Our Nuclear Power Options Going Forward
Reprinted from the 21 March 2011 edition of Peak Oil Review, published weekly by the Association for the Study of Peak Oil
We are at a crossroads with respect to nuclear energy, having discovered a new way (or several new ways) that nuclear plants can fail. How do we deal with such a situation? There seem to be several options, but all seem to have drawbacks:
1. Business as usual. Continue building nuclear reactors as in the past. This is pretty clearly not going to work, because citizens are worried about the situation in Japan and want to make certain a similar situation doesn’t happen near where they live. At a minimum, citizens want a re-examination of the risks involved so as to try to prevent future radioactive releases.
2. Build stronger / more advanced nuclear power plants in the future, in an attempt to avoid the newly discovered problems. One problem with this approach is that such power plants almost always cost more, so the front-end cost will be even higher than in the past. Another problem is that at least some risks will remain (political risk?) that have not been completely avoided by the improved design1
3. Start phasing out nuclear power plants that have deficiencies. The big issue is that someone, somewhere is now using the power generated by these deficient plants. For example, the power generated by Germany's older nuclear power plants may not be required by Germany directly, but it is now part of the system of internationally traded electricity. A country such as Italy, which is an importer of electricity, may find it difficult to obtain as much electricity as is needed, if the older power plants are phased out. Russia could hypothetically phase out some of its nuclear power plants and substitute natural gas production, but this would likely leave less natural gas for export to Europe. If the phase out is in the United Kingdom (which is already experiencing a decline in North Sea natural gas), there may not be enough alternative sources of electricity available, so that rolling blackouts will be required.
4. Quit building new plants and phase out old plants as soon as possible. Because of lack of good substitutes, it is hard to see more than an occasional country following this practice, even if it would be the safest option in many respects.
Given the issues involved, some combination of options (2) and (3) seem to be likely outcomes. The question, though, is what impact such a change will have on total electricity production. We have been hoping to have electricity for plug-in electric automobiles, but how can we expect to have enough electricity for new usages if we are facing a possible decline in existing electrical supplies?
For the US, nuclear amounts to 20% of electricity generation, while hydroelectric amounts to a little under 7%, other renewables (including wood, geothermal, wind, solar, and biogas) amount to 4%, and fossil fuels amount to 69% of electricity generation. If we consider total renewables (combining hydroelectric and other renewables), the percentage of US electricity from renewables has been flat to slightly declining in the past 20 years because hydroelectric generation has been decreasing.
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