Experts: Nuclear Power Must be Expanded to Limit Climate Change

Several experts, meeting in Washington on Nov. 6 for the White House Summit on Nuclear Energy, agreed that more nuclear power is needed if the world hopes to minimize the effects of climate change and limit the increase in average temperatures around the globe.

The Two-Degree-C Scenario

William D. Magwood IV, director-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency, said that his organization, working in concert with its sister organization the International Energy Agency, developed the “two-degree-C scenario.” The scenario is designed to evaluate how world energy supply requirements could be met while limiting the global temperature increase to 2C (3.6F).

“What this basically says is that this is going to be very difficult,” Magwood said as he referred to a handout he had brought with him. “We are going to have to increase the use of renewables very dramatically. Solar will have to increase quite dramatically. Wind will have to increase dramatically. Carbon sequestration will have to be used quite significantly. We’ll have to use more gas. And, we’re going to have to use more nuclear.”

Magwood went on to say, “Nuclear will have to increase 2.3 times in order to meet this scenario. That’s the equivalent of 500 large nuclear power plants built in addition to what we operate today.”

Fighting an Uphill Battle

But many nuclear plants currently in operation are on the chopping block. Switzerland and Germany are phasing nuclear power completely out of their energy mixes. In Sweden, OKG announced on Oct. 14 that it would retire two units at its Oskarshamn facility, while Entergy Corp. recently revealed that the company plans to close its Pilgrim plant in Massachusetts and its FitzPatrick plant in upstate New York, even though both units were licensed beyond 2030.

Of course, there are new plants being built. Sixty-five units are under construction worldwide, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. China leads the way with 21 reactors under construction, while the U.S. has five units in progress: Watts Bar Unit 2 in Tennessee, V.C. Summer Units 2 and 3 in South Carolina, and Plant Vogtle Units 3 and 4 in Georgia.

“The problem is that plants are closing faster than we can build them,” said Danny Roderick, president and CEO of Westinghouse Electric Co. “There’s a cliff coming in twofold. We have an aging coal-fired fleet and we have an aging nuclear fleet.”

While Entergy has been forced to announce closures, and Exelon Corp., which operates the largest fleet of nuclear plants in the U.S., has suggested several of its units are hanging on by a thread, Dominion Virginia Power took the bold step on Nov. 6 of notifying the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that it intends to file a second license renewal application for its Surry Power Station. David A. Christian, CEO of Dominion Generation, announced the decision during the White House summit.

“We’re excited to be the first utility in the U.S. to begin this process,” Christian said. “It is in our societal interest to keep operating well-functioning carbon-free nuclear units. Losing this emission-free capacity as a result of shortcomings in energy policy would be more than unfortunate, it would be tragic.”

Clean Power Needed

Janet McCabe, acting assistant administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Office of Air and Radiation, noted that nuclear power is treated like any other zero-carbon power source in the Clean Power Plan. Although the Clean Power Plan is not an energy rule, the requirements that the rule places on coal- and gas-fired power plants affect the overall energy system.

“It is not within our power in this rule to drive a place for any one particular kind of energy generation, but we did want to make sure that nuclear energy—just like other zero-carbon [energy sources]—had the ability to compete,” McCabe said. “Whether states choose to go through a mass-based approach or a rate-based approach, nuclear power has a place in those plans.”

Even some former nuclear opponents are getting behind the energy source now. Ken Caldeira, climate scientist working for the Carnegie Institution for Science, Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University, noted that he was arrested while demonstrating against nuclear power near the front gates of the Shoreham facility—which was never placed into commercial operation—in the early 1980s. After studying climate science in graduate school, Caldeira changed his tune.

“The environmental community should be embracing nuclear power as one of the very few technologies that can provide high-density power in an environmentally acceptable way,” Caldeira said.

Evidence Suggests Climate Is Changing

Caldeira and three other prominent climate scientists wrote a letter advocating a renewed effort toward improving and deploying nuclear power in response to the climate threat. Another of the signers, Dr. Kerry Emanuel, professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, predicted that climate change would lead to intensification of hurricanes.

“Well, there was just a hurricane that landed into Mexico that had the most intense winds ever measured in a hurricane. A hurricane force cyclone hit Yemen, Arabian Peninsula, a week or two ago, which was the first time in recorded history that such a storm had ever hit the Arabian Peninsula. Both of these are associated with high-sea-surface temperatures and consistent with global warming. So we’re starting to see the kinds of things that the models have been projecting,” said Caldeira.

Christian recalled that he had selected a career in nuclear energy after learning about the greenhouse effect as an engineering student in college. He believed at the time that the country and the planet were both going to need nuclear power.

“So here we are, 40 years later, witness to the fact that there has been a penetration of the American consciousness—indeed the global consciousness—that nuclear power can and will play a meaningful role in mitigating the potential impacts of climate change,” Christian said.

Aaron Larson, associate editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine)