What Happens Next as the World Turns Away From Nuclear Power? A Freakonomics Quorum
A few years ago, we wrote a column (related material here) about the unintended consequences of Jane Fonda — that is, how anti-nuclear-power activism as epitomized by Fonda’s character in the nuclear thriller The China Syndrome helped halt the growth of nuclear power in the U.S. The timing of the film couldn’t have been better: 12 days after its release, an accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania spooked the nation into Fonda’s arms — even though, in retrospect, that accident was far less serious than initially thought.
Many other countries, in the meantime, embraced nuclear power. But if you thought the China Syndrome/Three Mile Island combo was devastating to a nuclear future, consider the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan. On May 11, Japan announced that it was shelving plans to scale up its nuclear energy capacity. Two weeks later, Germany announced plans to end all nuclear power generation by 2022. The Swiss have vowed to end nuclear power by 2034; and the Italians voted down plans to restart the country’s nuclear power program.
Japan and Germany are the third- and fourth-largest economies, respectively, in the world. Their decisions to turn away from nuclear power have been met with diverse reaction — from rabid enthusiasm to scorn — and lots of questions: How will they meet their energy needs without nuclear power? Can new technologies, especially those associated with renewable energy, fill the gap, or at least in the short term will this mean more carbon-intensive electricity? Is this the end of nuclear power as we know it?
To answer these and related questions, we convened a Freakonomics Quorum and asked our participants the following:
With Japan deciding not to expand its nuclear power base, and Germany and Switzerland vowing to phase out nuclear power altogether, how will those (and other) countries replace that electricity, and what sort of political, economic, and environmental trickle-down effects will we see?
Their responses are below. Thanks to all for participating.
Dr. Charles Ebinger is a senior fellow and director of the Energy Security Initiative at the Brookings Institution and is a former senior adviser at the International Resources Group, where he advised governments on various aspects of their energy policies; Govinda Avasarala is a research assistant with the Energy Security Initiative, focusing on the geopolitics of energy in emerging markets and multilateral energy.
For Japan, Germany, and Switzerland, meeting electricity demand while stalling or phasing out nuclear energy will not be easy, cheap, or clean. Each country relies on nuclear power to generate substantial amounts of its electricity (roughly 15 percent in Japan, 23 percent in Germany, and 40 percent in Switzerland). New electricity capacity in these countries will be replaced by natural gas, coal, renewables, and electricity imports. Germany currently imports nuclear energy from France and the Czech Republic and will likely continue to do so, despite Chancellor Angela Merkel’s assertions to the contrary. And while European environmentalists are likely to be thrilled by the decisions in Berlin and Bern (and, more recently, in Rome, where the government has decided not to pursue new nuclear projects), they may be less excited that this will require replacement of large amounts of baseload electricity with generation from (imported) carbon-emitting coal and natural gas. Until a technically adequate, commercially viable energy storage solution comes to the fore, the stark reality is that the penetration into the electricity mix of renewable sources will be limited.
Even in Germany, which has made significant progress in renewable energy development, solar and wind power generation account
for just 7 percent of total electricity production. As an arsenal of resources will be required to supply electricity, these countries will also have to engage in rigorous demand-side management programs, including reducing consumption and improving electrical efficiency (in other words, “smarting” the grid).
The implications of these changes are numerous and potentially troublesome. Geopolitically, the decisions to phase out nuclear power strengthen the negotiating positions of major gas producers such as Russia, Qatar, and Algeria. Particularly for the EU, which has spent much time and political capital reducing its dependence on Russian gas, jumping the nuclear ship will not strengthen its position. With the Nord Stream pipeline (which will carry gas from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea) expected to come online later this year, and the Nabucco pipeline struggling to find adequate supply and experiencing cost overruns, the gas relationship between Moscow and Brussels will continue to hold court. Although shale gas, which is found in abundance in both Poland and Ukraine, would be competitive with Russian natural gas, its development in these countries is not expected in the near term and also faces opposition from environmentalists. As the French government demonstrated when they rejected shale “fracking,” (the technique used to extract shale gas), importing shale gas—potentially at the expense of greater renewable penetration—will not please environmentalists.
