A warming world needs nuclear power?

(Bloomberg/Wall Street Journal)

More than a third of America’s nuclear plants could close in the next decade. But when plants shut down, utilities often turn to harmful fossil fuels.

In light of the recent stark warning from the United Nations that the world is on course to reach the limit of tolerable warming in a scant 21 years, nuclear power is getting some overdue attention and enthusiasm.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is coming around to the view that nuclear power has a crucial role in climate protection. The Nature Conservancy, long silent on nuclear, is calling for capacity to be expanded — enough to provide a third of the world’s energy by 2050 (from a little more than a tenth today). Most striking of all, the Union of Concerned Scientists — a leading watchdog for nuclear safety for decades — is now pushing to prevent existing plants closing before their time.

The energy gap

Nuclear accounts for almost 60 percent of emissions-free power in the U.S., and when plants shut down, utilities mostly turn to fossil fuels to fill the void. More than one-third of the country’s plants, representing 22 percent of total nuclear capacity, are either scheduled to close or at risk of closure within the next five to 10 years, says a new UCS study. This could lead to a 4-6 percent increase in carbon emissions from the power sector by 2035.

Nuclear power is expensive, and it’s under pressure from market forces — notably, the falling price of solar and wind power. Then why not simply let it lose market share to those safe, clean fuels? Because wind and solar can’t immediately fill the gap. They still account for less than 8 percent of energy produced in the U.S. (nuclear is 20 percent). It’s crucial that their growth displaces coal and natural gas, not nuclear.

The role of nuclear power

In principle, a carbon tax is the best way to keep nuclear power competitive. As the voters of Washington state have again demonstrated, however, taxes on fuel remain prohibitively unpopular. (French President Emmanuel Macron has just made the same discovery.) Nonetheless, states can reward nuclear power’s climate advantage in other ways — by giving zero-emissions credits for nuclear power, as Illinois, New York and New Jersey have done, or by revising their energy portfolio standards to stop utilities’ switching from nuclear to fossil fuels.

If enough states take such measures, old plants could be kept running until the next generation of nuclear plants is ready. Building these might also require subsidy — for example, in the form of investment tax credits. These and other options need to be on the table as the world wakes up to the role nuclear power must play in avoiding a climate catastrophe.

Energy Department Initiative Aims to Keep U.S. Competitive on Nuclear-Plant Fuel

Worried the U.S. may be falling behind rivals in nuclear-power technology, the Energy Department plans to spend $115 million to help develop advanced fuels for next-generation reactors.

Under a three-year pilot project, the money would go to an Ohio company to produce a more energy-dense uranium, which the nuclear industry has been asking for to support a budding industry of smaller reactors.

Department officials say they plan to award the contract to American Centrifuge Operating, a unit of Centrus Energy Corp. , unless rival companies can make a compelling case by Jan. 22. Shares of Centrus were up roughly 20% in early-afternoon trading.

The U.S. nuclear industry is at a crossroads that has jeopardized its workforce in the U.S. and helped fuel the rise of U.S. rivals abroad. The industry, faced with safety concerns, expensive regulations and competition from other fuels, is pushing to reinvent its core technology to be simpler, cheaper and often much smaller.

As the U.S. ponders its nuclear future, China has become one of the few countries building nuclear-power capacity, and Russia has taken a dominant position in developing projects elsewhere.

That has sparked global security concerns among nuclear experts and government officials fearful of weaker standards on weapons proliferation and environmental safety from Russia in particular.

Russia is the only country capable of producing the higher-enriched uranium the Energy Department’s new program would produce. Without it, the U.S. risks being left out of the global industry’s next stage, said Dan Brouillette, Deputy Energy Secretary.

“It’s critical to our future and our energy security,” Mr. Brouillette said on a call with reporters. “Lots of these companies are pursuing the advanced-reactor technology, but without fuel they run into very natural and understandable stumbling blocks.”

Companies pushing advanced-reactor technology are divided between those that use conventional fuel and those that need a more enriched uranium. Most of the companies closest to reaching commercial viability have opted to use the type of uranium currently available. But access to more energy-dense nuclear fuel is likely essential to some earlier-stage companies, especially those pushing microreactors small enough to fit in a semitrailer that can power defined areas, such as a military base.

The Energy Department has placed a priority on support for advanced reactors, but it comes with risks. The business is still likely years away from proving whether its reactors can catch on, especially as the price of wind, solar and gas-fired power is dropping.

Several nuclear advocates also said they were uncertain how much the new program would provide the help they need. Many have previously pushed the government to use its own stockpiles of nuclear material to more immediately feed the industry with fuel it can use for research.

The Energy Department wants the new capacity to be ready by October 2020. And despite some uncertainty, advocates said the commitment will boost investor confidence in nuclear.

“This isn’t the endgame. We still need more investment in building the infrastructure out,” said Everett Redmond, a senior adviser at the Nuclear Energy Institute, the trade association for the industry. “This is definitive steps in the right direction. So it’s an important effort.”


Energyworld, January/February issue 2019

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