Wednesday, October 28, 2009

On the Role of Nuclear Power in Climate Change Mitigation

Nuclear power has always been a contentious subject among parties in the climate debate. Pragmatists, among whom I count myself, expound the importance of nuclear power expansion to supply near-zero carbon baseload power. Idealists think we can achieve an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions by mid-century by using renewables, smart grid, and happy thoughts.*

An article today in the Washington Post illuminates how this debate is playing out on capitol hill, with Republicans weary of supporting any climate bill that leaves out significant incentives (such as federal loan guarantees and federal support for training workers at nuclear plants) for nuclear power. Interestingly, it seems the Senate's nuclear proponents are even more optimistic than those in the nuclear industry when it comes to the question of how many plants we can expect to build in the next 30-40 years: Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) wants 100 new plants (doubling the nation's current capacity), while nuclear industry finance experts place the most optimistic estimates at around 50 by 2035.

This leads to an interesting demand-side management problem: nuclear plants are designed to provide continuous baseload. With a much higher percentage of electricity coming from nuclear, utilities will need to find ways to utilize that power at night when demand is at its lowest. One option would be to install electric water heaters, a method France uses to absorb its electricity output at night (it uses upwards of 75% nuclear power). Another would be using that electricity to charge electric vehicles (more of a long term goal).

Another interesting snippet from this article is that for nuclear to be a more attractive option than gas-fired plants, the price of natural gas must be above $7 per 1000 cubic ft. Right now, the price is about half that. The volatility of this price point notwithstanding (see figure), I thought it would be interesting to see what sort of carbon tax would be needed to make nuclear and gas-fired plants break even. With natural gas having an emissions coefficient of 116 lbs CO2/1000 cubic ft (from the EIA) and a price of $3.5/1000 cubic ft, a carbon price of $60/ton would make nuclear the more attractive option for additional generating capacity development. And that includes a huge assumption about natural gas prices staying constant: accounting for the uncertainty in price would make nuclear the more attractive option with a much smaller (if any) carbon price.

*The author apologizes to anyone she's offended with her snarkiness.


  1. Great post. I'd be interested in your thoughts on this:

    Although Joe Romm really needs to work on his snarkiness, I find that he often has good arguments.


  2. Hey Praj!

    I think that post has some really good points about cost overruns in the nuclear industry. There are some really abysmal examples out there (see Shoreham nuclear plant - cost/kwh approaches infinity as kwh goes to 0), but first I would point out that a lot of the problems are due to regulatory bottlenecks - there is a lot of NIMBY out there.

    Also, I doubt that the Texas example is the best bellweather for the US nuclear industry because Texas is so strong in wind right now. I think nuclear works best in places that don't have a large renewable energy base because they aren't ramp up-ramp down types of plants (see Illinois for a good example of where nuclear works).

    And finally I think that estimates on cost/kwh are highly dependent on the projected lifetime of the plant -something not mentioned in the blog. For example, plants today have been relicensed and will be operating for twice their originally projected lifespans. This isn't unsafe, it's just the way the NRC works. And that means that the power gets really cheap the farther out in time you go.

    Back to work for me!