When political decisions are made to placate certain interests—as is the case in the nuclear phase out in Germany and Switzerland—the economic implications can be ominous. Electricity prices will likely increase, especially if governments attempt to replace nuclear power with renewable electricity. Although the high upfront costs of nuclear power are well documented, and the concerns over the storage of nuclear waste have merit, few people recognize that nuclear energy is a far cheaper and more efficient source of electricity than renewables. In a 2010 report from the International Energy Agency, nuclear energy was deemed almost as cheap as natural gas and coal-fired electricity. In Japan, where nuclear energy is largely expected to be replaced by increased natural gas consumption, prices for liquefied natural gas are still linked to oil. With post-earthquake support for natural gas prices, this link may remain for a little while longer. The result of this is high electricity prices at a time when many industrialized countries—Japan in particular—are still grasping for consistent economic growth. To see what the decisions may mean for electricity prices, just witness the reaction of a livid German industry to Chancellor Merkel’s decision.
However, perhaps the most unfortunate side-effect of this decision is the environmental one. While nuclear energy was not going to singlehandedly cure climate change, it was an invaluable tool in building a decarbonized power sector. In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, analysts from the investment bank Société Générale recently estimated that a decision by OECD countries to allow existing plants to retire as scheduled, and a refusal to build any more nuclear power facilities would add an additional 860 million tons of carbon emissions per year between 2010 and 2030, equal to a 6 percent increase over the projected emissions levels for the OECD. Since then, decisions by Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Japan are likely to accelerate the retirement schedule, meaning even higher increases in emissions.
However, there is one lingering note of optimism. If the German and Japanese governments are serious about combating climate change but resolute in their anti-nuclear policy, the scientific community will experience unprecedented pressure to produce technological breakthroughs—such as commercially viable storage technologies, or improved smart grid applications—that are decisive to reaching a decarbonized electricity sector by 2050 (which is the EU’s). No other government has challenged its energy scientists with such a bold target; as we say earlier, it would be economically unwise to do so. Yet dismissing the capabilities of Japanese, German, and Swiss scientists and engineers may be nearly as unwise and could surprise us.
Scott Peterson directs the Nuclear Energy Institute’s communications and public affairs activities. Before joining NEI, Mr. Peterson was director of communications for the American Nuclear Energy Council, a government relations organization for the nuclear energy industry and one of three groups merged in 1994 to form NEI.
Time will tell if today’s intentions become tomorrow’s reality. Sweden voted in 1980 to phase out its 12 reactors by 2010. Thirty-one years later, 10 of them are still producing electricity that is essential for that country’s economy. Bottom line: Nuclear energy’s proven ability to reliably generate large amounts of low-cost, low-carbon electricity is not easily offset.
Assuming these countries proceed with their plans to reduce or eliminate their reliance on nuclear energy – which is clearly their right as sovereign nations – they will need to prepare their citizens for the far-reaching impacts of the transition.
European financial analysts predict that Germany’s decision to shutter its nuclear energy facilities will increase carbon dioxide emissions by 400 million tons by 2020. That’s because, unlike most other around-the-clock electricity sources, nuclear energy is virtually emissions-free. Here in America, 104 reactors prevent 605 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions every year, nearly as much as is released from all U.S. passenger cars. Experts maintain that Germany will have to add highly efficient, but emissions-heavy coal and gas-fired power plants to help meet the country’s energy needs.
Switzerland’s transition will be less difficult, given that three of its five nuclear plants are fairly small (400 megawatts or less). Germany’s nuclear plants have greater generating capacities and help make the country a net exporter of electricity. A nuclear energy phase-out will result in Germany becoming an importer of electricity, with the impact felt most in Bavaria and other parts of southern Germany, where nuclear power plants are concentrated. That change will come at a higher cost to consumers for electricity.
In any of these nations, major construction of wind farms onshore or offshore will be expensive. UBS analyst Patrick Hummel told ClimateWire in April that, despite the Fukushima Daiichi accident, prospects for the expansion of wind power are limited in Europe “given that wind is not a source of baseload power and government budget deficits limit the availability of funds for wind power subsidies.”
