The objective of this report is to examine whether nuclear power should be pursued as a means of reducing CO2 emissions from the energy sector. Specifically, it is focused on the problems of radioactive waste, notably spent fuel, and of the cost and timeliness of nuclear in reducing CO2 emissions compared to available low-or zero-CO2 alternatives to coal-fired generation. Both European and U.S. experience have been used to exemplify the waste and cost issues.
Like Spain, the United States gets about 20% of its electricity from nuclear power. But, unlike Spain, which gets 11% of its electricity from wind energy alone, the United States gets only about 3 % of its electricity from renewables (excluding large-scale hydro), about half of which is wind-generated electricity; the rest is geothermal and biomass. While solar energy is growing rapidly, it is still well under the one % mark in the United States. About half of U.S. electricity comes from coal-fired power plants. About 20% of U.S. electricity generation comes from natural gas, most of it from combined cycle power plants. Spain gets about one-third of its electricity from combined cycle power plants.
There are three broad issues to consider in assessing whether to make a push for new nuclear power plants to address the problem of greatly reducing CO2 emissions from the electricity sector:
1. Radioactive waste, and specially spent fuel, management. If the CO2 problem is reduced but only at the expense of creating a different and intractable environmental problem, radioactive waste disposal, it will be a poor solution.
2. Factors in estimating the cost of nuclear power plants, including financial risk compared to alternatives that can be built faster and with lower risks.
3. Cost of reducing CO2 emissions using nuclear compared to alternative approaches for reducing carbon emissions – natural gas combined cycle and wind power plants.
So far as the economic analysis is concerned, it is important to note that this report is focused on comparative cost of reducing CO2 emissions by replacing fully depreciated coal-fired power plants with alternative low or zero-CO2 sources of electricity. In other words, it is intended to be an analysis of the relative costs of the various approaches in reducing CO2 emissions and should be used primarily for that purpose.
This analysis shows that the common assumption in many circles that nuclear is essential for reducing CO2 emissions is incorrect. On the contrary, emissions can be more effectively reduced at much lower risk if existing coal-fired power plants are replaced by wind and combined cycle power plants. In the long run, natural gas can be replaced by biogas derived from biomass for instance to eliminate the CO2 emissions associated with it and also to eliminate the risk of natural gas price increases over the long-term. Even when compressed air energy storage is added to wind to make it dispatchable, the costs of CO2 reduction are slightly higher for the central estimate of nuclear than for wind with storage.
It does not appear desirable to take the risks associated with nuclear power both in regard to waste and money in order to reduce CO2 emissions. Moreover, given that the lead time for building nuclear power plants is 8 to 10 years (perhaps more in case of long delays), CO2 reductions can be carried out much more rapidly if renewable energy is deployed, since renewable projects typically take two to three years or less. Therefore, there could be a substantial CO2 cost penalty associated
with using nuclear power due to its long lead time. The nuclear industry will also take time to ramp up. In the United States, it is anticipated that less than ten plants and possibly less than half that will be built in the next ten years. The amount of equivalent renewable capacity, in terms of generation and hence CO2 reductions, that can be brought on line in that time could be many times that. When combined with large efficiency investments and investments in storage, the overall share of the cost of electricity in the Gross Domestic Product can be maintained even if renewable
electricity remains somewhat more expensive than conventional fossil fuel generation (in the absence of CO2 charges).
Nuclear power is a distraction from the real task at hand – transitioning to an efficient, smart-grid electricity system based entirely on renewables. John Wellinghof, the Chairman of the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, has recently noted that there may be no need for new nuclear or coal plants ever.55 My research indicates that he is right. Policies in regard to existing nuclear plants can safely be based on the assumption that we will be able to phase them out and that we will not need new nuclear power plants to address climate change concerns.