Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Nuclear Power In A Warming World: Solution or Illusion?

Mar 12: The House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, Chaired by Edward Markey (D-MA)held a hearing entitled, “Nuclear Power in a Warming World: Solution or Illusion?” The hearing explored the degree to which nuclear power can provide a solution for addressing climate change. According to an announcement, the contemplated future role of nuclear power in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions will clearly require a monumental capital investment, many years if not decades of planning and construction, extensive international coordination, and substantial assumption of risk by the general public and by investors. The hearing examine the feasibility of achieving such a nuclear expansion, the costs and benefits of this nuclear path, and whether nuclear power can play a leading role in solving the climate challenge.

Witnesses testifying at the hearing included: Amory Lovins, Cofounder, Chairman, and Chief Scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute; Sharon Squassoni, Senior Associate in the Nonproliferation Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and David Lochbaum, Director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists; and Adam Flint, Senior Vice President, Government Affairs, Nuclear Energy Institute.

Lovins titled his presentation, "Why expanding nuclear power would reduce and retard climate protection and energy security… but can’t survive free-market capitalism." He said, "I’ll summarize why nuclear power isn’t needed for any civilian purpose; how and why it’s being dramatically outcompeted in the global marketplace by no- and low-carbon electrical resources that deliver far more climate solution per dollar, far faster; and why nuclear expansion would inhibit climate protection, energy security, and reliably powering prosperity. Even if nuclear power could attract private risk capital, it could not in principle deliver its claimed climate and security benefits. But because it’s uneconomic and unnecessary, we needn’t inquire into its other attributes. Far from undergoing a renaissance, nuclear power is conspicuously failing in the marketplace, for the same forgotten reason it failed previously: it costs too much and it bears too much financial risk to attract private risk capital, despite federal subsidies now approaching or exceeding its total cost. . ." He concluded saying, "The capital markets are now injecting a welcome realism long absent from Federal policy. The straightest path to American energy security and to a richer, fairer, cooler, safer world is to let all ways to save or produce energy compete fairly, at honest prices, regardless of their type, technology, size, location, and ownership. That’s pretty much the opposite of the Federal energy policy we have."

Sharon Squassoni, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace testified that the recent increase in Administration support for nuclear power (i.e. subsidies, presidential and official statements, the 2005 Energy Policy Act, etc.) have created "a confused debate that paints nuclear energy 'clean and green,' advocates nuclear energy for all, even though some states with nuclear reactors could pose significant safety and proliferation concerns, and suggests that nuclear energy is a path to energy security, while insisting that some states rely on market mechanisms for fuel supplies instead of developing their own indigenous resources and capabilities. Yet, this approach obscures important policy considerations as the United States and other countries consider nuclear investments on the order of several hundred billion dollars. A first order question is the extent to which nuclear energy can really make a difference in terms of global climate change."

Her analysis, based on a 2004 “wedge analysis” indicates that, "For nuclear energy to “solve” just one-seventh of the problem – lowering emissions by 1 billion tons per year – an additional 700 GWe of capacity would have to be built, assuming the reactors replaced 700 GWe of modern coal-electric plants.4 Because virtually all operating reactors will have to be retired in that time, this means building approximately 1070 reactors in 42 years [i.e. by 2050], or about 25 reactors per year. Current global reactor capacity is 373 GWe or 439 reactors worldwide. In short, one “nuclear wedge” would require almost tripling current capacity."

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) testified that it recently re-examined nuclear power’s role in combating global warming. He said, "We concluded that an expansion of nuclear power could help curb global warming because nuclear power plants do not emit global warming gases during operation and the emissions during the nuclear fuel cycle and plant construction are relatively modest. Unfortunately, history has repeatedly shown that the safety and security risks of this nuclear curb are both significant and sustained. . ." UCS concludes, "If the NRC is not reformed, even existing reactors may not operate long into the future and new reactors are unlikely to make a meaningful contribution to global warming. Thus, if the NRC is not reformed, UCS believes that nuclear power will be more of an illusion than a solution." UCS testimony includes an attachment of the Executive summary from UCS’s December 2007 report Nuclear Power in a Warming World [See WIMS 12/12/07]. The complete report is available from the link below.

The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) indicated that it is responsible for developing policy for the U.S. nuclear industry on generic technical, regulatory, business and other matters of industry-wide importance. More than 300 corporate and other members of NEI represent a broad spectrum of interests, including every U.S. electric utility that operates a nuclear power plant. NEI said that the Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts global electricity demand to nearly double between 2004 and 2030 from 16.4 trillion kilowatt-hours in 2004 to 30.4 trillion kilowatt-hours in 2030.

NEI said, "It is extraordinarily challenging to imagine credible scenarios by which electricity production can double in the coming decades while reducing significantly the emission of greenhouse gases from electricity generation. To do so will take the successful implementation of a wide range of solutions, as Princeton Professors Stephen Pacala and David Socolow made clear in their wedge analysis. A credible program will require a portfolio of technologies and approaches, including the widespread use of nuclear energy, renewables, conservation, efficiency, and carbon sequestration from the use of fossil fuels. The magnitude of this challenge should not be underestimated.

"That conclusion is shared by leaders and governments around the world including Yvo de Boer, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, who, in July 2007 said he had never seen a credible scenario for reducing emissions that did not include nuclear energy. Similar conclusions have been reached by the G-8 in its declaration on “Growth and Responsibility in the World Economy” issued after the June 2007 G-8 summit. . .

"There are 34 nuclear units under construction worldwide including seven in Russian, six in India, and five in China. In the United States, we have one, the 5-year, $2.5 billion completion of TVA’s Watts Bar 2 underway. In the United States, 17 companies or groups of companies are preparing license applications for as many as 31 new reactors. . .

"In closing, nuclear energy is the single largest source of non-carbon emitting generation. It is a mature technology, operated at high standards by an experienced industry that is committed to safety. It is the only energy option available today that can provide large-scale electricity 24/7 at a competitive cost without emitting greenhouse gases."

Access the hearing website for links to all testimony (
click here). Access an overview and link to the complete 74-page UCS report (click here). [*Energy/Nuclear, *Haz/Nuclear]

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