Proponents of renewable energy argue that solar and wind can be ramped up to fill the gap in an environmentally sustainable way, but both power sources require huge amounts of land to produce the same amount of energy as a single nuclear energy facility. Solar energy requires six times more land to produce the equivalent amount of electricity, while wind needs 30 times the acreage.
The most reasoned response to the crisis in Japan already is well under way in the United States: verify each nuclear plant’s capability to withstand severe conditions and make enhancements where shortcomings are identified. We can never eliminate all risk from energy production, but we can continue to learn from experience and better safeguard an energy source that has done so much to help us meet our environmental and economic goals. America needs clean, affordable, homegrown energy. Nuclear energy, produced safely, must continue to be a vital part of our portfolio of electricity options.
Dan Hirsch is a lecturer in nuclear policy at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, a non-profit nuclear policy organization focusing on issues of nuclear safety, waste disposal, proliferation, and disarmament.
The Japanese, Swiss, and Germans have got it right. It’s a pity that it took the ongoing Fukushima nuclear tragedy to get to this point, but it would be an even greater pity were they not to have gotten the message first sent by Three Mile Island, then Chernobyl, and now Fukushima. The real question is why the U.S. government hasn’t seen the light too.
Japan, Switzerland and Germany will phase out nuclear power and accelerate its replacement with safe, clean renewables. That means getting their power from wind, sun, and water – wind turbines, photovoltaics, solar thermal, geothermal, wave, tidal, and hydro, all backed up with interlinked systems of energy storage – rather than continuing with the dead-end path of trying to tame the power of the atom bomb and burning fossilized carbon.
Detailed analyses by experts such as Stanford’s Mark Jacobson, DArjun Makhijani of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, and my colleague S. David Freeman, former chair of TVA, all show how the transition from our current reliance on poisons for energy, to safe, clean power can be made. It is nowhere as complex as trying to keep nuclear reactors from melting down or proliferating atomic weapons, or trying to find a safe way of disposing of highly radioactive wastes for half a million years.
And indeed, the transition is fully underway. According to a recent Worldwatch Institute study, last year “all renewables excluding large hydro received $151 billion of global private investment (nuclear got none) and surpassed nuclear power’s total global installed capacity.” Prices of the renewables keep dropping, while nuclear costs keep escalating.
GE’s global research director, Mark Little, recently said that innovations may make solar power cheaper than fossil fuels and nuclear plants within three to five years. And, as Germany has shown, renewables can be built very quickly, whereas nuclear plants take years and years to construct, if they open at all. “Behind schedule” and “cost overrun” seem to be nuclear power’s middle names.
The political, economic, and environmental impacts of this transition will be significant.
The biggest problem the world faces is the proliferation of nuclear weapons. In recent decades, it has been through the spread of civil nuclear technology – reactors and the enrichment and reprocessing technologies that go with them – that nations have acquired the bomb. Nuclear power spreads nuclear weapons and increases the threat that terrorists may acquire weapons-usable material, by theft, diversion, or otherwise. The world turning away from nuclear power will reduce the risk of acquisition of nuclear weapons by states and sub-national groups.
Economically, moving away from nuclear power has tremendous advantages. Nuclear advocates are the most socialistic proponents in the U.S. today, absolutely hostile to the free market. The market has spoken: Wall Street, long before Fukushima, views new nukes as too risky and won’t invest in them, and insurance companies know the chance of a devastating accident is unacceptably high and won’t insure them. But rather than respect the market, the nuclear industry, via the power of its lobbyists, has gotten Congress to immunize it from all but a small fraction of the potential liability in case of an accident and has pushed for tens of billions of dollars of taxpayer loan guarantees.
Environmentally, switching from atomic power to sun, wind, and water power is essential. The Fukushima reactors continue to spew out radioactivity, and will apparently do so for quite some time. Parts of Japan around the plant have been abandoned because of the high contamination, farms and homes all unusable. Even outside the evacuation zone, the radiation is so high in many school playgrounds that Japanese authorities tried to raise the permissible dose for children twenty-fold – to a level that would cause a cancer in about one in every 250 children exposed, according to the National Academy of Sciences – and were faced with such an outcry that they had to back down.
