For Renewable Haters, a Quandary. Should We Subsidize Nuclear?
June 1, 2016
Upon each new astounding milepost in the explosion of solar, wind and renewable technology – most predictable go-to response from renewable energy haters =
No sense bringing up, well, let’s see, every major infrastructure and technical advance since the Erie Canal – Transcontinental railroads, superhighways, air travel, jet engines, radar, microchips, space travel, weather satellites, the internet – all substantially or completely products of public funding. You might as well try to brief them on the mainstream science of climate change. Good luck.
But now the nook-ya-ler boys want (more) subsidies. That wasn’t in the script.
Just a few years ago, the United States seemed poised to say farewell to nuclear energy. No company had completed a new plant in decades, and the disaster in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011 intensified public disenchantment with the technology, both here and abroad.
But as the Paris agreement on climate change has put pressure on the United States to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, some state and federal officials have deemed nuclear energy part of the solution. They are now scrambling to save existing plants that can no longer compete economically in a market flooded with cheap natural gas.
“We’re supposed to be adding zero-carbon sources, not subtracting,” Ernest Moniz, the energy secretary, said recently at a symposium that the department convened to explore ways to improve the industry’s prospects.
As a result, there are efforts across the country to bail out nuclear plants at risk of closing, with important test cases in Illinois, Ohio and New York, as well as proposed legislation in Congress.
However, the recent slowdown in the demand for electricity and the glut of natural gas from the rise in fracking has driven down wholesale prices. That lower revenue poses special challenges for nuclear plants, which operate potentially for as long as 80 years, and so require costly upgrades and repairs during their life spans.
“At these prices,” said Jay Apt, a professor and a director of the Electricity Industry Center at Carnegie Mellon University, “they can’t save up enough to have cash on hand for periodic capital investments.”
Supporters of the bailouts say the current prices undervalue nuclear power, given the method’s lack of greenhouse gas emissions and ability to operate at all hours. The low prices make it hard for the plants to compete with other clean technologies like wind and solar, which receive subsidies and are bolstered by mandates that require purchases of clean power. They argue that the environmental and efficiency value of nuclear plants mean they should be eligible for similar subsidies or be included in clean energy mandates.
“We get no recognition for the fact that we emit nothing,” said Marvin S. Fertel, chief executive of the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade group.
In a rented 15-passenger van barreling south on Interstate 55 out of Chicago in April, a group of environmental activists, a legendary scientist and a camera crew embarked on a quixotic rescue effort.
Their goal: saving Illinois nukes.
“We shouldn’t be taking them off the table, in my opinion,” said James Hansen, a former scientist at NASA famous for raising the alarm about climate change before Congress in 1988, speaking from the van. “It’s our biggest source of carbon-free energy at this time.”
Hansen and the bandwagon headed for Clinton, 160 miles southwest of Chicago, to meet employees at the Clinton Power Station, a sky blue and gray 1-gigawatt nuclear power plant.
The 29-year-old boiling water reactor’s future is grim as the Illinois Legislature missed the deadline yesterday to pass new energy rules and rates that would extend Clinton a lifeline.
Exelon Corp., the plant’s operator, punted last October on a decision to close the plant, but previously said if it didn’t get to raise electric rates for customers by May 31, it would shut down the money-losing facility by 2017.
“We’ll have more to say about the path forward within the next few days,” said Exelon spokesman Paul Adams in an email.
Pro-nuclear activists want lawmakers to treat the Clinton plant and other fission reactors as some of the most powerful weapons in the fight against global warming, a rationale that would give them a new lease on life.
“The rules of the game are so rigged against nuclear in Illinois,” said Michael Shellenberger, a nuclear energy supporter and founder of Environmental Progress who rode with Hansen. He pointed out that nuclear energy is excluded from the state’s renewable portfolio standards and that wind energy is subsidized at more than double the rate Exelon was seeking.
However, the push to extend lifelines to nuclear power has collided with the goals of other environmental activists who have spent decades railing against reactors as expensive and unsafe, creating cracks in the coalition that helped bring nations to an international agreement to fight climate change.
Nuclear energy supporters, renewable power purists and all flavors of environmental activists in between gathered in Paris last December and applauded as world leaders inked a global agreement to combat climate change, the fruit of 20 years of fraught negotiation. But getting nations to acknowledge that the climate is changing, that the leading cause is human activity and that everyone is obligated to act is only the first step.
On the other side, atmospheric scientists like Mark Jacobson at Stanford University say that wind, water and solar are all that’s needed to power the modern world. The avoided health and environmental damages offset the costs of building up this grid, and nuclear energy is an expensive, time-consuming distraction from this effort. The only thing lacking, he argues, is political will.
“He’s a great climate scientist, and he’s real passionate about solving the problem. I completely admire him for that,” Jacobson said about Hansen. However, he said that Hansen and many scientists who have joined him haven’t published any peer-reviewed research on comparing energy sources, while Jacobson has published dozens.
“Most of the people who do talk about it, they’re not actually doing an evaluation of the science,” Jacobson said. “They’ve examined the problem, but they’ve never examined the solutions.”
Though researchers on either side of the debate remain largely cordial, the divide has become a flash point in public debates and even in otherwise stolid scientific meetings, leading to testy exchanges and heated arguments over whose approach is most rational.
At a tense debate in February at UCLA where Jacobson argued over the merits of supporting nuclear versus ramping up renewables, sharing the stage with nuclear supporters like Environmental Progress’ Shellenberger and fellow Stanford climate scientist Ken Caldeira, the question-and-answer session with the audience devolved into a shouting match.
Some scientists suggest that these differences arise from ideology rather than scientific disagreements.
“In my mind, the word ‘renewable’ is more of a tribal identifier than a technical basis for energy,” said Caldeira, adding that researchers shouldn’t inveigh on energy engineering issues in general.
“I don’t think climate scientists should be pretending they’re in some kind of privileged position to know what kind of technology could meet economic and environmental power restraints,” he said.
Michael Mann, a climatologist at Pennsylvania State University, suggested that some of the strident opposition to 100 percent renewable energy stems from fears over losing public credibility.
“I’ve encountered folks who have an irrational dislike of renewable energy. Perhaps they associate it with granola-chewing socialists,” he wrote in an email. “Who knows—but it really colors the way that they look at this issue, and leads to an irrational dismissiveness about prospects for meeting much or all of our projected future energy demand through renewable energy.”
The divide among scientists has a corresponding fissure among activists.
“To me Jacobson’s work seems rigorous and detailed, and more to the point countries like Denmark are now showing it’s entirely possible. The technology is there; we need the political will to match,” said environmental activist Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, in an email. “I’m convinced by the careful work of Mark Jacobson and others that this is possible.”
Others argue that the 100 percent renewable energy vision is a luxury afforded by wealth,
“In rich countries, people turn against nuclear,” said Shellenberger. “A lot of it is [not in my back yard]-ism. A lot of it is Malthusianism.”
“Malthusianism” is often shorthand for population control, building on the ideas of 18th-century scholar Thomas Robert Malthus who projected that without checks, the number of people on Earth would grow faster than the resources available to sustain them.
“In order to maintain the fiction of energy shortages, you have to take nuclear off the table,” Shellenberger said.