.S. were to double its nuclear capacity by 2030 (quite reasonable, since we built the first 100 GW in a roughly comparable time), then nuclear could provide a second stabilization wedge. This is a reasonable goal to shoot for.

  • http://rael.berkeley.edu Dan Kammen

    This is a good question.

    The simplest answer is that US increases in demand can be met, more or
    less, with expansions in energy efficiency.

    The real issue is that we have many coal fired power plants planned for
    the future, and these are way to carbon intensive to consider in a
    greenhouse constrined world. (Coal plants would all have to be carbon
    capture ready, at an added cost of ~ 3 cents/kWh based on current
    estimates,
    but this is NOT currently planned). With coal at ~ 3 – 5 cents/kWh
    already, this makes coal a very expensive proposition relative to
    nuclear (and, actually, several other renewables), adding this 3
    cents/kWh
    kicker makes it an expensive deal, even before the other negtives of
    coal.

    So, to answer this, a simple, but a bit long response you could send
    would be:

    Making the response pretty simple (and overlooking lots of
    transition issues)

    The US used ~ 3 trillion kilowatt hours in 2005, dividing by 365
    (assuming
    the plants are always on) = a capacity of 10^10 kW

    Right now:

    coal = 50% of US electricity
    nuclear = 20% of US electricity

    I'm ignoring natural gas, as that is about 50% less carbon intensive
    than coal), but it can be estimated from this and my coal numbers below

    Lets assume:
    each nuclear, or coal plant comples is about 1 GW (1000 MW, or, a
    million
    kilowatt hours. Lets assume the plants each run all the time (actually,
    they run ~ 90% of the time if nuclear, and 70 – 80% of coal, but
    ignoring
    that).

    So, each new plant, at 1 million kilowatt hours per plant per year, tips
    the
    coal vs nuclear balance by:

    (1 million kW plant = 10^6 kW)/(10 billion kW total US capacity = 10^10
    kW)

    = 10^(-4), so on a percentage basis (x 100)

    this is 10^(-2), or a tenth of percent of total US electricity per
    plant decision.

  • Arthur Schmidt

    I hope anyone who is seriously thinking that building new nuclear energy plants might be a good idea will not rely solely on the hype of the nuclear energy industry. There are already breakthroughs in alternative energy technology, especially solar, which are far cheaper and safer and that promise to make it wholly unnecessary to take on the serious inherent risks associated with nuclear energy production.