Had the earthquake and tsunami that hit Fukushima damaged wind turbines and solar collectors, rather than atomic reactors and their spent fuel pools, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Japan, Germany, and Switzerland have learned the lesson; we should too.
Frank Wolak is director of the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development at Stanford University.
There are four major ways that countries abandoning nuclear power can meet their energy needs. The first is to reduce consumption through conservation and energy efficiency investments. The second is to invest in renewable sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal power. The third is to replace the nuclear capacity with natural gas and coal-fired capacity. The fourth is to increase the imports of electricity from neighboring countries. The most likely outcome, assuming that the citizens of these countries do not want significantly higher retail electricity prices, is a combination of more fossil fuel generation capacity and increased imports of electricity, which makes it difficult to argue that shutting down nuclear facilities yields a net reduction in the economic or environmental cost of producing the electricity consumed by these countries.
Although energy efficiency investments and conservation can reduce the demand for electricity, nuclear power plants currently produce a significant portion of the electricity consumed in Japan, Germany, and Switzerland. Moreover, these countries have had relatively high electricity prices and aggressive energy efficiency programs in place for some time. For this reason, it seems unlikely that there are a substantial amount of outstanding high-return energy efficiency investments. Consequently, demand reduction is unlikely to make a major contribution to reducing the demand-supply gap that would result from abandoning nuclear power.
Replacing nuclear power plants with renewable generation presents a number of economic and technical challenges. Nuclear plants are dispatchable in the sense that if demand increases, a nuclear facility can increase its output. Renewable resources such as wind and solar can only produce electricity when there is wind or the sunshine. Moreover the capacity factor (the total annual output of energy produced divided by the potential output of the unit) of wind and solar facilities is typically less than one-third the capacity factor of a nuclear power plant. This implies that more than three times the amount of renewable generation capacity is needed to replace the energy produced by the nuclear facility. Since renewable energy may not be available when the electricity demand is highest, significant investments in energy storage must be made to manage the increased intermittency of supply as the share of renewable generation on the system grows. All of these factors imply significantly higher costs to consumers. The growing financial burdens European governments are facing to meet their pre-existing renewable energy commitments argues against these resources making a major contribution to reducing this energy shortfall.
Natural gas-fired and coal-fired generation technologies are viable alternatives to nuclear generation. Both are dispatchable and can be built at sizes similar to nuclear power plants, with natural gas typically having a shorter construction time but a higher average cost of production relative to coal. However, both generation sources have well-known environmental and geopolitical challenges, particularly for natural gas-fired generation in Western European countries that rely on natural gas imports from Eastern Europe. Although these technologies are unlikely to have the potential to cause environmental damage at the scale of a nuclear accident, they do produce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), which increases the probability of catastrophic climate change.
A key point here is that there are significant environmental risks associated with the production and consumption of all energy sources. Over the past 30 years, both the safety and operating efficiency of nuclear power plants in the U.S. have increased substantially. There has been no significant environmental or safety incidence in the U.S. nuclear power plant fleet since Three Mile Island in the late 1970s. Moreover, average fleet-level nuclear power plant capacity factors have continuously increased from less than 50 percent in the early 1970s to more than 90 percent in 2010. Over this same time period, operating and maintenance costs for nuclear power plants have also fallen.
The Western European experience with nuclear power has been broadly similar to that in the US, which raises the question of why both Germany and Switzerland would want to abandon nuclear power. This decision is even more puzzling when one recognizes that both countries border France, which obtains more than 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. Consequently, a likely outcome of abandoning nuclear power production in these countries is that they will import more electricity that is produced from nuclear facilities in other countries of Western Europe and construct more coal and natural gas-fired generation units, which increases domestic greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector. Although there may be some increase in renewable generation capacity and demand reduction due to energy efficiency, these two factors are unlikely to make substantial contributions to replacing the abandoned nuclear capacity. For all of these reasons, one wonders if the decision to abandon nuclear power may be something these countries re-visit in the near future.
Jesse Jenkins and Sara Mansur are, respectively, director and policy associate at the Clean Energy and Climate Program of the Breakthrough Institute, an independent public policy research institute based in Oakland, Calif.
