Nuclear Renaissance? A Stanford Discussion

Nuclear power in the U.S. appears to be in a major decline, with announced retirements and potential retirements far outpacing the four new projects (I don’t count TVA’s Watts Barr 2 as “new”) now underway.

At the same time, the world outside the U.S., particularly Asia, is seeing substantial growth of nuclear generating capacity, with about 66 new units under construction, according to the World Nuclear Association.

Is there is a worldwide nuclear renaissance, or is it a pipedream? Stanford University recently set up a conversation among three Nobel laureates – former energy secretary Steve Chu, Stanford’s Burton Richter, and U.C. Berkeley’s Dan Kammen – and veteran energy policy analyst Ralph Cavanagh of the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council to examine nuclear’s prospects. It wasn’t a debate, but a civilized discussion.

The most challenging arguments came from Cavanagh, who was a key participant in the recent decision by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to eschew a license extension for its two-unit, 2,400-MW Diablo Canyon plant. The result would be shutdown of some 2,240-MW of generating capacity in 2025. Diablo Canyon is the last nuclear generating station in a state that was a pioneer in nuclear power in the 1950s and 1960s.

NRDC's Cavanagh
NRDC’s Cavanagh

Focusing on the problems of nuclear – waste and economics – Cavanagh made several pointed critiques of conventional nuclear wisdom, while arguing for the proposition that renewables – primarily solar and wind – can efficiently replace the generous baseload contribution of nuclear. He extended his argument beyond California and the U.S. to the rest of the world, where many countries are much more enthusiastic about atomic power.

Cavanagh noted, “In the 15 years before I began working for NRDC in 1979, 104 U.S. nuclear reactors were built or approaching completion. The number ordered and finished since 1979 is zero. The number of costly US nuclear plant cancellations had passed 100 by 1982.”

He added, “Nuclear power’s global market share has dropped by more than a third over the past two decades (declining from 18 percent to 11 percent).”

Proponents of a world-wide nuclear renaissance (which all acknowledged does not include the U.S.) point to the boom of nuclear plants in China. Cavanagh reminded the panel that a similar boom in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s, citing the experience of the Tennessee Valley Authority, which ordered 17 nuclear units in the 1970s, and ended up with five units.

It’s worth noting, which Cavanagh did not, that TVA was unable to operate its five units successfully and TVA shut them down for years in the middle of the 1980s in the face of impending orders from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Cavanagh said, “None of the debaters argued for precipitous mass shutdowns of reactors in America or elsewhere, but the record raises serious questions about the capacity of nuclear generation to prevail in a fierce competition for capital that characterizes the most robust and best-performing power markets, in the United States and abroad.”

NRDC’s Cavanagh said in his blog, “Burt Richter and Steve Chu are magnificently talented physicists whose careers are rightly celebrated. My debate partner, Dan Kammen, pointed out that if they turn out to be right that nuclear power can somehow reemerge as a safe and affordable low-carbon solution, eliminating fossil fuel use might be easier. But Kammen doesn’t think we need that option, based on his impressive mastery of all the potential alternatives, starting with energy efficiency, solar, wind power, geothermal energy and energy storage.”

Cavanagh and Kammen may be overstating the potential for renewables and efficiency to replace the energy from nuclear. The Breakthrough Institute, a pro-nuclear environmental organization, has criticized the analysis by PG&E and Cavanagh’s NRDC about the ability of renewables to fill in the generating gap in California if Diablo Canyon is closed. The critics also question the validity of the analysis of the California market to elsewhere in the U.S.

The Breakthrough critique said, “The problem with these optimistic conclusions is that they are rooted in some very uncertain assumptions, and they ignore strong evidence of the negative climate impacts of shuttering nuclear plants. In addition, the decision to shutter Diablo is largely a result of local policies and grid conditions that are unique to California, a scenario that is not transferable to other regions.”