From my hometown, I can see the water vapor plumes from the Byron Nuclear Generating Station some 25 miles away. It’s been a familiar sight on the horizon for over 30 years, as nuclear chain reactions in the two units silently crank out power for Chicago and Northern Illinois. Well, perhaps not for much longer. The Byron plant will shut down in September. Dresden, another nuke in Morris, Ill., will close in November. Then, what?
We Won’t Go Dark, But…
The beauty of the nationwide electrical grid is that If you can’t get power from one generator, you can get it from someplace else. Pull the plug on Byron and the lights stay on. Pull the plug on Dresden and, amazingly, the lights still stay on. If that’s that case why did we need nuclear power plants at all?
The answer lies in where that substitute power is coming from. Increasingly, the new generating investments are in solar and wind farms. Like nuclear, they generate power without also generating greenhouse gases that fuel global warming. Unlike the large nukes, they struggle to generate enough power to keep all the lights on by themselves. On calm nights, they can’t keep any of the lights on. So, other types of power stations must pick up the load. What are they? Fossil fuel plants — natural gas and coal.
How We Power
Coal is your grandfather’s nukes. Thomas Edison built the first coal generating plant in 1882 to power his new electric light bulbs. The Pearl Street Station served 82 customers and 400 lamps to begin with. From there, “king coal” came to dominate electrical power generation as the country electrified. It still handles about 23% of the load. Like nuclear, coal is “base” load, meaning it is always running steadily, 24 hours a day.
Another 38% comes from natural gas. Burning gas generates less carbon dioxide and doesn’t create mountains of coal ash. It also doesn’t need to be “scrubbed” to prevent acid rain and other nasty atmospheric pollutants. Gas plants can be large or small and will start up in a hurry if extra capacity is needed. They shut down just as fast when the surge subsides.
The rest of our generating capacity is provided by the nuclear plants at about 20%, wind at 7%, hydro dams at another 7% and solar at just under 2%. The remainder is a mix of minor contributors including biomass, geothermal, landfill gas, municipal solid waste burning and so on.
To Green or Not to Green
Note that wind and solar energy, hailed as the salvation to climate change, are contributing just 9% or so of the power we actually need. What is not as well understood is that nuclear power is also green. No greenhouse gases are generated during operation. That’s 20% of our supply… for now. Hydro, like Hoover Dam and Niagra Falls, is another 7% and also under pressure to be retired.
So, we have a decision to make. Are we really serious about cutting carbon emissions to throttle global warming? If so, we may have to stop shooting ourselves in the foot.
Nuclear plants are being retired while they have decades of service remaining because they are vilified as too expensive, too risky to public safety, and what are you going to do with those radioactive spent fuel rods?
Yes, new nuclear plants are expensive. Billions of dollars, in fact. They also take years, even decades, to get licensed and built. But we’ve already spent the money on the ones we have now. Those are what they call “sunk costs.” The incremental costs to keep the plants running are operations, maintenance and refueling.
Risky? Sometimes. Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima come to mind. Three mile island caused quite a stir, but nobody was killed and only a small amount of radiation was released. Fukushima made a bigger mess, but no radiation deaths. Chernobyl was the worst of the lot. Thirty people died and the area is uninhabitable.
So, in over 50 years of commercial nuclear power there has been one scary but not fatal accident in the United States, a scarier one in Japan and a disaster in Ukraine. Just about any airliner crash causes dozens to hundred of deaths, yet we keep on flying. More than 38,000 people die in car crashes each year, yet we keep on driving. So, just how much risk are we really taking with nuclear power?
The Biggest Risk of All is Global Warming
We’ve spent decades ignoring the biggest risk to our future: Climate change and the resulting global warming. Now we’re at the point where the effects of droughts and more violent storms are starting to be so pronounced that people all over the world are demanding something be done… and fast.
We know how to fix this. The problem is doing it quickly. It’s pretty hard to replace hundreds of years of infrastructure based on fossil fuels with something clean and renewable and do it in a couple of decades. Considering all the political bickering on the subject, it may take another hundred years before we are carbon neutral. How hot are things going to be by then? Will anybody miss Florida or the coastal cities as they go under water?
Obviously, I’m being facetious. We clearly need to shape up and get our energy act together pronto and do so without destroying the economy and going back to the “dark’ ages that preceded Edison. Economies of scale have indeed made solar and wind generated power the low cost leaders. New utility scale batteries solve the problem of intermittent generation. Now wind and solar can become base load, too.
The issue is whether we, as a nation and a world, are ready to create a “crash” program on the order of the Apollo Moon mission and throw everything we’ve got at green transformation. I’m not going to believe it until I start seeing solar panels on every building, along with micro-grids to serve the neighborhoods. Every big-box store needs to be selling home power solutions with solar and battery subsidized by huge government incentives. Public buildings should lead the way in this transformation to set the example and create a web of distributed generation.
A More Practical Solution
The time may come when panic sets in and the population demands an immediate “cure” to the changed climate at any cost. I say let’s try to get this fixed while disruption can still be minimized.
Yes, we need to get the greenhouse gas emitters shutdown as soon as possible. At one time it looked like an intermediate solution of natural gas replacing coal followed by a country gradually blanketed in windmills and solar panels would be the solution. It’s looking now like we may not have that much time to act. Green sources need to take over the load as soon as possible.
Here’s where nuclear can be a hero. Our nukes have decades of life remaining where they can safely generate base load just as they have for the last half century. Instead of “retiring” perfectly good green power plants, the government should be supporting the maintenance and operation of these plants until we are past the crisis.
What needs to go, and go quickly, are the coal and oil fueled generators, followed by the natural gas plants. Making coal plants clean by sequestering CO2 is a technical solution, but it is highly expensive and will take long time to implement. In short, it works but it’s just not worth it. Better to fund the expansion of wind, solar and battery which are proving to be the low cost solutions.
At the same time, reconfigure the grid to be a network of microgrids that support many small generators rather than large regional power plants. This creates an infrastructure whereby a single storm or other disaster won’t bring down an entire city or county. The role of the power company will then be more about managing the power distribution than generating all the power itself.
The Future of Nuclear
Nuclear power can sill be part of our long term infrastructure. It is likely that this will be based on fusion rather than fission reactions, but that is really long term. In the meantime, new reactor designs can be made smaller, more modular and some may even make use of the spent fuel pellets that no longer work in today’s units. We may well need every green solution we can think of to go carbon neutral and perhaps carbon negative, using large amounts of power to remove the carbon dioxide that burning fossil fuels put into the atmosphere over the centuries.
Note: U.S. electricity generation by energy source provided by EIA