In the months following the tsunami-triggered nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power station, both Japan and Germany announced major U-turns on nuclear policy. In separate, politically calculated moves, Chancellor Angela Merkel vowed to end Germany’s reliance on nuclear power by 2022, while Prime Minister Naoto Kan scrapped plans to ramp up nuclear generation to 50 percent of Japan’s power supply in the coming decades, each while reaffirming already-ambitious climate change goals.
The reality, however, is that turning their backs on nuclear power could push both nations’ climate and environmental objectives out of reach. Simultaneously achieving both a nuclear phase-out and deep emissions cuts would necessitate an unprecedented – and unlikely – scale-up of renewable energy generation to fill the void left by the German and Japanese nuclear fleets.
Consider Germany first. After a drumming by an ascendant Green Party in recent regional elections, Merkel’s ruling party has vowed to increase renewable energy generation to 35 percent of the nation’s electricity supply, up from about 17 percent today, as part of new plans to forgo planned life extensions of their aging nuclear fleet and shut down all currently operating plants by 2022. It’s not complicated to see, however, that an 18 percentage point increase in renewable energy’s market share falls well short of fully replacing Germany’s nuclear power fleet, which now provides about a quarter of the nation’s power supply.
More importantly, our analysis finds that hitting the off switch on nuclear makes Germany’s climate change objectives twice as difficult. Cutting German carbon dioxide emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, as the nation has long-committed, while simultaneously replacing the nation’s nuclear fleet would require renewable energy to provide more than 60 percent of Germany’s electricity supply in just a decades’ time—a roughly four-fold increase in the electricity derived from non-hydro renewables, like wind and solar power.
For now, Germany is actually digging itself an even deeper hole. The nation is in the process of building ten new coal-fired power plants totaling more than 11,000 MW of capacity, which if completed, would emit as much as 69.4 million tons of carbon dioxide annually—over a quarter of the German electricity sector’s total 2008 emissions.
All this makes it difficult to square Germany’s avowed plans with the hard math and real actions on the ground.
In Japan, the picture may be even bleaker, owing to the island nation’s dearth of domestic energy resources and heavy historic reliance on nuclear power. In May, Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced the country would cancel prior plans to scale up nuclear power to meet 50 percent of the nation’s electricity by 2030, up from roughly 30 percent today. When added to the 38 existing Japanese nuclear plants that are scheduled to shut down by 2030 without a permit extension, Japan’s new nuclear plans leave a sizable gap that must be filled by other power sources.
Japan has few good options. According to our analysis, filling the nuclear gap would require an almost 50-fold increase in the electricity provided by wind, solar, and geothermal energy sources by 2030—and that assumes Japan continues to operate 21 existing power stations that will still be licensed to run in 2030, providing 15 percent of Japan’s projected power demand. Completely turning its back on nuclear would be almost inconceivable to Japan, despite the ongoing nuclear crisis there.
Regardless, simply replacing the generation gap left by Prime Minister Kan’s decision could entail immense economic costs: roughly $688 billion in construction costs if solar power filled the nuclear void, and somewhere on the order of $334 billion if met entirely with new wind parks. Japan has enough geothermal potential to displace about a third of the planned nuclear expansion at a fairly economical cost, but has been reluctant to develop such resources for fear of jeopardizing centuries-old hot springs, long-treasured as tourist destinations and meditative retreats.
If these staggering economic costs and scale requirements make it unlikely for Japan to fill the nuclear void entirely with renewable power sources, fossil energy options have their own costs to the nation’s treasured trade surplus and ambitious climate goals. If Japan turns to imported coal or liquefied natural gas (LNG) to replace its nuclear plants, the country’s annual CO2 emissions could spike by as much as 15 to 26 percent. Meanwhile, the added energy imports could erode 37 to 58 percent of Japan’s current trade surplus.
Germany, who can simply rely on greater imports of nuclear and coal-fired electricity from neighbors like France, Poland, or the Czech Republic, may have the easier time of it. If such a scenario satisfies the letter of Merkel’s promises, it would hardly match the spirit of “green” Germany’s vision of a nuclear and fossil-free future.
