Sierra Club Explains Energy Issues Pt 2/2

More on the January/February issue of Sierra.

Negawatt Power tells us that we can reduce energy use between 30% and 85% per capita here in the US, up to 67% per capita in Europe. The 2,000-Watt Society says so:

Of course, this estimate is highly hypothetical, but indicates that the vision is not out of any theoretical probability.

OK, so 2000-Watt Society is not as optimistic as Sierra Club, stuff could go wrong between here and there. Since population is expected to increase by 40% by 2050, and per capita consumption to more than double, the actual world reduction in GHG emissions would perhaps not show up as a reduction in actual emissions, but in expected emissions.

The concept of Negawatt (energy saved is energy that we don’t have to provide) is important — no one sees solutions without massive improvements in efficiency. However, it is premature to assert that we can reduce business as usual energy use (which assumes 1% annual increase in efficiency, and more than doubles energy use between 2000 and 2050) by even 50%. If we can, the world will be much better off. But designing energy policy based on this assumption may be dangerous.

Amory Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute
Amory Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute first used the term negawatt.

Why Not Nukes? lists several reasons for opposing nuclear power:

1. as recently as 2002, the Davis-Besse reactor came “darn close” to a major accident,

2. there is no safe way to dispose of its “long-lasting, highly radioactive waste,”

3. “nuclear power remains inextricably tied to nuclear weapons proliferation.”

4. building 1,000 new reactors (to achieve one wedge, begin here) “would require a stupendous amount of money”, and “there are many far-cheaper ways to cut down on carbon dioxide emissions: conservation; cogeneration (utilizing the heat produced by industrial processes to make electricity) and wind, to name a few. A dollar spent on energy efficiency would save seven times more carbon dioxide than a dollar spent on nuclear power.”

5. Even with enormous subsidies from the Department of Energy and a taxpayer-funded shield from liability for major accidents through the Price-Anderson Act, no private utility has committed to building a new plant. There is a graphic showing subsidies for different energy sources since 1974, with fission and fusion power combined.

Note: if utilities do not and will not want nuclear power plants because they are too expensive, then there would be no need for this article.

They skip a few of the arguments in favor of nuclear power, eg, it’s much safer for workers and the public. (Take a quiz to see what you know about how energy sources compare.)

1. From the Nuclear Regulatory Commission

The NRC staff’s calculations estimated how the reactor head damage, combined with design problems in certain high-pressure pumps and issues affecting a water recirculation system component (containment sump), could have led to damage to the reactor core in the year preceding discovery of the head damage. This Accident Sequence Precursor (ASP) analysis concluded the combination of issues at Davis-Besse had 6 chances in 1,000 of damaging the core during that one-year period. The ASP determination does not estimate the likelihood of a radioactivity release, since the power plant reinforced concrete containment structure and other safety systems were capable of protecting public health and safety.

So Davis-Besse could have been expensive, very expensive, but not a health danger.

2. It depends on what is meant by safe. How many people are expected to die from nuclear waste while it decays under the current plan? This was one of the questions I had when I was examining arguments on both sides — people who are pro-nuclear answer this question, those who are anti-nuclear don’t. It’s one of the questions in a quiz; you can look it up here.

3. I’ve discussed this. Start here.

4. Conservation is much cheaper than any new energy source. Improved efficiency is also much cheaper, up to a point. Cogeneration is good. Wind power requires backup, either hydro or natural gas, and natural gas is a fossil fuel. Wind plus natural gas backup is better than natural gas alone, but still emits more GHG than does nuclear. I’m not clear how they calculate that wind plus natural gas is cheaper than nuclear. The goal is to reduce per capita world GHG emissions to 3 – 5% of current US per capita emissions by 2050, and then to zero out the carbon to protect the oceans. Even while consumption is rising pretty much everywhere, notably in China and India.

What is cheapest in the US might not be cheapest elsewhere. Many believe that photovoltaic (solar) power will soon be able to compete against other sources of electricity, especially in cloudless areas of the American South, because PV competes against retail prices of energy. Rome is north of New York City. Tokyo is a little north of Santa Barbara, so that’s not too bad. Beijing is at the same latitude as Denver, Shanghai south of San Diego, so if China ever gets rid of coal power, so the sun is visible, PV will be an excellent option there. India is even further south, but air pollution is also a problem, one that will worsen with increased use of coal power.

smog in Beijing
Smog in Beijing

See more on wind prices in the US and Germany compared to nuclear prices.

This is not to say that no wind power should be built because nuclear power is cheaper. A variety of energy sources are needed, because situations differ, because it’s better to have a variety of energy sources in case something goes wrong, and because every reduction in GHG emissions will save lives.

5. Take the fusion out and the numbers are somewhat different; differences also emerge if more than direct subsidies are considered — of the $655 billion in US incentives since 1950, almost half were for oil: taxation, regulation, and government services.

I went to an industry blog and found a few counterexamples from December 15 – January 31: Florida Power and Light intends to announce interest in a nuclear plant the first quarter of this year. Canada will expand its use of nuclear power. The majority of Germans now oppose closing nuclear power plants, plus Deutsche Bank (and every other numerate source in the universe) has warned that Germany will screw up Europe’s GHG reductions if they go ahead with closures. In fact, there has recently been an agreement for Germany to stop subsidizing coal power, which means that either German nuclear power will expand, or French nuclear power will. TVA intends to expand by 50%. Finland intends to add a 6th reactor. New reactors are still being designed by companies that believe they will be able to be sold. Sweden plans to add new reactors after 2010. VA is looking at new plants, and the Environmental Impact Statement came back with a green light. The British will be building new plants. China and Japan will be working together on nuclear power.

That’s part of the news back to December 15; if you go back further, you’ll find stories of other American utilities that intend to apply this year to build one or more nuclear power plants. Some of these may be private, some public, it doesn’t really matter.

Generally, it’s safer to use analysis that has been peer reviewed, and then accepted by the scientific or policy community. If scientists and policy experts make mistakes, we can be forgiven for accepting their ideas. But young people, and those not yet born, will not easily understand that we assumed experts wrong and relied instead on the analysis of Sierra Club volunteers.

Helen Caldicott
Helen Caldicott convinced some California Friends (Quakers) that nuclear power might not be as bad as advertised, after she warned of imminent nuclear plant meltdown in late 1999, and nothing happened.

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