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Nuclear Makes Sense

Farhad Manjoo at the New York Times writes that “Nuclear Power Still Doesn’t Make Much Sense.” 

He says:

I’ll give the pronuclear folks this: They do make a good case that nuclear has gotten a too-bad rap. Nuclear power is relatively safe, reliable and clean; compared to the planetary destruction wrought by fossil fuels, nuclear power looks like a panacea….

But the argument for significantly ramping up the production of nuclear power — especially in places where overall energy consumption isn’t growing, like in the United States and Europe — falls short. That’s because the nuclear industry has long been hobbled by two problems that its boosters can’t really wish away: Nuclear is far slower to build than most other forms of power, and it’s far more expensive, too. And now there is a third problem on the horizon. As battery technology improves and the price of electricity storage plummets, nuclear may be way too late, too — with much of its value eclipsed by cheaper, faster and more flexible renewable power technologies….

Responding to such a climate emergency with nuclear power is like calling on a sloth to put out a house fire. The 63 nuclear reactors that went into service around the world between 2011 and 2020 took an average of around 10 years to build. By comparison, solar and wind farms can be built in months; in 2020 and 2021 alone, the world added 464 gigawatts of wind and solar power-generation capacity, which is more power than can be generated by all the nuclear plants operating in the world today.

There’s an opportunity cost “of waiting around for a nuclear reactor to be built when you could have spent that money on wind or solar and got rid of emissions much faster,” Jacobson said. This cost may be particularly onerous when you consider the rapid advancement in battery technology, which can help address the main shortcoming of renewable power: its intermittency. The price of lithium-ion batteries has dropped by about 97 percent since they were introduced in 1991, and prices are projected to keep falling.

On the other hand, the International Energy Agency’s projections for reaching net-zero energy still rely on nuclear. The agency says that nuclear capacity will need to double by 2050, with two-thirds of that growth occurring in developing economies. Still, even with nuclear’s doubling, the I.E.A. says nuclear power will contribute less than 10 percent of global electricity in 2050; over the same period, the agency says renewable generation will grow eightfold, contributing 90 percent of electric power in 2050.

Manjoo seems too optimistic about how easy it will be for renewables to meet the demand for electricity fed by fazing out coal and oil while increasing demand comes from electric vehicles.  Even wind and solar power are running into supply and cost problems resulting from Covid and its aftermath. 

The best sites for wind and solar power are usually in wide open spaces, far from the teeming cities that need the power.  This means that the transmission grid will have to be improved and strengthened, something people have talked about for years, but have done almost nothing. 

Finally, there is the problem that the wind stops blowing and the sun stops shining.  Manjoo’s solution is batteries, but gigantic batteries capable of supplying large cities for many hours do not yet exist, and their development and manufacture present problems.  The Atlantic Council has published a report “Alternative Battery Chemistries and Diversifying Clean Energy Supply Chains” because the manufacture of such large batteries risks increasing environmental and social problems for developing countries that have the rare minerals required for the batteries.  It projects that demand for lithium will rise by 42 times.  In addition, Russia controls 21% of nickel production, and China controls 80% of cobalt production.  The report examines different types of batteries, rather than lithium-ion, to use different materials from different places. 

In addition, a New York Times article examined other non-traditional ways to store energy, such as pumping water uphill when electricity is available, and using the down flow to generate electricity when demand exceeds supply.  Hydrogen is another way to store energy.  Energy is needed to separate hydrogen from water, but then it can be used in combustion engines or fuel cells.  Because hydrogen often takes much energy to produce, it is often classified as “green,” low production cost, or “blue” energy intensive projection. 

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