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.

Scientific American:

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, 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.


9 Responses to “For Renewable Haters, a Quandary. Should We Subsidize Nuclear?”

  1. Greg Wellman Says:

    While nuclear is clearly far better than burning carbon, the “once-through” fuel cycle used in the US results in a lot of radioactive waste, and burns a non-trivial amount of carbon in the process of digging up and refining the Uranium. France’s nuclear system is more efficient.

    An Economist would say “Just put a justified price on carbon and let the market sort it out.” I would mostly agree with that.

    • Paul Whyte Says:

      Grey I mostly agree with you. The price on carbon would fix many things. I’m also keen to do more sensible things with the burn through once cycle of the current nuclear power generation.

      The large amount of waste from nuclear is actually a small pile. The high level nuclear waste is not a very large number of tonnes compared to other waste.

      Compared to coal waste it is very tiny. Also compared to wind waste when it finally comes down all the concrete is very much larger than the nuclear waste.

      I’d like that high level nuclear waste to be burned some where in the world to make energy. Its not unsolved technically. Its just unsolved politically.

      When you look at the toxic argument the biggest toxic challenge we have is the pesticide waste issue. I live in Sydney Australia and we have our harbour with its 188 internal miles of water side under a don’t eat the fish ban.

      The reason was a pesticide plant was not decommissioned properly. Dioxin was left to leach out and now it fills the fish and shell fish with levels over health requirements.

      If it was nuclear waste that did that there would be great fear filled to do about it.

      I put my little boat in the water beside a badly managed old radium paint factory site that has nuclear waste (radium paint) contaminate the mud. It killed (breast cancer from radon gas) about 10 people who built over it till it got walled off. My point is that only 3 blocks of land are effected by moderate level nuclear waste. That is the land area that is lost.

      To pesticides its the whole of Sydney harbour that is lost to food production. It use to house a fishing industry till it got too poisonous. The time till repair for both toxins is about he same time. Its very long. Both degrade slowly. Both factories were small old things now long gone.

      The largest mass poisoning is also related to pesticides when at Bhopal 20,000 people died from a toxic release. It way more than nuclear Chernobyl, Fukushima and Three mile island combined.

      It seems to me that there is an expansion of nuclear harm that just is more than actual harm can account for.

      The major harm of course is what will happen from the CO2 being left in the air when we are all gone. That harm dwarfs almost all harm I can think of. Just the land area lost to civilisation alone will be massive from sea level rise. Far less all the weather, temperature effects and more.

      I think there needs to be a subsidy for old nuclear like all the other power sources that high income countries use.

    • Gingerbaker Says:

      “An Economist would say “Just put a justified price on carbon and let the market sort it out.” ”

      An economist will ALWAYS think the market is the answer. When is the last time you heard an economist say : “What we need is a well-regulated publicly-owned publicly-financed utility”?

      How many articles about renewable power do we need to read to see that the economic dynamics are completely antithetical to capitalistic markets?

      The cheaper RE gets, the less profit can be made And we need it cheap. This is a business model for an *essential commodity* that should NOT be profit-based, which is why not much has been accomplished over the past thirty years – because we are trying to shove the wrong model down the throat of the “market”.

  2. webej Says:

    Problem with most considerations of nuclear are that they are always about giant scale existing light water reactors. Nuclear may well have a future at a smaller scale in transportation and elsewhere, but the technology would have to change (e.g., the thorium cycle or other new technologies). There is hardly ever any differentiation in these discussions, as if existing nuclear with all its problems is the only possibility.

  3. Jim Housman Says:

    I started my engineering career in 1971 at a company then called General Atomic (now General Atomics). Although the company, which was founded in the middle 1950s as a subsidiary of General Dynamics (from MIC profits) when I started there is belonged to Gulf Oil. One of the most amazing things I learned there was that the management just assumed every year that the “base program” money was a given. That program was a steady 70 or 80 million dollars per year that the company received to do basic research in nuclear power. I can’t even imagine what the big companies like GE and Westinghouse were getting in those days but you cannot call that money anthing but subsidy. I worked there through 1979 and I’m pretty sure that money was still rolling in when I left for “greener” pastures.

    They are still at the government trough. In fact they are the prime contractor for the Predator drone system as well as flogging fusion research and selling Uranium.

  4. Gingerbaker Says:

    Nuclear will always be way too expensive, way too dangerous, way too polluting, and way too slow to come on board compared to wind, sun, and tide. End the subsidies – its a radioactive diamond-studded buggywhip we can’t afford and simply do not need.

  5. The renewables haters are hypocrits. Global subsidies for fossil fuels are four times that of renewables. Without subsidy support wind is the least expensive energy source. Solar isn’t too far behind. The best thing these guys could do is cut subsidy support for fossil fuels, add a carbon tax, keep basic subsidies and incentives for renewables. That would hasten a necessary energy transition. Nuclear is dangerous in a world wracked by climate change due to the fact that it, by necessity, must be installed adjacent to a water source. They are therefore vulnerable to sea level rise, drought and floods related to climate change. We’ve basically Fukushimaed the weather and the climate. And some people want to build out more nuclear into that? Bad idea. Finally, as Ginger notes above, the costs and long build times are prohibitive to rapid scaling. Renewables have serious advantages on scaling due to the fact that they are modular (you can rapidly build them at large or small scale) and due to the fact that they have a positive learning curve (the more you invest in wind and solar, the lower the cost). Same synergy applies to the battery systems that will aid in managing renewable intermittency and aid in a vehicle to grid transition.

    I’ve heard much talk-talk of late on what renewables can’t do. I suppose we’ll have to ready ourselves for another big helping of naysayers being proven wrong on renewables.

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