From Scott Carlberg

Existing nuclear plants are the largest source of no-carbon energy and the foundation for no-carbon electric generation in the US. Reducing carbon in the atmosphere is part of addressing climate change. (ECC has an explanation about carbon at the end of this blog.)

ECC knows that discussing nuclear energy, especially in South Carolina now, may invite criticism because of the cancellation of the VC Summer nuclear construction. This column looks at something different, the way that nuclear energy can improve the outlook for climate change. Pure and simple. Politics and lobbyists aside. Nuclear technology, existing and new technology, has a role to play. (At the end of this blog we also feature some advanced nuclear technology ideas written up from MIT.) 

The relationship of carbon control and nuclear energy was the point of The Missing Piece? A Discussion of the Role of Nuclear Energy in Climate Change Mitigation at the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners conference in February. ECC was there. Presenters from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Union of Concerned Scientists and Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) had their say. These organizations are no pushovers when it comes climate issues. They were surprisingly uniform in their value of nuclear in the climate change debate.

“Carbon emissions are the topic that links energy and environmental policies,” according to a Maryland Public Service Commissioner leading the panel. Why that interest? For one reason,  Maryland has 15,000 electric vehicles (EV) on the road now and aims at 300,000 EVs on the road by 2025 – just six years from now. Big increase in EVs and a need for power. Power that is carbon-free.

“Nuclear power is responsible for around 20 percent of US electricity generation and more than 50 percent of its zero-emission generation,” says a C2ES’ report, Solutions for Maintaining the Existing Nuclear Fleet. “However, these large sources of zero-emission power are being prematurely retired with respect to their operating licenses because of low wholesale electricity prices resulting from low natural gas prices, excess power generation capacity, declining renewable energy costs, and low growth in electricity demand. Unfortunately, nuclear generation is largely being replaced by fossil fuel-fired electricity, sending U.S. emissions in the wrong direction.”

A map of operating nuclear facilities in the US, courtesy of the World Nuclear Association.

Existing nuclear plants are a low-cost source of carbon energy. “Embrace them,” said the MIT speaker. Costs involved with large reactors need to be brought under more control, he notes. New nuclear technologies can add to carbon-free electricity and will need major support to move forward.

The need to keep nuclear plants on-line is all about carbon. As some plants have closed they have been replaced with natural gas plants. ECC wrote about the way that utilities have moved to natural gas in a big way. “Natural gas has on the order of 60 percent less carbon than coal generation, depending on the kind of coal and the plant process used.” That is fine for replacing coal, but if gas replaces carbon-free nuclear power, that adds to emissions in the air.

Pennsylvania is debating how to keep nuclear plants open. Said the Washington Post recently: “A huge part of the state’s carbon-free electricity — 93 percent — comes from nuclear power. And 42 percent of the state’s electricity overall is generated by nuclear power. So, plant closures could have a huge impact on emissions in the state if they were to be replaced by fossil fuel-fired power plants.” Consider how far ahead Pennsylvania is on their carbon-free goals though nuclear.

Or, New Jersey. Nuclear is energy dense, added the panel, and has a small footprint for what society gets, noting that two nuclear plants make 40 percent of New Jersey’s electric needs.

In South Carolina, 58% of electricity is nuclear – carbon-free. In North Carolina, 32%.

Compact and powerful are the ways nuclear was characterized. “Society is not valuing the clean energy from nuclear. We need nuclear, renewable and carbon capture,” said the speaker from C2ES.

A combination of technologies that will wisely move electrification ahead. In a future that requires no-carbon electricity there is a source that is already being used, nuclear energy. The Carolinas already have an advantage with a substantial part of their electricity coming from nuclear.

As our world becomes more electrified and we need no-carbon energy, nuclear, working in association with conservation, hydro, solar, wave and wind all have a spot in our energy world.

Advanced nuclear technology…

The MIT Technology Review ran an article on February 27 about nuclear reactors that might help address climate change. Three approaches: Small Modular Reactors, Advanced Fission and Fusion are all possibilities. Find the article here.

About nuclear as part of the energy portfolio…

In a story from the Pacific Northwest, Richland [Washington] nuclear plant kept under order to heat the frigid Northwest, it said on 2/28/19, “For most of the month of February the Northwest’s only nuclear power plant has been under a ‘no touch’ order to help keep the heat on across the region. The Bonneville Power Administration, which markets the electricity produced at the nuclear plant near Richland, asked for the restriction during an unusually cold February across the state that increased the demand for electricity. … Columbia Generating Station has the capability to produce 1,207 megawatts, which is typically enough energy to power Seattle and part of its metro area. It is the third largest electricity generator in the state.”

What is it about carbon? (Material from Climate.Gov)

The global average atmospheric carbon dioxide in 2017 was 405.0 parts per million (ppm for short), with a range of uncertainty of plus or minus 0.1 ppm. Carbon dioxide levels today are higher than at any point in at least the past 800,000 years.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations in parts per million (ppm) for the past 800,000 years. Peaks and valleys in carbon dioxide levels track the coming and going of ice ages (low carbon dioxide) and warmer interglacials (higher levels). Throughout these cycles, atmospheric carbon dioxide was never higher than 300 ppm; in 2017, it reached 405.0 ppm (black dot). See NOAA Climate.gov.

In fact, the last time the atmospheric CO2 amounts were this high was more than 3 million years ago, when temperature was 2°–3°C (3.6°–5.4°F) higher than during the pre-industrial era, and sea level was 15–25 meters (50–80 feet) higher than today.

Carbon dioxide concentrations are rising mostly because of the fossil fuels that people are burning for energy. Fossil fuels like coal and oil contain carbon that plants pulled out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis over the span of many millions of years; we are returning that carbon to the atmosphere in just a few hundred years. …

Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas: a gas that absorbs heat. Warmed by sunlight, Earth’s land and ocean surfaces continuously radiate thermal infrared energy (heat). Unlike oxygen or nitrogen (which make up most of our atmosphere), greenhouse gases absorb that heat and release it gradually over time, like bricks in a fireplace after the fire goes out. Without this natural greenhouse effect, Earth’s average annual temperature would be below freezing instead of close to 60°F. But increases in greenhouse gases have tipped the Earth’s energy budget out of balance, trapping additional heat and raising Earth’s average temperature.

Carbon dioxide is the most important of Earth’s long-lived greenhouse gases. It absorbs less heat per molecule than the greenhouse gases methane or nitrous oxide, but it’s more abundant and it stays in the atmosphere much longer. And while carbon dioxide is less abundant and less powerful than water vapor on a molecule per molecule basis, it absorbs wavelengths of thermal energy that water vapor does not, which means it adds to the greenhouse effect in a unique way.