Let’s start with some facts. (The source links are below.)
The US generates 38% of our electricity from coal-fired power plants, and another 30% from other fossil fuels (oil and natural gas). That accounts for 37% of our total CO2 emissions. CO2 emissions are the primary cause of man-made climate change.
We generate 19% of our electricity from nuclear power plants, which produce no CO2. Zero.
France generates 77% of its electricity from nuclear power plants, which produces no CO2. Zero.
If the US had built nuclear power plants at the rate France did in the 1970’s and 80’s, we could shut now down every single coal-fired power plant in the country, as well as a third of our gas/oil power plants.
We would be producing 30% less CO2 than we are now.
The 1997 Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change called on the US (and other developed countries) to reduce CO2 output by 7%.
By comparison, total “renewable” energy sources (wind, solar, geothermal, and hydroelectric) generate less than 12% of our electricity (more than half of that from hydro). We can’t easily increase our hydropower – in fact we are in the process of removing dams in many places, resulting in less of this carbon-free power. To eliminate as many fossil fuel power plants with other “renewables” would require a tenfold increase in wind/solar/geothermal power plants. Yet such plants are more costly than nuclear or fossil fuel power plants, and require permanent government (taxpayer) subsidies.
Given these facts, you might assume that those most concerned about the threat of global warming and climate change would be demanding a national and global-scale program to expand nuclear power generation. Of course, you would be wrong.
The pious preaching of politicians and the noisy chants of activists are alike silent on the use of nuclear power. Read the climate change speeches of presidents, former vice-presidents, popes, and pundits; count the number of times they advocate nuclear power expansion. The subject never seems to come up.
Of course, there are problems with nuclear power. It creates nuclear waste which must be stored, and nobody wants it stored near them. In serious accidents, it can release radioactive material into the atmosphere. Real problems, real risks.
But the rhetoric consistently suggests that climate change from CO2 production is the greatest threat the world now faces. Do we really expect to address such a threat through zero-problem, risk-free means?
The preferred environmentalist solution is de-industrialization; shrink the developed-world economy until it can run on clean renewables that cause no environmental risk. So wind power, if we can keep from killing birds; solar, if we can build their arrays without disrupting habitats; geothermal, as long as we don’t disrupt groundwater. Hydroelectric dams are, of course, off the table.
What all this points to is a disturbing level of hypocrisy and downright dishonesty among the climate-change activist community, and the politicians who pander to them.
This is most clearly demonstrated by the shifting use of various terms for “good” energy: “renewables” and “clean energy”. “Renewable” was the watchword of the movement to replace fossil fuels before we run out of them. Wind and solar were the prime renewables. But we don’t seem to be running out of fossil fuels, owing to new extraction technology like fracking. “Clean energy” combined the idea of renewability with the prevention of pollution from fossil fuels. Technology like smokestack scrubbers made some progress with coal, while catalytic converters and better automotive efficiency improved our use of petroleum. And cleaner natural gas has replaced much use of dirtier fuels. By and large, our air in the US is now cleaner than it was thirty or fifty or even a hundred years ago.
Yet our public discussion of climate change is filled with these terms from another time, another issue, from a battle we are winning. Why?
The proper terminology for climate-change-fighting energy use is “Zero Carbon Emission” or “Carbon-Free”. So why do activists and politicians continue to use the old term “renewable”? Because of the facts above. Nuclear power generation is the only Carbon-free or Zero-Carbon-Emission power source that is affordably within our reach, now or even in the foreseeable future.
Environmentalists have for decades stigmatized nuclear power as risky, dirty and dangerous. They don’t want to consider its use, even to counter “the greatest threat of our time, or of all time”. The problem with nuclear energy is not that it is not renewable (it is), or dirty (much cleaner than fossil fuels), or even dangerous (compared with other sources).
The OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency, in a 2010 report “Comparing Nuclear Accident Risks with Those from Other Energy Sources”, calculated the chances of a major accident (causing 100 or more latent fatalities) for various power sources. They found the danger from nuclear power is less than 10% of the danger from coal, oil, natural gas, or hydropower.
Environmentalists (the older ones) grew up in the fight against nuclear power plants like Seabrook, N.H. It was the perfect fight. Nuclear power plants seemed somehow connected to nuclear weapons. They would experience catastrophic meltdowns, as we learned from Jane Fonda in “The China Syndrome” (1979). Their nuclear waste would pollute our drinking water. Millions would die!
And the anti-nuclear campaign developed two new tactics for obstruction. Picketing and demonstrations got publicity, but regulatory reviews created entanglements that added years to construction and millions of dollars to the cost. And the NIMBY phenomenon (Not In My Back Yard) put pressure on local state and national politicians to throw up their own roadblocks.
These tactics effectively ended most energy companies’ enthusiasm for building nuclear plants. More than 100 orders for nuclear power reactors, many already under construction, were canceled in the 1970s and 1980s, bankrupting some companies. Since then, US power companies have been reluctant to consider nuclear power plants. And activists continue to lobby for the removal of present ones.
What about France? How did they manage to convert to nuclear power?
Let me quote liberally from Wikipedia:
“The present situation is due to the French government deciding in 1974, just after the first oil shock, to expand rapidly the country’s nuclear power capacity, using Westinghouse technology. This decision was taken in the context of France having substantial heavy engineering expertise but few known indigenous energy resources. Nuclear energy, with the fuel cost being a relatively small part of the overall cost, made good sense in minimizing imports and achieving greater energy security.”
“As a result of the 1974 decision, France now claims a substantial level of energy independence and almost the lowest cost electricity in Europe. It also has an extremely low level of CO2 emissions per capita from electricity generation, since over 90% of its electricity is nuclear or hydro.”
Another critical point is that France addressed the issue with a national plan directed by the government. They decided on a single type of reactor (Westinghouse) and set safety standards. And the government commitment meant that regulatory delaying tactics were unsuccessful. The private sector played a role, but not the lead role. Government shared the risk.
In the US, by contrast, the power companies bore the entire risk, and the government was anything but a partner. The US has multiple models from different manufacturers. While this has its benefits (competition yielding improvements), they are vastly outweighed by the united leadership and commitment, along with standardization, afforded by the French model.
In other words, a program of rapid development of nuclear power would need to look more like our Apollo Moon program than like the auto industry.
Government would have to take the lead. But Republicans are suspicious that the whole climate change issue is just another front in the enviros’ war on industrialization. And Democrats count on the enviros as a crucial voting bloc and money source.
This could change, of course, if the environmental left were to face up honestly to the challenge presented by this issue. It could happen. Maybe. I think.
Until then, one must assume that those who speak of “renewable energy” or “clean energy” or “wind and solar” as the solution to global warming, you must regard them as ignorant or dishonest.
If these guys really want to prevent global warming and put coal out of business, here’s the way to do it without putting the rest of us out of business.
EPA Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report 1990-2014
(CO2 production by source, among other facts)
“Nuclear Power in US”
“Nuclear Power in France”
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency 2010 report Comparing Nuclear Accident Risks with Those from Other Energy Sources,
US Energy Information Agency
“In 2014, the United States generated about 4,093 billion kilowatt hours of electricity. About 67% of the electricity generated was from fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and petroleum).
Major energy sources and percent share of total U.S. electricity generation in 2014:
• Coal = 39%
• Natural gas = 27%
• Nuclear = 19%
• Hydropower = 6%
• Other renewables = 7% • Biomass = 1.7%
• Geothermal = 0.4%
• Solar = 0.4%
• Wind = 4.4%
• Petroleum = 1%
• Other gases < 1%”