Isolated Japan, meanwhile, finds itself stuck between a rock and a hard place. Given the challenges and costs of scaling renewables and a well-reasoned reluctance to rely any further on fossil fuel imports, nuclear power once seemed the ideal energy source for the island nation. Now, Japan has run out of easy options.
Steve Caldwell is a senior solutions fellow at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, where he serves as an expert on issues such as clean energy technology, greenhouse gas emission reduction policies, energy market dynamics and regulation, and climate and energy policy analysis.
It is too early to fully ascertain the ultimate impacts of the nuclear accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant following the catastrophic earthquake and subsequent tsunami. It may be premature to assume that any country using nuclear power today is going to fully wean itself off it in the very near future.
Though it is critical to learn from the Japanese nuclear accident to improve the safety of nuclear power. New nuclear reactor designs offer safety advantages over existing reactors; MIT’s seminal report on the future of nuclear power noted that new reactors could have reactor core damage risks 10-fold lower than current reactors. Nonetheless, Japan’s experience highlights that nuclear power (like many other energy options) is not without risks.
Globally, electricity generation is by far the largest single source of CO2 emissions, and CO2 is the dominant greenhouse gas (GHG) that causes anthropogenic climate change. Managing the risk of dangerous climate change necessitates reducing global GHG emissions, particularly from electricity generation. Nuclear power can provide electricity without direct GHG emissions and with very low life-cycle emissions. Currently, nuclear power provides roughly 14 percent of global electricity generation and more than 40 percent of global carbon-free electricity generation.
Analyses show that de-carbonizing the global electricity supply at the lowest cost will require a portfolio of technologies—nuclear power, carbon capture and storage (CCS), renewables, and energy efficiency will all likely play a role. The more low-carbon technology options available, the lower the cost of meeting GHG reduction goals. For example, the International Energy Agency (IEA) recently analyzed various scenarios for reducing CO2 emissions from global electricity production by about half compared to current levels by mid-century. The IEA found the more nuclear power that could feasibly be built, the less costly it would be to meet these GHG reduction goals. IEA also found, though, that the difference in the overall cost of electricity generation in 2050 between a low-carbon scenario where nuclear power grew to 24 percent of global electricity and a low-carbon scenario that leaned more heavily on renewables and efficiency (and limited nuclear power to 12 percent of electricity generation) was only 10 percent. Thus, decarbonization can be achieved at reasonable cost even if nuclear power simply provides a roughly constant share of electricity generation.
In the wake of Fukushima, Germany has decided to phase out its nuclear generation by 2022. Germany relies on nuclear power for roughly a quarter of its electricity, but the German public has long harbored very strong anti-nuclear sentiments (suggesting that Germany may not be a bellwether). Moreover, Germany’s decision only accelerated a planned nuclear phase-out from 2036 to 2022.
Replacing this generation in short order will require growth in renewables, electricity savings from efficiency, and likely more reliance on fossil fuels. Germany is also able to draw on electricity imports from its neighbors. Germany is part of the European Union Emissions Trading System (EU-ETS), though, so to the extent that Germany shuts down nuclear plants and ramps up conventional fossil-fueled electricity generation, total EU power-sector emissions will still be capped. Germany’s abandonment of nuclear power might put more pressure on other EU-ETS members to switch away from conventional fossil fuel use more quickly as EU-ETS carbon allowance demand and prices increase.
In contrast to Germany, Japan has made little progress in advancing renewable energy (non-hydro renewables accounted for less than 1 percent of its electricity in 2009) and had planned to increase nuclear power’s share of electricity generation to 50 percent by 2030. Moreover, while Japan’s government has said that it will strive to greatly increase renewable energy and energy efficiency, Japan has no plans so far to abandon nuclear power; rather, Japan has committed itself to ensuring the safe use of nuclear power. Were Japan to actually reduce its dependence on nuclear power, it would likely have to lean more heavily on fossil fuels and find it difficult to reduce its GHG emissions per its long-term goals.
In the U.S., politicians from both parties have remained supportive of nuclear power. Domestically, the outlook for nuclear power rests largely on whether the two or three new nuclear plants now likely to be built can demonstrate on-time and on-budget completion, and whether the U.S. adopts an effective policy to incentivize clean electricity (like a clean energy standard).
