Low-carbon energy sources are becoming increasingly seen as a vital part of efforts to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels so as to mitigate climate change. One such energy source being touted by numerous experts, as we have elucidated on Sustainability Times, is nuclear power.
Yet nuclear energy may not be as significant a factor as it ought to be or is made out to be, at least in the United States. So says a team of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Department of Engineering and Public Policy, who has just published a paper “U.S. nuclear power: The vanishing low-carbon wedge” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
The team examined the state of the nuclear energy in the US, whose current nuclear fleet is comprised of ageing light-water nuclear reactors that have provided about a fifth of the country’s domestically produced electricity. Yet maintaining these plants is costly, which makes them increasingly less competitive in today’s energy markets as an economically viable source of cheap electricity,
“Nuclear power holds the potential to make a significant contribution to decarbonizing the US energy system,” the experts write. They go on to caution, however: “Whether it could do so in its current form is a critical question: Existing large light water reactors in the United States are under economic pressure from low natural gas prices, and some have already closed.”
Considering the significant costs and technological challenges involved, no new large nuclear plants will likely be constructed in the coming decades in the US, the authors argue.
“While advanced reactor designs are sometimes held up as a potential solution to nuclear power’s challenges, our assessment of the advanced fission enterprise suggests that no US design will be commercialized before midcentury,” they write. “That leaves factory-manufactured, light water small modular reactors (SMRs) as the only option that might be deployed at significant scale in the climate-critical period of the next several decades,” they add.
Yet that is bad news, the team of experts points out. “Achieving deep decarbonization of the energy system will require a portfolio of every available technology and strategy we can muster,” they explain. “It should be a source of profound concern for all who care about climate change that, for entirely predictable and resolvable reasons, the United States appears set to virtually lose nuclear power, and thus a wedge of reliable and low-carbon energy, over the next few decades.”
Other experts have likewise lamented the challenges the nuclear energy industry is facing in America. “In the US, it’s tough sledding for nuclear power operators,” Mike Pacilio, senior executive vice-president for Exelon, a leading energy provider in the US, said at the World Nuclear Exhibition, which took place in Paris in June.
“We’re battling in the merchant market this three-headed monster, which I’ll describe as abundant natural gas, subsidized renewables and energy conservation/efficiency,” Pacilio, who oversees the safety, efficiency and reliability of Exelon Generation’s power generation fleet, added.
Less nuclear power may mean the less effective efficient decarbonization of the energy industry in dominant global markets like the US, other experts have noted. Dynamic modern economies need to be powered with a constant supply of ample and reliable energy that cannot be derived only from renewable sources like wind and solar, which continue to account for relatively low levels of energy generation in the developed world despite significant increases in their capacities in recent years across much of the world from the US to the EU to China.
“Energy transition is about decarbonization and fossil fuel substitution and that progressive electrification of the economy is the way forward, and renewables and nuclear will be the two pillars to support this goal in a robust and cost efficient way,” Shunichi Miyanaga, president and CEO of Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, said at the WND. “Most countries are focusing their renewables development on substituting one electricity generation technology with another, whereas the real target is the development of low-carbon electricity to substitute fossil fuels and decarbonize the energy mix.”
However, nuclear energy is being hampered by the increasing cost-effectiveness of renewable alternatives like solar and wind, and not only in the US. In addition, renewable forms of technology can be deployed much faster than nuclear power, which requires long years of complex engineering and exacting construction standards to ensure proper safety.
“The competition with renewables is simply too great. This was not the case five years ago,” Dave Jones, a carbon and power analyst at the climate policy think tank Sandbag in the UK, told Sustainability Times. “Things are moving quickly. The drop in renewables costs have been immense,” Jones added. “Besides the cost and safety concerns, the other problem is deployment time: utility-scale solar can be deployed in six months, and not much more for onshore wind; the full timeline to plan and build a nuclear plant is often quoted at over a decade.”
Instead of building new reactors and plants, some governments are opting to prolong the lifespan of their existing and often ageing nuclear fleet. “Extending the life of existing nuclear plants, however, is easier to do,” Jones said.
A similar line of reasoning is currently dominating in the US as well. Yet energy mixes in coming decades across the developed world will have to rely, at least in some part, on new nuclear energy sources in order to meet growing demand for a plentiful and reliable source of electricity, says Xavier Ursat, senior executive vice-president of France’s EDF Group.
“If we look at the electricity mix of countries in 2050 we will have in fact two cases: The first one is renewables and nuclear with as much renewables as the country can do (in the best case 50% for most countries),” Ursat said at the nuclear expo in Paris. “The second one will be nuclear or gas. Those are the two possibilities,” he added. “If you want safe, clean, low-carbon energy whose cost does not depend on exportation-importation, the good solution is nuclear.”