Globally, the future of nuclear power depends in large part on what China does. Of the 64 new reactors currently under construction worldwide, 25 are in China. China has ambitious plans for nuclear power and has not altered its plans in light of the Japanese nuclear accident.
Existing nuclear reactors are themselves sunk costs, and they have low operating costs. Even new nuclear reactors, despite their enormous upfront capital costs, are in many cases less costly options for low-carbon electricity than renewables or CCS. Given their low operating costs, scrapping existing nuclear plants would likely increase electricity costs. The effects from abandoning plans for new nuclear plants depend on what replaces that planned nuclear capacity. Replacing planned nuclear generation with higher cost low-carbon options would likely increase overall electricity costs somewhat. Replacing planned nuclear generation with conventional fossil fuel use would, of course, make it more difficult to reduce GHG emissions.
Only time will tell what long-term effects the Japanese nuclear accident will have on the outlook for nuclear power. The world surely faces a challenge in safely harnessing nuclear energy, and the accident in Japan emphasizes that doing so requires technological, regulatory, and political vigilance. However, countries also face certain realities about the demand for energy, the energy options available, and the inexorable need to reduce global GHG emissions to avoid the worst impacts of man-made climate change. These realities point to a continued global reliance on nuclear power.
Geoffrey Heal, the Garrett Professor of Public Policy & Corporate Responsibility at Columbia Business School, is known for his contributions to economic theory as well as resource and environmental economics. He has written 18 books and is a fellow of the Econometric Society, and past president of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists.
Two major industrial countries are basically abandoning nuclear power — Germany and, to a lesser extent, Japan. And others are certainly going to throttle back their nuclear programs. Where will the extra power come from?
Not from coal, I hope: that’s far worse than nuclear. More people die because of coal power stations each year than have died from nuclear power in its entire history – between 6,000 and 10,000 are killed in coal mining accidents every year, and over 1 million die from pollutants released by coal-burning every year. That’s the casualty rate of a major war! A recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health estimated that the external costs of coal use amount to about $350 billion each year. In fact the case for abandoning coal is much stronger than that for moving away from nuclear. That’s what I’d really like to see – the public rise up against coal rather than nuclear. Or against both.
So if we rule out nuclear and we move away from coal, are we going to live in the dark? Fortunately not: a recent IPCC report (Special Report on Renewable Energy) makes it clear that with current technologies, renewable energy is abundant enough to meet all our energy needs, and can do so at a cost that is not in excess of current energy costs. We could, in other words, live comfortably off wind, solar, geothermal and a certain amount of fossil power, preferably natural gas.
There are two prerequisites for this to happen: a massive amount of investment, and the development of better energy storage technologies.
Let’s look at the investment. Here are the very rough calculations for the U.S.: the U.S. has 1 terraWatt of generation capacity, of which roughly 30 percent is non-carbon – 20 percent nuclear and 10 percent renewable. Suppose we wanted to replace the 20 percent of nuclear and also take out the roughly 50 percent that comes from coal: we’d have to build renewable capacity for 0.7tW of power output. The cost of this is 0.7*109* 2000*3 = 4.2*1012 = $4.2 trillion = 30 percent of current U.S. GDP.
We wouldn’t expect to do this all at once, so think of doing this over the next 40 years. Then, allowing for grid improvements and storage capacity, we are talking about investing 1 percent of U.S. GDP into renewables and associated infrastructure every year till mid-century, which is roughly 2.5 times the current rate of investment in energy capacity. A stretch, but not categorically impossible. So in particular we could replace nuclear, but I’d sooner replace coal first.
How about the storage issue? There are times when there is no wind and the sun doesn’t shine. Wind and solar must be complemented by either an energy storage system or an energy source that can be switched on and off quickly to fill in the lulls. Gas turbines are generally used in the latter role, as they have the merits of being cheap and relatively clean. Until now, energy storage has been limited to pumped hydro and compressed air energy storage, neither very user-friendly. But we are beginning to see the deployment of grid-scale batteries capable of supplying tens of megawatt hours, which could make the large-scale use of intermittent power sources feasible.
The bottom line: we can start a transition to renewable power with every expectation of using this as our main power source within decades.